Register of Speakers
Federation of Local History Societies and Federation for Ulster Local Studies visit Battlefields of Europe
Breaking into two groups we enjoyed a guided walking tour of the centre of the beautiful city of Leuven with its many historical highlights. Leuven is a university town, established in 1425, which at the time created a resurgence in the town after the demise of the flourishing cloth trade which had existed there. The town was alive with the exuberance of the huge student population who had just returned for the new college year. We traversed along many cobbled streets, viewed some magnificent 17th century houses, the famous 13th century "Beguinage", the spectacular finely sculptured Town Hall as well as many baroque churches and buildings. A buffet dinner at the Institute brought to an end a very busy day.
On Tuesday our destination was to West Flanders to see the battlefields around the town of Ypres. This ancient town was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in Belgium and to see the town buildings reconstructed out of the ashes it is difficult to imagine that it was actually razed to the ground during the war. A visit to the "In Flanders Field Museum" was a poignant reminder to all of us of the horror and devastation wrought by this awful war. We were then met by our guide, Pol, who was to be our guide for the day. Our first stop was at the "Island of Ireland Peace Park" near Messines. Dominated by the impressive Irish round tower built of stone with pieces from all over the island it was a fitting memorial to all the soldiers of Ireland, north and south and of all political and religious persuasions who died, were wounded, or missing. Irishmen and women served during the war with the armies of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.
We then called to see Hill 62 and the memorial dedicated to the Canadian forces who had held out here against a fierce German onslaught. It was also the scene of some horrific gas bomb attacks. It was fascinating to then visit the last remaining authentic trenches of WW1 at Sanctuary Wood. Along with the trenches were examples of all sorts of disused war materials, shells, grenades, weapons etc. that had been used in the battles. Nearby was the grave of Francis Ledwidge who was killed while serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers at the battle of Boesinghe on July 31st 1917. Our last port of call was "Tyne Cot" cemetery, the largest of WW1, containing over 11,000 graves most of which are unidentified. It is difficult to express ones feelings on seeing the seemingly endless rows of white head stones stretch our before you overlooked by the unique "Cross of Sacrifice" which was erected over a German bunker taken by the allies in 1917.
Something did happen which helped lift some of the gloom when group member Peter O'Reilly from Blessington, Co.Wicklow found the record of his grandfather who had fought, died and was buried in the Cemetery. Peter was thrilled to also discover details about the family hitherto unknown. After dinner in Ypres we were privileged to attend the "Last Post and Reveille" ceremony at the Menin Gate which is dedicated to all the missing British and Commonwealth soldiers and contains the names of 54,395 soldiers. Again it was a very special occasion for the both federations as we laid a wreath during the ceremony in memory of those killed. The wreath was laid jointly by Mairead Byrne, Rathcoffey, Co. Kildare and Jimmy Conway, Lurgan, Co. Armagh on behalf of both federations. It was an emotional moment bringing both federations closer together in jointly remembering all Irish soldiers killed in the fields of Flanders.
The European Parliament beckoned on Wednesday morning and we were met on arrival by MEP and Vice President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness who together with MEP Jim Nicholson had sponsored our visit. After a very warm welcome and some photos, Mairead again welcomed the group before we were treated to a very interesting presentation on the history and work of the European Parliament. We then had time to enjoy a cup of tea/coffee outside the parliament in the midday sunshine before having a lovely lunch in the Parliament canteen. On a lovely sunny afternoon, we travelled to the beautiful city of Bruges. Some people joined our guided tour and others just went fancy free in the city. We enjoyed another lovely personal story as group members George and Doreen Mc Bride were celebrating fifty-seven years of marriage together and what made it so special was they had spent their honeymoon in Bruges all those years before. It was a privilege to share that special occasion with them. Bruges is the most perfectly preserved medieval city in Belgium boasting a wealth of magnificent architecture including the Halle, the Belfry, the Basilica of the Holy Blood, the Beguinage, the Market and the Town Hall. We all enjoyed a most relaxing afternoon in this lovely city.
All were up bright and early in preparation for the long journey into France to the valley of the Somme, scene of the largest battle of the first World War on the Western Front. Our tour was to the Thiepval area and we first stopped at the Ulster Memorial Tower which stands on what was the German frontline during the Battle of the Somme. Standing seventy feet high it is a lasting tribute to the men of Ulster who gave their lives during the battle of the Somme. It was here that we met, Julia, our guide for the day who proved to be a "Gem" and showed great knowledge in particular of the Irish regiments involved in the battles. Again we had the privilege to share another personal story with a member of our group. Jimmy Conway from Lurgan, Co. Armagh told the story about his four grand uncles, the McAlinden brothers from Derrytagh North near Lurgan who all had fought in the war. One of the brothers, James Mc Alinden died of wounds suffered and was awarded the Russian Cross of St. George for his bravery. He was buried in La Neuville Communal Cemetery, Corbie, Somme and Jimmy had come prepared to sprinkle soil from home and lay crosses on the grave if we could manage to get there. Jimmy made a valiant personal attempt to accomplish this task but just failed to make it. However, his passion, enthusiasm and determination were an inspiration and encouraged us all to share the story with him in a special way. Jimmy was eventually rewarded and overjoyed to hear his poem about the Lurgan Brigade read out by our guide Julia on the steps of the impressive Thiepval memorial much to everyone's delight.
After the Ulster Tower we proceeded to the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park which included the Destination Stone, the cemetery, trenches and the Caribou Monument all dedicated to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and also to other armies who lost men in the battle, namely the French, the British and the Germans. There were bloody battles at Guillemont and nearby at Ginchy where much Irish blood was shed involving the 16th Irish Division and 1200 men died. A member of our group, Frank Taaffe, from Athy Co. Kildare recounted the story of how Athy man Lieutenant John Vincent Holland commanded the soldiers who broke through the defences in what was regarded as the strongest fortified villages held by the Germans and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. We visited the Guillemont Road Cemetery and the little parish church in Guillemont outside which stands a Celtic Cross and inside on the wall are plaques dedicated to Irish soldiers killed in the battle.
Our last call was to the centre d'Acceuil de Thiepval with its imposing monument dominating the sky. That evening we enjoyed a superb meal in the Ulysses restaurant at the Leuven College after which both chairmen, Michael Gaynor FLHS and Johnny Dooher FULS recalled the wonderful week we all had together and thanked all concerned. There was a special welcome for four guests from the Leuven Archives Group who were friends of FULS member Bridgeen Rutherford and had worked with her on an exchange project. Also a special presentation was made on behalf of the group to George and Doreen Mc Bride of a pair of Bruges lace cushion covers on the occasion of their fifty seventh anniversary. A warm thank you was extended to the Leuven Institute for looking after us so well during our stay and in particular Michael Rafferty for all the work he did in organising the trip.
on their 57th Wedding Anniversary
It was with a certain degree of sadness that we left the Leuven Institute for the airport after such a memorable visit but we had one more stop on our journey and that was to Waterloo, a battle which ended twenty years of bloody conflict in Europe. We spent some time in the very impressive interactive museum and it was somewhat awe inspiring to see the spectacular Lion's Mound.
This was a remarkable journey through many facets of European history never to be forgotten but most of all it was a journey of friendship, sharing, comradeship, fun and personal stories which we shared and which we will always remember.