From Kiltimagh to Flanders fields: Remembering our heroes on Belgium's World War I battlefields, 100 years on
Battle of Messines Centenary
Patrick McNicholas, a private in the first battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, number 14125, was killed in action on August 9, 1918.
His death came just three months before the WW1 armistice was announced.
At 32 years of age, McNicholas died from shrapnel injuries having fought in both France and Flanders, Belgium.
He was the son of Michael and Catherine McNicholas and the uncle of Stephen (80), my neighbour from the village where I grew up – Treenagleragh, Kiltimagh, Co Mayo.
And while he died on August 8, according to Stephen, Patrick’s mother and his grandmother Catherine, or Kit as she was locally known, already knew his fate when the official news arrived at their home.
“Two days before we got official word of his death, Kit said: “Paddy is dead,” said Stephen. “She had a premonition or feeling or got the whisper, as they say, and she was right,” he said.
While this story is unique to the McNicholas family, Paddy’s fate sadly was not and like families all around Ireland at the time, his role in the war wasn’t really spoken about then or for a long time afterwards.
Ireland’s often uncomfortable relationship with its nearest neighbour and one-time conqueror hovered for a long time and it is still a sore point for many.
But thankfully, the contributions made by Irish fighters in the First World War are being increasingly recognised and commemorated at home, and abroad, and rightly so.
Paddy had signed up to fight in the war from the UK, in Earlestown, Lancashire and he enlisted with his childhood neighbour John McNicholas, who lived to survive the war.
Others from the locality who perished during the war include John Walsh of Lisduff, Kiltimagh who had enlisted in Brighton. He was killed in action in 1916 having served in France and Flanders.
They weren’t the only men from Kiltimagh, or Ireland, who fought in what is still considered one of the bloodiest and deadliest war ever known to mankind – over 17 million men and women, both soldiers and civilians, died during the war period from 1914 to 1918.
It is an astonishing figure and hard to fathom, particularly as you roam around the beautiful countryside and farmland in Flanders.
Home to some of the prettiest landscape in Europe, it is hard to perceive how the flatlands and fields were once a massive bloodbath and the place where so many people lost their lives in what is now also considered the most futile of wars.
As the inveterate traveller and WW1 photographer Frank Hurley put it: “for there was no place in eternity that is more hellish”, when describing The Third Battle of Ypres, one of the most controversial episodes of the great war which was launched on July 31, 1917 and lasted three months.
While the offensive resulted in some gains for the allies, the confrontation, today commonly known as “Passchendaele”, any results came at great human cost like the Battle of the Somme which came a year before it.
The centenary of another great battle, that of the Messines Ridge (above), is being commemorated this week in Flanders (outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny is attending, along with Prince William and Princess Astrid of Belgium, in one of his last engagements in that role). It has significance on both sides of the Irish border.
In this battle, unionist and nationalist solders fought side by side in the trenches.
Messiness marked the first time in WW1 that soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division engaged in action together although they both fought at different times during the Battle of the Somme.
The battle, which started on June 7, was a significant victory for the Allies partly because of the detonation of a number of underground mines below German lines on the first day of the battle.
While many nationalities lost their lives in Flanders fields, the contribution of the Irish is commemorated at the Island of Ireland Peace Park which is located about three miles from where the Battalion and Division fought side by side.
It should also be remembered that Irish men and women also served with numerous other armies including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa as well as Britain.
The memorial site, opened in 1998, is known as the Irish Peace Park or Tower and was built as a symbol of reconciliation by An All-Ireland Journey of Reconciliation Trust and the support of the people of Messines (now called by its Flemish name Mesen).
The replica Round Tower, the centre piece of the park, cuts a lonely figure but some might feel that this adds to the atmosphere.
However, the decision to locate the park at this spot, and so far away from the actual battle, was partly due to the fact that the land was donated at no cost.
The tower, based on the design of a traditional Irish round tower from the 8th century, is 110 feet high and is made of stones from Mullingar work house.
It is also designed so that the inside of the tower lights up only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to mark the time of armistice when the guns fell silent for the first time in four years.
The park also includes a number of pillars naming each of the provinces of Ireland while three other commemorate the dead, wounded or missing of each of the three Irish divisions that found with the British army in WW1:
• 10th (Irish) Division - 9,363 casualties
• 16th (Irish) Division - 28,398 casualties
• 36th (Ulster) Division - 32,186 casualties
One of the most moving aspects of the park involve nine stone tablets that are inscribed with quotations from letters and poems from Irishmen who died during the war.
One contains a quote from the poet Francis Ledwidge who was killed in the Ypres Salient while serving with the Iniskillen Fusiliers on the first day of the Battle of Ypres:
“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.”
It is here that this week’s commemorations take place.
Here are four other “must sees” when you travel to Flanders.
1. Grave of William HK Redmond
William Redmond MP (known as Willie Redmond), was one of the Irish Nationalist soldiers who fought in the Battle of Messines Ridge on June 7, 1917.
When hit by shrapnel, he was helped by a Unionist soldier, Private John Meeke, who had also been wounded.
Redmond, whose brother and fellow MP John was the leader of the nationalist Home Rule movement in Ireland, was taken to the dressing station at Dranouter and died there of wounds he sustained in No Man’s Land,
He was buried in the grounds of the Catholic convent at Loker - he had earlier befriended nuns whose convent had originally been located at the site.
Redmond’s grave is located on what is now an active farm and a private house is located right beside it.
Meeke later received a Military Medal for his gallantry.
This is one of the many examples you will see of how the Belgian people had to get on with life after the war but also have to live with constant reminders of it around them as they get on with their everyday lives.
Nowadays the site is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
There are also numerous allied cemeteries to be visited in Flanders and many soldiers are also buried in communal graveyards.
2. Peace Pool
Strange as it may seem, but the Peace Pool is actually a water-filled mine crater at Spanbroekmolen.
It is the site of the biggest of 19 mines blown by the British Army early in the morning of June 7, 1917.
The move signalled the launch of the Battle of Messines, or Menin in Flemish which it is now known, and the space had been a strategic location for the Germans who had spent a year and a half developing well established positions with concrete bunkers and strong defensive posts before that fateful morning.
Probably more importantly, the location had very good views across the lower lying British positions.
Now, though, it’s a peaceful and pensive place and when we visited in April the newly blossomed hawthorn and furze trees were in full bloom – vibrant reminders of the nature that is likely to outlive us all.
In addition, for three centuries before the war, the wind peacefully turned the windmills on the hill here.
3. Last Post/Memorial to the Missing
Every evening since 1928, at 8pm sharp, the city of Ypres or Leper in Flemish hosts The Last Post at the Menin Gates.
The Last Post, traditionally the last salute to the fallen warrior, is played in memory of the soldiers of the then British Empire and Allied Forces who fell in the Ypres Salient during the war.
It is also where the past meets the present and is often visited by relatives of war heroes wearing the medals earned by their relatives.
It is both poignant and moving as wreaths are laid in memory of those who fought and died.
There were four great battles around the city of Ypres and more than 250,000 soldiers of the-then British Empire lost their lives.
Over 100,000 of these soldiers have no known grave. Of these, 54,896 are commemorated by name on the Menin Gate.
4. The German trenches at Wijtschate and cemetery
There are families on every side of a war. And while it is natural for us to focus on the Allied side of the story, the German perspective is also interesting.
And while a lot of what you see in Flanders, understandably given time, are recreations or museums there are some parts that are genuine restorations.
The Bayernwald Trenches at Wijtschate are a carefully and archaeologically restored section of an original German trench system dating from 1916.
They include sandbagging, trench sides and duckboard walkways.
While you walks through them you can only imagine the conditions that soldiers on both sides of the war endured.
The constant bombardment of firing guns and gas, the stench, the lice and rats as well as the dreaded trench-rot – caused by feet being exposed to dampness which first involved blisters and open sores and led to fungal infections and often amputations.
The Langemark German Cemetery is also worth a visit.
There are 36 mainly allied military graveyards in the regions and the German ones really stand out.
Their design is completely different but the messages on the graves are no different.
And the passing of time too has played a role here.
So much so, that British school children have begun leaving poppy memorabilia on the graves of the fallen German soldiers who also met their fates in Flanders fields.
It seems, the poppy, one of the few plants to grow on the otherwise barren battlefields post-war and once considered almost solely a British symbol of remembrance, is playing a new role as the younger generations interpret its symbolism in their own ways.
In fact, it was a Canadian doctor - Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae – who wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields”: where the poppy was first mentioned.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row, / That mark our place; and in the sky / The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
Find a good guide. We were lucky to have Philippe Mingels on our tour and he comes highly recommended – contact him on email at email@example.com.
There are a number of Irish tour operators offering tailor made packages to Ypres and the Salient. All include flights and ground arrangements and transfers:
Joe Walsh Tours: joewalshtours.ie/holidays/military-heritage-world-war-i
Shandon Travel sells day trips with their tours to Bruges: shandontravel.ie/european-city-breaks/holiday/bruges-belgium/
GTI - gti-ireland.com/holiday/offer/ww1-the-battle-of-messines
Alternatively, passengers can fly to Brussels (we flew with Ryanair) and take a train to Ieper (Ypres) from the airport by booking a ticket on b-rail.be or hire a car from the airport and drive directly there. When in the area, specialised battlefield tours of the area (tailormade to your particular interest) can be booked.
For further information see: visitflanders.com.
Read more:Visiting Flanders: 100 years since the Battle of the Somme