First World War dead remembered at Ypres ceremony

Some 600,000 soldiers - including 9,000 Irish - died in Belgian killing fields

A couple walk amongst some of the 12,000 graves in the Tyne Cot Military Cemetary near Ypres in Belgium. File Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

A couple walk amongst some of the 12,000 graves in the Tyne Cot Military Cemetary near Ypres in Belgium. File Photograph: Aidan Crawley/The Irish Times

 

The names of the 600,000 soldiers who died in the killing fields of Flanders were remembered last night in a huge display of lights 85km long.

The Ypres Salient - the area around Ypres in northern Belgium which was the scene of some of the worst fighting in the first World War - covers an area smaller than Co Louth. The dead of 30 nations are buried there, including Ireland which lost at least 9,000 men in the fighting.

Some 8,400 torch bearers formed a human chain from the coast at Nieuwpoort to the memorial to the missing at Ploegsteert where Belgium’s King Philippe and his wife Mathilde lit a candle for those who died at an event to mark the beginning of the first Battle of Ypres.

A light was placed on all of the 12,000 known graves in Tyne Cot cemetery, the largest British military cemetery in the world, and the one which commemorates the dead from the Battle of Passchendaele.

Ireland was represented by the Irish ambassador to Belgium Eamonn Mac Aodha and the chairman of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly Frank Feighan. They were joined by the deputy British ambassador Katrina Johnson and the head of office of the Northern Ireland executive office Gerry Mulligan.

They lit burning lotuses on the water and a fire bowl at the Pool of Peace in Heuvelland.

On Thursday, Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Senator Paddy Burke attended an event in Brussels to mark the 100th anniversary of the first Battle of Ypres, the first of at least three and, some historians believe, five battles in the Ypres Salient.

The Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois said he was aware the Irish war dead were not universally remembered in Ireland. Mr Bourgeois said the slaughter in Flanders was beyond the imagination of modern society .

The first Battle of Ypres began with the inundation of the River Izer by the Belgians who opened the river’s sluice gates and stopped the Germans advancing down the coast to their intended target, the channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk.

This evening Tipperary local historian Tom Hurley will seek to resolve the identity of the man who fired the first British shot in the war.

It has commonly been reported that Corporal Edward Thomas of the 4th Irish Dragoon Guards was from Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

Cpl Thomas’s actions on the morning of August 22nd 1914 outside the Belgian town of Mons was the first shot fired by a British soldier on the Western Front since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The first shot memorial was erected in 1939 and was the site of a major commemoration service in August.

In Search of Ernest Edward Thomas will be broadcast on Tipp FM this evening at 6pm.

Mr Hurley has discovered that Cpl Thomas was not Irish, but has some Irish antecedents. Though he survived the war, many details of his life remain a mystery.