Belgium 1917: Battle of Messines
Mesen (Messines), Island of Ireland Peace Park
They served together in these trenches – the Island of Ireland Peace Park
Nine kilometres to the south of Ieper, on the road to the French border and the town of Armentières, the N365, is Mesen (Messines to the British). Just to the south of the village, on the right, with great sweeping views over the Belgian countryside, is the Island of Ireland Peace Park. The park, the central feature of which is a replica of an Irish ‘Round Tower’, was unveiled on 11 November 1998 by the President of Ireland Mary McAleese in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and King Albert II of Belgium.
This unusual memorial is dedicated to all Irishmen from whatever political persuasion or tradition who served and died in World War I, especially in the three divisions raised in Ireland of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force): the 36th (Ulster) Division, the 10th Division and the 16th Division.
Round towers are to be found throughout Ireland, usually in connection with the sites of early Christian monasteries. There are also three pillars in the park on which are recorded the numbers of killed, wounded and missing in each division. Nine stone tablets, arranged along the pathway to the tower, feature quotations from Irish servicemen.
Some 25 percent of the Australian Imperial Force was descended from the hundreds of thousands of Irish people, Catholics and Protestants, who settled in Australia in the 19th century. In colonial times, and right up to 1914, the Irish nationalist cause, which sought ‘home rule’ for Ireland, had been part of the Australian political landscape.
During the war, Australians were divided over the issue of conscription for overseas service to reinforce the AIF. The most prominent leader of those against conscription – the ‘antis’ – was Irishman Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Mannix denounced the British treatment of Ireland in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and questioned the degree to which Australia should give unthinking support to the British Empire. His argument was that Britain had declared war in support of a small nation, Belgium, but was at the same time violently suppressing the national aspirations of another small nation, Ireland.
The two conscription referendums in Australia in 1916 and 1917 were about more than the anger of Irish–Australians in regard to the British treatment of Ireland, but that issue was certainly one of the factors leading to the defeat of Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s conscription proposals. After World War I, Australian feeling again ran high during the Anglo–Irish war of 1918–21 with Archbishop Mannix taking a leading role in supporting Irish independence.
Ireland, like Australia, suffered heavy losses in the ‘Great War’. Inside the round tower visitors can consult copies of ‘Ireland’s Memorial Records’, a series of books with richly wrought designs by artist Harry Clarke in the borders of each page. In these books are recorded the names of the thousands of Irish war dead. Among them is Major William Redmond, 6th Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, age 56, who died of wounds received at the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917.
Willie Redmond had a close connection with Australia. Both he and his brother, John Redmond, were well–known leaders of the Irish Nationalist Party at Westminster before the war and, in 1883, the brothers visited Australia to raise money for the Irish ‘home rule’ cause. Both also found wives in Australia: John married Johanna, half–sister of the influential merchant and pastoralist James Dalton of Orange, New South Wales, while Willie married James’ daughter, Eleanor. Willie Redmond made a number of visits to Australia and wrote two books about his experiences: A Shooting Trip in the Australian Bush and Through the New Commonwealth. After her husband’s death, Eleanor returned to Orange. She died in Sydney in 1947. Major William Redmond’s grave is in Locre Hospice Cemetery a few kilometres north–west of the village of Mesen.
But the Peace Park is not simply commemorative of battles long ago. It also represents the rocky journey towards reconciliation in modern Ireland between the two main religious and national traditions in the north of Ireland – the Protestants who, in general, support the continued constitutional link with Great Britain, and their Catholic neighbours who generally support unification of the area known as ‘Northern Ireland’ with the Republic of Ireland. The project to build the park was seen through by an organisation called ‘A Journey of Reconciliation Trust’, a broad–based cross–border Irish organisation which brought together people of varying beliefs and allegiances. The dedicatory plaque, just inside the entrance to the park, reads, in part:
As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches.
Mesen was chosen as the site for the memorial because it was near here that Irish Protestants and Catholics fought side by side for the first time on the Western Front.
At 3.10 am on 7 June 1917, along a 16 kilometre front of the ‘Messines salient’, 19 great underground mines exploded, destroying huge swathes of German front–line trench. It was the start of the Battle of Messines, the opening attack of the British ‘Flanders offensive’ of 1917. As the shattered earth fell back, nine British divisions began an advance along the whole front. North–west of Mesen village were two Irish divisions fighting side by side: the 36th (Ulster) Division, composed largely of Protestant Irishmen from the northern counties of Irealand, and the 16th (Irish) Division, with mainly Catholic soldiers from southern Irish counties. The Irish Peace Park recalls that significant moment in Irish history and sees in it a symbolic message of peace and reconcilaition for modern Ireland.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010