Sunday, November 11, 2018, marks the centenary of the end of WWI.
It is a time to pause and reflect. To be silent, as the guns fell silent, and contemplate the carnage that had been left in the wake of a World War fought on an industrial scale. Just 21 years later, even greater carnage would descend upon the earth with WWII, a war that saw the dawn of nuclear weapons.
100 years since the 1918 Armistice Europe is at peace. The vision of Robert Schumann of a United Europe has blossomed into the European Union. It was the same Robert Schumann who suggested that St. Columbanus from Ireland should be named the patron saint of a United Europe.
However, Brexit now threatens the European Union and with it, tensions are growing upon the island of Ireland. There are fears that the UK’s withdrawal from Europe will inevitably result in a hard border and with it, the hardening of attitudes and divisions that might see violence erupt again, especially in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland.
WWI saw 200,000 young Protestant and Catholic men leave the island of Ireland to fight in Belgium and France and further afield. Some 35,000 never came home, many of them lying now in unmarked graves ‘Known Unto God’.
On June 7, 1917, Catholics and Protestants in the 36th Ulster and the 16th Irish Divisions fought side by side for the liberation of the small town of Messines, Flanders. While both divisions joined the British campaign for very different political objectives, in the face of death they found a common brotherhood. A brotherhood that later inspired the Island of Ireland Peace Park, opened by President Mary McAleese in the Presence of the British and Belgian Queen and King respectively.
A bronze tablet inside the entrance of the Island of Ireland Peace Park bears the following inscription, entitled Peace Pledge:
“From the crest of this ridge, which was the scene of terrific carnage in the First World War on which we have built a peace park and Round Tower to commemorate the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations, whose graves are in shockingly uncountable numbers and those who have no graves, we condemn war and the futility of war. We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour.
As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches.
As we jointly thank the armistice of 11 November 1918 – when the guns fell silent along this western front – we affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the Island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace.”
It is a timely reminder for all to reaffirm the pledge that is etched in stone on Flanders Fields.
My this be our starting point for the new century that stretches before us until the world, and Ireland, prepares to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the beginning and end of WWI.
As well as the Peace Pledge, the Island of Ireland Peace Park also includes the following memorials:
The three pillars with figures of the dead, wounded and missing of the Three Irish Divisions.
10th (Irish) Division – 9,363
16th (Irish) Division – 28,398
36th (Ulster) Division – 32,186
An upright tablet listing the counties of Ireland, the names running together to suggest the unity of death.
A bronze tablet depicting a plan of the battle area.
Nine stone tablets with prose, poems and letters from Irish servicemen with the following:
“Spent all night trying to console, aid and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs.”
—Chaplain Francis Gleeson, Royal Munster Fusiliers
“As it was, the Ypres battleground just represented one gigantic slough of despond into which floundered battalions, brigades and divisions of infantry without end to be shot to pieces or drowned, until at last and with immeasurable slaughter we had gained a few miles of liquid mud.”
—Charles Miller, 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
“Hostilities will cease at 11.00am on the 11th day of the 11th month. After that time all firing will cease. This was joyous news. Approaching eleven o’clock in our sector you could have heard a pin drop. When eleven o’clock came there were loud cheers. The war was over as far as we were concerned.”
—Terence Poulter, 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers
“So the curtain fell, over that tortured country of unmarked graves and unburied fragments of men: Murder and massacre: The innocent slaughtered for the guilty: The poor man for the sake of the rich: The man of no authority made the victim of the man who had gathered importance and wished to keep it.”
—David Starret, 9th Royal Irish Rifles
“In a matter of seconds, a hissing and shrieking pandemonium broke loose. The sky was splashed with light. Rockets, green, yellow and red, darted in all directions; and simultaneously, a cyclone of bursting shells enveloped us.”
—JFB O’Sullivan, 6th Connaught Rangers
“It is too late now to retrieve a fallen dream, too late to grieve a name unmade, but not too late to thank the Gods for what is great. A keen edged sword, a soldier’s heart is greater than a poet’s art. And greater than a poet’s fame a little grave that has no name.”
—Francis Ledwidge, 5th Inniskilling Fusiliers
“I wish the sea were not so wide that parts me from my love, I wish that things men do below were known to God above. I wish that I were back again in the Glens of Donegal; they’ll call me coward if I return, but a hero if I fall.”
—Patrick MacGill, London Irish Rifles