07 June 2017

Prince William marks Messines Centenary as the CWGC receives new Flemish Government Funding to maintain Messines War Graves

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has hosted the Duke of Cambridge at several commemorative services in Belgium, marking 100 years since the Battle of Messines Ridge.

 

Thousands of people visited Belgium for the centenary, on Wednesday, June 7, with events organised by the UK & Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Australia and New Zealand to remember each country’s involvement and losses in the battle.

On 7 June, 1917, 19 huge mines were detonated underneath the German positions on Messines Ridge, signalling the start of what was regarded as a successful action on the Western Front for the Allied forces.

One hundred years later, the CWGC continues to care for and maintain the graves of thousands of Commonwealth and Irish soldiers killed at Messines, as well as in the subsequent action at Passchendaele – the Third Battle of Ypres.

As part of this ongoing maintenance, the Flemish Government today (Weds) signed a major funding initiative, granting the CWGC €3.9million Euros to repair the walls at 24 historic war cemeteries in the region.

CWGC Vice Chairman, Sir Tim Laurence, attended the official signing of this grant and said: “For a century, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has cared for the graves, memorials and cemeteries of those who died in two World Wars.

“Throughout our history, the cemeteries and memorials have evolved naturally – ageing gracefully but remaining true to their founding design and purpose of ensuring those who died will never be forgotten. However, work is now needed on many of them to ensure that the very high standards expected by visitors to the sites are maintained.

“We are delighted that the historical, cultural and commemorative significance of these sites, and the work of the CWGC in maintaining them, is recognised in the signing of this agreement today. This generous grant will enable vital conservation work to take place – ensuring our cemeteries remain a fitting tribute to those who died and places to visit and remember for generations to come.”

The Centenary of the Battle of Messines Ridge was marked today with a major event at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, in Mesen, attended by HRH The Duke of Cambridge, The Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Princess Astrid of Belgium. Lord Dunlop, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office, represented the UK Government.

In the year following the 1916 Easter Rising, The Battle of Messines Ridge had a particular poignancy for Ireland, as two units fought side by side, despite political and religious differences: the 16th (Irish) Division, mostly Catholic men from across the Island of Ireland; and the 36th (Ulster) Division, mostly men from Protestant communities in the north.

During today’s service,their sacrifice and spirit was once again remembered as an important symbol of reconciliation on the island of Ireland.

Earlier in the day, a special pilgrimage was made to the grave of Major Willie Redmond, a prominent Irish nationalist, MP and soldier with the 16th Division.

Major Redmond was mortally wounded at the Battle of Messines and was buried in the Convent garden of the Locre hospice, south of Ieper. His widow erected a unique memorial cross to mark his grave. Until the late 1950's the grave was maintained by a Sister from the Locre hospice. In the 1990's the land was purchased by the Belgian State and is now maintained by the CWGC.

There were also remembrance services at the Messines Ridge (New Zealand) Memorial, in Mesen, to remember NZ casualties and at the Strand Military Cemetery, in Comines-Warneton, to remember Australian casualties.

More details are available via the CWGC’s online blog at http://blog.cwgc.org/messines

Ends

For more information, please contact CWGC Media Manager Peter Francis on +44 7766 255884 or at peter.francis@cwgc.org

Notes for editors:

1. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org)

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is a not-for-profit intergovernmental organisation, founded by Fabian Ware and constituted through Royal Charter in 1917. The key aim of the organisation is to honour the 1,700,000 men and women of the forces of the Commonwealth who died in the two world wars and ensure that their memory is never forgotten.

The Commission operates in more than 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries. It also holds and updates an extensive and accessible records archive.

2. Get to know the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Visit our website at www.cwgc.org

Follow us on twitter via @CWGC

Like us on facebook at www.facebook.com/commonwealthwargravescommission

Watch us on Youtube or download the CWGC app

3. Photo and other credits

Please ensure that all supplied photos, videos and other materials are credited:

“Courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission” or “Courtesy of the CWGC”

4. The Battle of Messines

In preparation for an offensive around Ypres (now Ieper) in the summer of 1917, forces from across the then-British Empire needed to secure the crucial high ground to the south on which stood the villages of Wytschaete (known to the troops as White Sheet) and Messines (Mesen).

Mines packed with tons of explosives had been laid in tunnels under enemy lines, and infantry forces were supported by the largest concentration of artillery thus far in the war.

At 3.10 am on 7 June 1917, 19 huge mines were detonated underneath the German positions on Messines Ridge. The sound, the largest man-made explosion in history at that point, allegedly woke Prime Minister Lloyd George in London and was heard as far away as Dublin. The lighting up of the sky as the detonations ran across the ridge was likened to a 'pillar of fire'.

The effect of the mine explosions upon the German defenders was devastating.  An estimated 10,000 men were killed during the explosion or in the following, overwhelming, artillery bombardment. In its wake, nine divisions of infantry advanced under protection of a creeping artillery barrage, tanks and gas.

By evening, the ridge and all principal objectives had been secured – albeit at a high cost – and by 14 June, the entire Messines Salient was in Allied hands.

5. War underground

The tunnels at Messines were dug by specialist British, Canadian and Australian Tunnelling Companies – the majority of them had been miners or engineers in civilian life. Some 20,000 tunnellers dug 22 tunnels at Messines. The longest tunnels were more than 2,000 feet in length and 125 feet deep. They were packed with almost 600 tons of explosives. Of the 22 mines dug, only 19 were detonated on 7 June 1917.

One mine, at Petite Douve Farm, was discovered by German counter miners on 24 August 1916 and destroyed. A further two mines close to Ploegsteert Wood were not used and over time their exact location was lost.

In 1955 one of the unused mines was detonated by a lightning strike. The other, remains hidden to this day.

The Battle of Messines was the last occasion when tunnelling was used on such a large scale.

6. Centenary of Passchendaele – Third Battle of Ypres – July 2017

Next month, the CWGC and the UK Government will host several events commemorating the Centenary of Passchendaele - The Third Battle of Ypres. More than 4,000 descendants of Commonwealth soldiers involved in the battle will attend a special commemorative service at the CWGC’s Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Ieper, on 31 July 2017. The night before, 30 July, there will be a traditional Last Post Ceremony at the CWGC Menin Gate in Ieper to give thanks to those who have remembered the British and Commonwealth involvement and sacrifices every evening in peacetime since 1928. It will be followed by a series of live performances, open to thousands in Ieper’s rebuilt Market Square, that tell the story of the Battle. Images and film will also be projected onto the town’s famous Cloth Hall.

7. Visitor Information Centre, Ieper, Belgium

The CWGC has opened its first Information Centre in Western Europe, close to the CWGC Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial. The Menin Gate is one of the Commission’s largest structures in the world, commemorating more than 54,000 Commonwealth forces whose graves are unknown, and there are more than 150 CWGC sites in the surrounding area. The CWGC Information Centre in Ieper, Belgium, was officially opened last month, in time to offer a wide range of services and information to visitors attending the Passchendaele centenary in July. The Information Centre is based at Menenstraat 33, 8900 Ieper, and will be open Wednesdays to Sundays from 2.30pm to 9pm.

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