Expatica news

Queen Elizabeth II in Belgium today

12 July 2007

BRUSSELS (AP) – Belgium’s Queen Paola and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II will lead solemn commemorations Thursday in Flanders Fields paying tribute to the 500,000 soldiers who died 90 years ago this year in one of the bloodiest trench warfare battles ever seen.

Thousands were expected to gather just outside the village of Passchendaele with the royals and other leaders from Australia, New Zealand and Canada to remember what historians have described as a slaughter of thousands in the Battle of Passchendaele.

It was the last of several large battles during World War I that pitted British and Commonwealth soldiers against Germany on the war’s western front.

Paola, representing her husband King Albert II, who is still recovering from hip surgery, Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, representing Britain and the former British colonies, are to lay wreaths at Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest Commonwealth burial site in the world, which is located just a few kilometres  from Passchendaele (known as Passendale in Dutch).

Also attending the anniversary will be the British monarch’s representatives in Australia, Governor-General Maj. Gen. Michael Jeffery and New Zealand Governor-General Anand Satyanand.

Canada will be 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 grim 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.

Dignitaries will open a new visitors centre at Tyne Cot, which was originally a fortification used by the Germans against advancing British-led forces.

The royals and others will also commemorate the 80th anniversary of the famous Menen Gate, located in Ieper, which has 55,000 names of missing soldiers engraved on its walls, soldiers who have no known grave.

The arched limestone gate was erected in 1927 to commemorate the passage from the old city walls where thousands of soldiers marched to the front. It has since then become a renowned war memorial, drawing 200,000 war pilgrims a year to look over its names and participate in the mournful “last post” ceremony, which has been conducted every evening under the gate since 1930.

“The Passchendaele commemorations are an opportunity to remember and to pay tribute to those who so bravely served their country,” said Satyanand in a statement released ahead of Thursday’s ceremonies.

Passchendaele saw the single most disastrous one-day loss of life in New Zealand’s military history and left “an indelible mark” on society Satyanand said.

More than 800 New Zealanders died and more than 2,000 were wounded in one day alone.

Dubbed “road to Passiondale” by incoming reinforcements, the Battle of Passchendaele became a symbol of utter destruction and senseless killing in brutal trench warfare carried out in days of endless rain, back and forth volleys of millions of shells creating a cratered landscape littered with dead bodies and flattened villages.

It saw the first use of mustard gas against troops during some of the most intensive trench warfare during the war. Even now, the remains of soldiers, bombs and gas canisters are still dug up every year by farmers plowing the regions fields.

“On the first day here, something like 15,000 were dead,” said Piet Chielens, head of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper.

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

[Copyright AP 2007]

Subject: Belgian news