Names of soldiers who died in Flanders around the Ieper area whose remains were never identified. They are inscribed on the panels of the impressive Menin Gate CWGC memorial.
The highlight of our five day visit to Flanders was to attend the daily Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate memorial in Ieper. Buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post at 8pm. It’s a tradition that was started after the end of WWI in July 1928.
One wreath was laid by Charles Wills from Foxford in memory of Irish soldiers in the British Army who were from Co. Mayo.
I laid a laurel wreath with a tricolour ribbon attached in memory of all those soldiers from the island of Ireland who died in the 1914-18 conflict.
Along with Charles we waited in line behind some former British soldiers and a group from the Orange Order in Scotland for our turn to lay the wreaths at the memorial.
It was a fitting end to a very busy day visiting some of the CWGC cemeteries in Flanders around Ieper. We will remember them.
On the fourth day of our tour in July, the group attended the daily Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ieper. Two of us laid wreaths along with several other groups. See a separate report.
On Friday, 6th September a special ceremony was held in Ieper to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the city 75 years ago by the 1st Polish Armoured Division commanded by General Maczek on 6th September 1944.
The daily Last Post ceremony was held for the first time on 2nd July 1928. It was suspended on 21st May 1940, following the German occupation of the city at the start of the Second World War. It is not known whether this was a decision imposed by the occupying German authorities or was voluntarily undertaken by Richard Leclercq, who was then chairman of the Last Post Committee.
From January 1941, the Ieper Last Post ceremony was continued at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey and this at the initiative of Edgar Ashley Cook, MBE. A number of members of the Belgian Defence Forces who died during their WWII service in England are buried there.
Guy Gruwez, honorary chairman of the Last Post Association: “By 5 o’clock in the afternoon of 6 September 1944, the city had already been liberated by the Polish Division that was fighting alongside the Canadian Army. There was a great sense of joy and relief. Bugler Jozef Arfeuille thought immediately to celebrate this unique moment by a resumption of the Last Post ceremony. He went with a group of neighbours and friends to the Menin Gate, where he played the Last Post no fewer than six times, or so it is claimed, to mark the restoration of our freedom. In this way, the daily ceremony was re-initiated after a gap of four years.”
For many years, the City of Ieper has commemorated the liberation together with the City of St. Omer, the city in France with which Ieper is twinned. Both cities were liberated on the same day in September 1944 by the same Polish Armoured Division. The commemorative ceremony is held on alternating years in each city. In 2019, it is the turn of St Omer, where the ceremony take place on Sunday, 1st September.
Alderman Diego Desmadryl: “Because this year is a special anniversary, the City of Ieper did not want to let this occasion pass without some form of recognition. As a result, we arranged a programme of events in Ieper on Friday 6th September. This consisted of a short ceremony at the Polish memorial plaque on the Cloth Hall at 19:30hrs, followed by the daily Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate at 20.00. This was arranged by the city authorities in collaboration with the Last Post Association and the Royal Association of Veterans (and persons treated as such).”
Benoit Mottrie, present chairman of the Last Post Association: “On 6th September 2019, the Last Post ceremony was held for the 31,520th time. During the past 25 years, public and international interest has increased enormously. For this reason, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my predecessors, all past and current members of the board of directors and all other supporters of our Association. In particular, I would like offer a special word of thanks to all past and present buglers and ceremonial assistants, who give their time so freely and so generously. In this way, we will continue to remember each day those who died for the liberation of the city and the restoration of our freedom.”
Back to World War One in Flanders, day four of our trip visited one very interesting site before returning to Ieper. The CWGC maintained Essex Farm Cemetery is just north of Ieper near Boezinge. More than 1000 servicemen of the First World War are buried or commemorated here. Of these, 103 burials are unidentified. There are special memorials to commemorate nineteen casualties known or believed to be buried at this site.
It was the location of an Advanced Dressing Station during WWI. The concrete buildings used by the dressing stations can still be seen in the cemetery. A project to restore the surviving bunkers at the dressing stations was carried out by the town of Ieper (Ypres).
The bunkers represent the largest number still visible and located together in the Ypres Salient area.
The land south of Essex Farm was used as a dressing station cemetery from April 1915 to August 1917. The burials were made without definite plan and some of the divisions which occupied this sector may be traced in almost every part of the cemetery, but the 49th (West Riding) Division buried their dead of 1915 in Plot I, and the 38th (Welsh) Division used Plot III in the autumn of 1916.
It was here that Canadian doctor Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ in May 1915, which I will feature separately.
The following story by Patricia Killeen is taken from the US website IrishCentral.com published on September 10th. It details a commemoration held by the Irish in France including our Ambassador commemorating Lt Tom Kettle (former MP), Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge from Slane and other members of Irish regiments in WWI.
Tom Kettle: Irish War Poet and nationalist was remembered by the Irish in France on the eve of the anniversary of his death.
On Sunday, September 8th 2019 the Irish Embassy Paris and the Irish in France Association invited Irish people living in France to the inauguration of the ‘Irish Peace Garden.’ The garden, located in the grounds of the Château de Péronne, in the heart of the Somme battlefields, pays homage to the WW1 Irish soldiers. The château also houses ‘The Historical Museum of the Great War’.
Our day out also included visiting the museum, the Church and village of Guillemont and the Ulster Tower in Thiepval.
As our Ambassador Patricia O’Brien rendered homage to the Irish WW1 soldiers, complimented the new garden, and spoke of the strong link between Ireland and France, at that moment in time I felt happy to be Irish in France. After the speeches, Peter Donegan led us through the gardens and entertained us with stories of his challenge transforming a 14th-century dried-up moat, constructed to keep people out, into a welcoming garden that drew people in.
The village of Guillemont, a short drive away and the neighboring village Ginchy, are soaked in Irish blood. More than 1,200 men from the 16th (Irish) Division were killed in the liberation of these two villages on 3rd and 9th September 1916. The church is at the very centre of the small village, which has neither a shop nor a café. However, we did locate the ‘Rue de la 16ème Division Irlandaise’!
One again French officials and the Irish Ambassador spoke. I lost the battle of keeping tears in check in the beautifully decorated church, where the dead Irish soldiers are so honored. Plaques on the wall list the different battalions of the 16th Irish Division including the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in which Thomas Kettle and many Irish Volunteers had enlisted. Our Ambassador paid homage to Kettle (economist, journalist, barrister, writer, poet, and former Member of Parliament for John Redmond’s constitutional nationalist party) who died at the Battle of Ginchy on 9th September 1916. She said she hoped that Kettle would be proud of the progress that had been made for peace in Europe and Ireland.
Kettle, an ardent Irish nationalist, donned the British uniform knowing many of his fellow countrymen wouldn’t understand why. He enlisted after witnessing the horrors in Belgium after the German invasion and said “while a strong people has its own self for centre, it has the universe for circumference.”
He went to war for European civilization and to fight for the freedom of another small country, fully aware that after Irish independence eventually came he would be seen as one of the ‘foolish dead,’ in contrast with the 1916 Rising ‘heroes’. In the final lines of his poem, ‘To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God’, Kettle explained his decision: “Know that we fools, … Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, But for a dream, born in a herdsmen shed, And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”
In the lead up to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, the Irish President Michael D. Higgins, acknowledged Kettle’s place in Irish history and said he was “an Irish patriot, a British soldier and a true European and understood that be authentically Irish we must also embrace our European identity’.
Francis Ledwidge, the other Irish WW1 war poet who died at the Battle of Ypres on July 31, 1917, like Kettle is now also considered as an Irish patriot and a WW1 war hero.
More Irish men, many of them members of the Irish Volunteers, died defending France than died creating an Irish republic. Many of them died for European freedom and in the hope that a grateful Britain post-war would pass the shelved Home Rule bill. On the other hand, other brave Irish men from Ulster enlisted in WW1 in the hope that the British would throw out the same Home Rule Bill!
Our final stop was at the Ulster Tower, Northern Ireland’s national war memorial, constructed in 1921 opposite the Thiepval Wood from where the 36th (Ulster) Division made its historic charge on July 1st 1916. The Irish Ambassador, the Mayor of Péronne and the Sous-Préfet de Péronne once again laid wreaths, as they had done at the Celtic cross and French monument outside the Guillemont church.
As I looked at the orange flowers in the green, white and gold Irish wreath, I remembered in ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somne,’ how Frank McGuinness’s had described that Protestant soldiers exchanged their Orange sashes before going into battle.
Over the course of the day, I saw how revered our Irish WW1 soldiers were in France. The men, whose place in Irish history had been a long time enigma, had apparently always been honored in the French villages they defended. Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge were friends with many of the 16 men executed in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. Francis Ledwidge’s poem “The Lament for Thomas MacDonagh” is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful WW1 poems.
When young people are struck down in their prime we can’t help but wonder about the outcome if they had lived. How would the combined talents of Tom Kettle, Tom Redmond and the 16 executed men have impacted the course of Irish history and the 1921 peace terms if they had been spared?
Kettle wrote from the Somme that if he were to live he would “spend the rest of his life working for perpetual peace.” He had enlisted for ‘Liberty’ and after being wounded insisted on returning to the Somme out of ‘Fraternity’, for his Dublin Fusiliers. The WW1 soldiers were denied ‘Equality’ in a world where ‘bumbling’ deciders sacrificed young men as fodder. Kettle described the Great War as ‘an outrage against simple men’.
In the Irish Peace Garden, Ambassador Patricia O’Brien expressed her hope in people’s ability to assemble and discuss. I hope many will have the opportunity to visit the Peace Garden and museum in Péronne, the village of Guillemont and the Ulster Tower for the pleasure of a great day out, and ‘lest we forget’ peace can never be taken for granted.
For much of the First World war, the village of Boezinge directly faced the German line across the Yser canal. Bard Cottage was a house a little set back from the line, close to a bridge called Bard’s Causeway. The cemetery was made nearby in a sheltered position under a high bank. Burials were made between June 1915 and October 1918 and they reflect the presence of the 49th (West Riding), the 38th (Welsh) and other infantry divisions in the northern sectors of the Ypres Salient, as well as the advance of artillery to the area in the autumn of 1917.
Among the graves is that of Lance Corporal Charles H. Smith, South Staffordshire Regiment. He died on 16th August 1917, aged 29, and came from Altrincham near Manchester.
There are now 1,639 Commonwealth casualties of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. Of these burials, 39 are unidentified but special memorials commemorate three casualties known to be buried among them. The cemetery was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.
Driver P. McKenna service number 77374 was from Kilkenny, where his father Michael lived, according to the CWGC records. He served with D Battery 121st Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery.
He died on August 19th 1917, aged 34. He is buried at Bard Cottage cemetery at Boezinge north of Ieper.
Artillery Wood Military Cemetery at Boezinge near Ieper is the final resting place of the poet Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidgand the Welsh bard Hedd Wyn.