It was a poignant
moment when Irish and German students met for the first time in Leuven Irish
College in Belgium. After months of
planning, 15 students from around Ireland met with 15 German students for a
unique project on World War One. For the
past few months each of the students have been researching a specific soldier
which they have “adopted” as part of an ambitious European wide project, My
Adopted Soldier. The idea of the
programme was formulated by History teacher, Gerry Moore after he discovered he
had a grand-uncle who died in the Great War.
He came across this family connection by accident after finding a photo
in his family home of a soldier in uniform standing by his wife.
For many in Ireland, ancestors who fought and died in World War One were quickly forgotten as domestic affairs in Ireland turned to violent struggle against the British Army that so many Irish had fought alongside. For many families it was an inconvenient reminder of their close connection to British military, so, photos of relatives in uniforms and medals of honor were removed from mantelpieces and confined to boxes in attics and drawers.
Gerry, like so many others were saddened that such acts of bravery by these young men would be so quickly dismissed and forcefully forgotten by generations to come. It was this that led him on a journey to find a way to research the men behind the numbers and to tell their story so future generations could respectfully remember the sacrifices they made.
It was Gerry’s ambition to bring 32 students from Ireland, one from each county, from north and south of the border, to remember a shared history and to tell the stories of a cross section of these soldiers. In 2015, Gerry took 32 students to Flanders and the Somme where thousands of Irishmen died including his grand-uncle, Michael Gallagher from Dungloe, Co. Donegal.
The event was a huge success and the students involved expertly researched their adopted soldiers and gathered gripping accounts of the lives of these men. The project gathered interest around the world and a special one hour documentary was aired on Irish national television, RTE.
Thousands of people each month visited the archives to read the stories of these forgotten soldiers and also the blog diaries of the students and how they felt researching their adopted soldiers.
After the success of the first trip, Gerry planned with a group of history teachers to bring another group to Belgium, this time teaming up with German students. Germany, like Ireland were keen to forget the sacrifices of WWI and to this day have not gathered a definitive list of their dead.
Next we stop at one of the many cemeteries dotted across this land. Speaking to a local who was born and breed here, he tells me they hardly notice the hundreds of thousands of headstones as they pass by on their daily routine. But the students visiting these graves for the first time, are visibly shocked at the scale of the these burial sites as the rows and rows of headstones stretch perfectly lined into the distance. A couple of the students find their adopted soldiers graves and stop to reflect. It’s an emotional moment for the students as the story of these peoples lives they have researched has a very definitive ending.