Anne Hailes: In Flanders 100 years on, what I felt most besides sadness was anger
THE ceremony was over, a brass band marched past playing Tipperary, a group of women were singing and spirits were high. I was invited to join in and a lady from Cork offered me an Irish flag to wave in memory of the thousands who died during the First World War.
We had a moment of shared experience, being in Ypres, standing at the Menin Gate at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month in a city flattened during the First World War. I was one among 15,000 others remembering the moment the armistice was signed 100 years earlier and the events in Flanders Fields.
Later that day I visited the spot where British and German troops left their trenches on Christmas Eve to play football on No Man's Land. A staff sergeant sent a letter home describing the moment: “… a messenger come over from the German lines and said that if we did not fire Xmas day, they [the Germans] wouldn't do so in the morning [Xmas day]. A German looked over the trench – no shots – our men did the same, and then a few of our men went out and brought the dead in (69) and buried them and the next thing happened a football kicked out of our Trenches and Germans and English played football.”
At that spot is a jagged metal zig zag line of battle and no-man's land beyond it. A memorial stone is surrounded by footballs from all over the world. In the field a few hundred yards away are two preserved trenches, perhaps nine or 10 feet deep, shored up with wooden slats. Indeed I had to get help to stand because of the mud, the same mud young soldiers drowned in along with their horses 100 years ago.
I was told by a man from the Rifles Living History Society that at this spot a teenager was digging down into the mud – back-breaking work. When he stood to stretch his back his head was blown off by a German gun.
As I stood there wondering at the futility of war, a group of men and women from Carrickfergus gathered in reverence by the footballs and sang Abide With Me, not a sound but their voices drifting over the fields where remains still lie, some still under the ground, others in the graves at the Prowse Point Military Cemetery to the left.
There, among numerous grave stones, are three touching each other, three privates in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, three friends who would not be separated by death – J Gallagher aged 19, James McGuire aged 44 and W Dunne, no age noted.
From this point it's only a couple of miles to the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines. The terrain is strangely barren – not much was growing last week, only piles of sugar beet ready for farmers to store.
The pyramids of the turnip-like beet looked for all the world like huge piles of skulls, eerie as the sun slipped towards the horizon.
Flanders Fields stretch from one horizon to the other at that point and it's almost impossible to envisage what went on there; there are woods on the horizon but on the battlefields trees were blown out of the ground and none have grown since in this vast salient.
At the Peace Park in Messines with the famous round tower there are slabs of marble, each inscribed. Patrick MacGill of the London Irish Regiment reads: “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.”
However, the inscription that made most sense to me was that of David Starret, 9th Royal Irish Rifles, one of the 200,000 Irish men who signed up, one of the 30,000 who died.
“So the curtain fell over that tortured country of unmarked graves and unburied fragment of men, murder and massacre, the innocent slaughtered for the guilty, the poor man for the sake of the greed of the already rich, the man of no authority made the victim of the man who had gathered importance and wished to keep it.”
This is where I planted my Tricolour so kindly give to me by the woman from Munster.
What a few days. Visiting the vast Tyne Cot war graves cemetery and memorial to the missing on the Western Front, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, located at Passchendale; other little cemeteries so peaceful, two where young German boys lay, just plain wooden crosses or flat inscribed stones, again an unnatural experience as the sun sank below the horizon and crows called from the tall fir trees.
The graves of Chinese Labour Corps, one inscription read: “They all never see spring flowers bloom again. Faithful onto death.”
Remembrance Sunday began at St George's Memorial church in Ypres, which was festooned by 12,000 knitted and crochets poppies, 700 from people in Carrickfergus, hung high on the tower and on the walls with the help of the local fire brigade.
A moving service, then the long walk with 15,000 marchers and onlookers to the Menin Gate. The Last Post startled a cormorant on the River Leperlee below, it circled round us and away. The silence was heightened by a sudden wind rustling the dried leaves on a huge tree, then as Reveille was played and poppy petals fell, a heron flying low accompanied by two seagulls, one on each side like a war plane and two outriders. Then we walked back to the town.
I thought I would be in tears most of that day but my emotion was one of anger and great sadness, just as was David Starret's memorial stone spelled out.