British and Belgian soldiers, and school children from both nations gathered for a special Armistice Day Last Post ceremony in the presence of Royalty at the Menin Gate in Ypres yesterday, 11 November 2013.
In an unprecedented ceremony that conjured images from a hundred years ago, the F Troop Gun Carriage of the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery was laden with 70 First World War (WWI) -style sandbags, each was filled with soil from the Flanders battlefields where so many millions died in the Great War.
The 'sacred soil' had been recently gathered in special ceremonies, with the support of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, at each of the 70 battlefields and WWI Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries by Belgian and British school children, many of whom were at the Menin Gate ceremony.
Resting place unknown
Soldiers from the Household Division of the British Army, who the previous day paraded in the Ceremony of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, stood proudly at the Menin Gate Last Post service. The Menin Gate is the official memorial to the missing dedicated to the British and Commonweath soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient and whose final resting place is unknown.
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH Prince Laurent of Belgium attended the poignant and solemn ceremony and following the one minute’s silence, the Royal guests laid wreaths at the memorial.
Then one by one as the name of each First World War battlefield was called, children from Belgium and Britain came forward carrying a named sandbag carrying the soil from that location, and, with the help of the troops, placed the 'sacred soil' upon the specially adapted WWI era gun carriage. As the 70 sandbags were stacked in place, The Band of the Coldstream Guards played Elgar's Nimrod and Henry Purcell’s When I am laid in Earth Remember Me from Dido and Aeneas.
All the British Soldiers on parade were from the Household Division with representatives from each of the Mounted and Foot Guards Regiments whose soldiers fought and died on the Fields of Flanders in the Great War. The Duke of Edinburgh attended in his role as Senior Colonel of the Household Division and Colonel of the Grenadier Guards.
Major General Edward Smyth-Osbourne, General Officer Commanding the Household Division and Headquarters London District, explained why the troops were chosen for this poignant and historic event: "The Foot Guards Regiments are made up of Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards, Irish Guards and Welsh Guards and so represent all four nations of the United Kingdom.
"Taken with the two Mounted Regiments from the Household Cavalry, the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, they also represent both cavalry and infantry. In the same way that these seventy sandbags of soil represent all the battlefields of Flanders, these seven regiments represent all the British Expeditionary Forces to who gave their lives for our freedom."
As Pipe Major Alexander Sanger from Lathallan School played Flowers of the Forest, the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery gun carriage, commanded by Captain John Cockburn and drawn by six powerful black Irish Draught Horses, moved off across the bridge carrying the sacred soil in procession through the town of Ieper.
The soil then began a journey those who died in Flanders Fields could never make. It will be brought back to Britain to create the focal point of a memorial garden which will mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War (1914-1918).
Trooper Russell Jarman, Life Guards, 29, from Braunton, North Devon, was one of the street liners at the Menin Gate. He explained why the parade was so meaningful for him: "My Great Grandfather was in the Royal Horse Artillery and served in the First World War.
"During the heat of battle when his unit had taken terrible casualties he went into No Man's Land to save the gun and horses that were caught in the shelling. He brought the horses back to safety but was fatally wounded in the process. He was awarded a posthumous medal for bravery. Standing here today where he fought and seeing the gun carriage go by was an emotional moment for me."
Gave lives selflessly
Captain Chris Fenton Welsh Guards, 29, from Canterbury, said: "To be part of this historic event is so incredibly special. The moment when the sandbags were being loaded onto the gun carriage as Andrew Wallis read out the names of the cemeteries, the Coldstreams were playing Elgar's Nimrod, and I was standing there at attention looking up at that massive wall of names of the dead, I had a massive lump in my throat.
"It was so profound. I'll never forget it. Those soldiers gave their lives selflessly and today when we have a tendency to think too much of ourselves we can only learn lessons from the sacrifices they made for our freedom."
The Flanders Fields memorial garden will be created in London at Wellington Barracks adjacent to Buckingham Palace. Designed by a Belgian architect, Piet Blanckaert, it is inspired by the design of the WWI memorials and will carry the insignia of all the seven Guards regiments who sacrificed so much on the battlefields of Flanders.
In Flanders Fields
The design of the garden – intended to be a quiet place of reflection and contemplation – is full of symbolism. The first level of soil takes the form of a rectangle that refers to the cemeteries and symbolises death. On top of it is a circular soil bed, representing eternity as a victory over death.
The circular shape also refers to the opening in the roof of the Menin Gate at Ypres, the most famous monument of Flanders Fields, from which every year on 11 November poppies rain down. The central circular bed of the garden will hold the sacred soil and will have the words of John McCrae’s famous poem inscribed upon it “In Flanders’ Fields”.
In this way, the circle becomes a final resting place for the earth, a symbolic return of the soldiers who died on the battlefields. The garden will also have a bench made from Flemish Bluestone and trees indigenous to the battlefields of Flanders.
Combined with the Guards Museum and Guards Chapel, the new public access venue at Wellington Barracks will provide a rewarding experience for people in Britain who may be unable to make the journey to the battlefields themselves.
The Memorial Garden ‘Flanders Fields 1914-2014’ is an initiative of The Guards Museum and supported by Flanders House in London. The Government of Flanders has pledged a subsidy on a pound for pound basis for every GBP (in cash or in kind) donated by a supporter to be matched by the Government of Flanders.
When the garden opens to the public next year, the Belgian people hope it will be a unique opportunity not only to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Great War but also to thank the British people for coming to their aid and for the sacrifices made in liberating their country.
The First World War, also known as the Great War, was the first international conflict on a global scale. Millions of soldiers and civilians from no less than 50 countries lost their lives. All over the world, the name ‘Flanders Fields’ has come to be associated with unprecedented human suffering and material destruction.
Guards Museum Curator Andrew Wallis said: ”If you would like to help us raise the funds for completion of this powerful commemorative memorial or find out more, please go to the project website where you can find a number of ways in which you can get involved: www.memorial2014.com"
The garden will be officially opened immediately following the Cenotaph ceremony on 9 November 2014.