2017 Visit to Belgium
How we got here
Posted by Aidan Haughey
"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"
by A. Haughey
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 was quickly forgotten as domestic affairs turned to violent struggle against the same British Army that so many Irish had fought alongside. For many families it was an inconvenient reminder of their close connection to the 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 many others, were saddened that the bravery and sacrifice of these young men would be forgotten by the 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, 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. Among the dead was Gerry's 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 the blog diaries of the students and their experiences of 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.
On Wednesday the 21st of June 2017, 15 students from Ireland met with 15 German students in a courtyard at Louven Irish College in Belgium to launch a unique shared history project which starts an ambitious programme to remember soldiers of the most devastating war in history. Leuven was the perfect location to launch this project in Europe. Over 400 years ago this college was set up to record and preserve Irish history and heritage which had been oppressed under English rule. It was therefore fitting that a gathering of students from around Europe would meet here to discuss a shared history both nations have largely ignored.
On the first day the groups from both countries gave presentations on a selection of soldiers they had researched and shared their experiences of the research process. On the second day the groups visited the European Parliament where MEP Marian Harkin gave a talk on Ireland in the first World War and it’s role in modern Europe. After the visit the students took the 3 hour bus tour to Messines to visit several areas of interest. Firstly they stopped at the Island of Ireland Peace Park. Perched on top of a hill overlooking over a peaceful lush green land, the monument marks the area where the 36th Ulster Division and 16th Irish Division fought side by side in the Great War. Today, looking over this agricultural landscape with small hamlets and farmhouses, it’s hard to believe tens of thousands of men fought and died here in a bloody and hellish conflict. The students take time to reflect as Gerry Moore gives a chilling account of what the soldiers witnessed here a century ago.
Next we stop at one of the many cemeteries dotted across this land. Speaking to a local who was born and bred 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.
We move on to another graveyard a few miles down the road, passing dozens of other memorial sites along the way. The scale of the loss of life starts to become shockingly apparent.
Onward we travel to the Pool of Peace. This perfectly round pond was created when 91,000lbs of explosives detonated under the feet of German soldiers in 1917. The explosion, heard over 300km away, left thousands dead and this massive crater. This was only one of 19 underground explosions that day which terrorised the German soldiers. Such was the horror of the scene that many of the allied soldiers prayed for their enemies.
The following day the students are taken to see the trenches to get an idea of how the soldiers fought and lived. Later, they visit the other side of the war. The graves of the German soldiers, who sacrificed their lives. For too long, we in the allied countries have ignored the lives and deaths of these young men. Their lives, their feelings, their loss, forgotten. But today, as two groups of young people from Ireland and Germany meet in a field in Belgium, a hundred years apart, a moment of refection for all men who died.