'We were enemies, today we unite as friends'
Europe pauses to remember its dead 100 years on from World War One, writes Daniel McConnell
Published 05/08/2014 | 02:30
Peaceful Europe, unified Europe, democratic Europe. Peace is what our grandparents longed for with all their might.
The words of King Philippe of Belgium yesterday at the World War I centenary commemoration in Liege captured the solemnity of the occasion.
King Philippe paid tribute to the courage and dignity of those engaged in the fighting and those who lived in inhuman conditions.
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina represented Ireland at the ceremony which was also attended by Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
President Higgins said the First World War was a horrific event in human history and has to be regarded as such.
The area where yesterday ceremony was held, is home to the graves where some of the first army casualties of the war - including a number of Irishmen - are buried.
"I think the significance of the heads of state coming together on the anniversary of World War I is an opportunity to recognise the catastrophe the war was," he said.
He said the anniversary also provided an opportunity to ask the question how countries could drift into war and how it could expand to the point at which it consumed a generation that had such promise.
The President said it was wrong of Irish society at the time not to recognise the suffering of those Irish people who fought in the War.
He said that perhaps they suffered in silence because they came home in the shadow of the execution of leaders of the 1916 Rising.
He said the Irish were scattered across this experience of War and we must understand their role in it. A total of 49,400 Irish died in the conflict.
The event was also attended by the presidents of France, Germany and Austria. Over a dozen heads of state from across the globe attended.
German President Joachim Gauck described his country's invasion of neutral Belgium as completely unjustifiable, as were the atrocities committed against civilians and Belgium's cultural heritage.
Prince William said the conflict in Ukraine was a reminder that war still stalked the continent of Europe.
"We were enemies more than once in the last century, and today we are friends and allies. We salute those who died to give us our freedom. We will remember them," he said.
French President Francoise Hollande, pointedly remarked that Europe could not remain neutral in the face of conflicts in Ukraine and in the Middle East.
"We can't just be guardians of peace and remember. We can't remain neutral on Iraq, Syria, Gaza," he said.
At Westminster, British Labour Ed Miliband was criticised for laying a wreath marking the centenary of the start of the First World War with the unadorned message: 'From the Leader of the Opposition'.
Prime Minister David Cameron had penned a personalised note to the dead.
Last night, President Higgins also attended a ceremony at a joint Allied-German cemetery in nearby Mons, hosted by the British government, where the first Irish fatalities occurred in August 1914.