Expatica news

Elizabeth honours allied soldiers

13 July 2007

PASSCHENDAELE, Belgium (AP) – Allied soldiers from Britain, Australia, Canada and other nations killed 90 years ago in one the bloodiest battles of World War I were honoured by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Belgian royals and thousands of others on Thursday.

Despite wet and windy conditions, around 4,000 locals and visitors attended with the British monarch, Commonwealth leaders and their host, Belgium’s Queen Paola, a solemn commemoration at Tyne Cot military cemetery just outside this tiny village.

While mournful bagpipes played, the royals and leaders from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other nations laid wreaths to those who died and fought in what historians have described as the slaughter of thousands in the Battle of Passchendaele.

The wreaths were put at the foot of a large white cross cenotaph that dominates the vast grave site. A 1930’s biplane dropped red poppy petals over Tyne Cot in tribute to the dead.

The ceremony also included prayers, poems and hymns to mark the last of several large battles that pitted soldiers from Britain and its then colonies against Germany on the war’s western front. After the fighting was over, 500,000 soldiers were either dead, wounded or missing after the July to November 1917 battle.

“Not one family was left untouched by the first World War” in Scotland, said Isla St. Clair, who had relatives that fought here and who sung two hymns during the ceremony.

Rupert Forrester, 18, from Leeds, whose descendants fought near Tyne Cot, said the anniversary has led him to discover a lot about his family ties to Passchendaele.

“My great great grandfather Harry and Ronald his son … they both died on the same day,” Forrester said. “We found the story of how they died and it has meant a lot more to us now.” The two were listed as missing but are both commemorated on the Tyne Cot’s wall of memorial.

The cemetery at Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth military burial site in the world, located just a few kilometres from the village of Passchendaele, which gave its name to one of the last battles of attrition fought during World War I.

The British queen, dressed in a purple overcoat and purple hat, with other dignitaries also opened a new visitors centre at the cemetery, which was originally a fortification used by the Germans against advancing British-led forces in 1917.

Many among the crowd at the cemetery had family links to the battle.

“My father told me about the mud, the rain and the men dying in shell holes full of water, drowning,” said Joe Hubble, 75, a retired member of the Blackwatch Regiment, from Kent in southeast England. He visits Flanders Fields every year.

“It means everything for me to be here at this moment,” said 15-year-old Nicola Plews, member of an 17-military cadet group from Australia, which helped form an honor guard Thursday at Tyne Cot.

Also attending the anniversary was the British monarch’s representatives in Australia, Governor-General Maj. Gen. Michael Jeffery, and New Zealand Governor-General Anand Satyanand. Canada was represented by Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson and Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice.

There are 12,000 graves and 35,000 names of missing persons engraved on memorial walls at Tyne Cot which is situated on a ridge captured by Australian forces during the battle in 1917. It overlooks the nearby city of Ieper that was better known to the soldiers of 1914-18 by its French name, Ypres.

Ahead of attending the Tyne Cot ceremony, Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath at the famous Menen Gate war memorial located in Ieper while buglers played the “Last Post.” The arched limestone gate, which marks its 80th anniversary this year, has 55,000 names of missing soldiers engraved on its walls, soldiers who have no known grave.

Tyne Cot and the Menen Gate draw 200,000 war pilgrims a year, who also visit the 30 other smaller monuments and numerous military grave sites that dot the region.

Passchendaele became a symbol of utter destruction and senseless killing in brutal trench warfare carried out in days of endless rain, millions of shells flattening villages and creating a cratered landscape littered with dead bodies.

It also saw the first use of mustard gas. Even now, the remains of soldiers, bombs and gas canisters are still dug up every year by farmers working the region’s fields.

“Passchendaele is the lowest of the low, it’s the place in popular memory where the general sends the soldier off to die, in fruitless battles where soldiers are slaughtered in the mud, held up by wire and more troops are behind them,” said Tim Cook, a Canadian war historian.

The battle was called to a halt after Canadian reinforcements replaced devastated British, Australian and New Zealand units near Passchendaele and captured the ruined village 10 November 1917.

[Copyright AP 2007]

Subject: Belgian news