President Higgins in Belgium to mark start of first World War

Representatives of some 70 countries will take part in commemorations

Part of an exhibition in Liège entitled “I was 20 in 14” shows a trench during the first World War. Photograph: Yves Herman.

Part of an exhibition in Liège entitled “I was 20 in 14” shows a trench during the first World War. Photograph: Yves Herman.

Mon, Aug 4, 2014, 07:15

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina will take part in an international commemorative ceremony in Liège in Belgium today to mark the beginning of the first World War.

This evening the President and Mrs Higgins will attend a service hosted by the UK at Mons, where the first British army casualties of the war – including a number of Irish soldiers – are buried.

The ceremony at Liège this morning will be attended the by presidents of France and Germany, and members of the British and Belgian royal families.

President Higgins will join other heads of state and dignitaries at the event which is being hosted by the Belgian government in the city where the first sustained action of the war took place in August 1914.

More than 70 countries have been invited to participate at Liege, and 16 of them, including Ireland, will be represented by their heads of state.

The President and Mrs Higgins will be welcomed to the ceremonies by the king and queen of the Belgians.

There will be three elements to the Liège event, at the Abbaye Saint-Laurent, the Allied monument in the town and the Prince-Bishops’ Palace.

Opportunity

The event is designed as an opportunity for all countries involved in the war, and the states which subsequently emerged from the countries and empires in existence at its outbreak, to come together to commemorate the beginning of the conflict.

Liège was the first Belgian city to be attacked, and it put up a significant resistance to the invading German army. Thousands of people died in the siege, and hundreds of civilians were subsequently executed in atrocities committed by the Imperial German Army at Liège and other Belgian towns. Because of its heroic defence, it was awarded the Légion d’Honneur by France.

Today’s ceremony will begin at the Abbaye Saint-Laurent which is now used by the Belgian army. There, the king and queen of the Belgians will welcome the heads of state.

They will then all travel to the Cointe Inter-allied Memorial, which is the key focus of the event at Liège. The ceremony will include speeches from the governor of Liège province, the Belgian prime minister, the president of Germany, the Duke of Cambridge and the president of France.

Heads of state will depart first for the final event, the lunch at the Palace of the Prince-Evêque, located 10 minutes’ drive away.

Later that evening, the President and Mrs Higgins will attend the first World War commemorative service, hosted by the UK at St Symphorien military cemetery in Mons.

Cemetery

Just over 500 soldiers from Britain, Ireland, Canada, Belgium and Germany are buried in the cemetery at St Symphorien, and 500 guests have been invited to attend the ceremony at dusk today – including President Higgins, members of the British and Belgian royal families, German president Joachim Gauck, British prime minister David Cameron and Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Mons, most of the British and German dead were buried in civilian cemeteries in the city and surrounding villages.

More than a year later, in November 1915, the German army began exhuming both German and British soldiers who had been killed at Mons and reinterring them in a plot of land at St Symphorien.