Learning about peace in an arena famed for war

Digging in: A section of the trench at the Buttermilk Bridge. A vigil will be held at the site on July 1 at 7.30am to mark the opening moments of the battle in which so many local men died. (Submitted)
Digging in: A section of the trench at the Buttermilk Bridge. A vigil will be held at the site on July 1 at 7.30am to mark the opening moments of the battle in which so many local men died. (Submitted)

A particularly poignant scene can be found at a deep tree-lined lake in Belgium that was referred to in a moving WWI account several years ago.

Known now as the Pool of Peace, it marks the area blasted by a huge mine near Messines.

It is part of a story that led Londonderry man, Glenn Barr to establish the International School for Peace Studies in Belgium, to which travel large numbers of people, including hundreds of students, from both sides of the border every year.

On New Year’s Day 1916 at Spanbroekmolen, the British Army’s Royal Engineers began digging a deep underground system of tunnels towards the heavily fortified German lines on the high ground of the Messines Ridge.

At the end of the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 the German front line had been established at this location with strongly defended bunkers, trenches and tunnels.

Following subsequent events, Royal Inniskilling private John Meeke from Benvarden, three miles from Bushmills, was presented with a military medal for his unimaginable courage during the Battle of Messines in 1917.

The fighting began southeast of Ypres with the detonation of 19 mines in 22 mineshafts underneath the German lines, an operation that took many months of digging and tunnelling under the enemy-controlled ridge. Amazingly, the Germans were also engaged in counter-tunnelling, and on more than one occasion both sides met, with bloody underground battles taking place in the darkness and the thick, slimy mud. The mine and its vast containment of high explosives was finally completed on the night of June 6, 1917.

The commander of the 171st Tunnelling Company sent a message to the headquarters of the 36th (Ulster) Division that night. They were to attack the German position at Spanbroekmolen at the start of the British advance which was set for 3 am the following morning, June 7. John Meeke was in no man’s land attending to the wounded. He saw an officer fall. The officer was Major William Redmond. Meeke sprinted through the raging battle to help him. The young private was hit twice by enemy fire whilst attending to Redmond’s wounds. The major ordered Meeke to save himself and run for cover but Meeke refused, remaining at the major’s side, and organised Redmond’s evacuation to the hospital dressing station.

For his great heroism Meeke was awarded the military medal. Sadly, Redmond died of wounds later that day and is interred at Locre Hospice Cemetery, Belgium. The Spanbroekmolen explosion devastated the German lines, and left an enormous, gaping hole almost 100 feet deep, 100 feet across, and with a total diameter at ground level of nearly 500 feet. The crater filled with water as a result of the high water table and the clay soil in the area.

Today it is called the Pool of Peace, tree-lined and serene, with a carved granite pillar describing the horrors of war that occurred there. The lake, framed with its beautiful and luscious greenery, is a tranquil reminder that a scene of horrendous tragedy can be restored and reconciled by time – and trees.

The symbolism of the story of Meeke and Redmond was not lost on Glenn Barr.

Few people can tour the war sites, the cemeteries and the monuments without being deeply affected and, recognising this, Mr Barr believes it can have a healing effect on people from areas of conflict, especially Ireland.

The International School for Peace Studies website records how it had an impact on him.

He writes: “On a cold wet November day in 1996 I stood for the first time at the colossal Commonwealth Monument on the Somme bearing the names of 74,000 soldiers who had perished in that slaughterhouse in 1916 and who have no known graves.

“Along with 49 other people from different backgrounds and different parts of Ireland who made this historic journey not a word was uttered as each and every one of us chocked back the emotions that overwhelmed us.

“The short distance to the Ulster Tower commemorating the sacrifice of the men of the 36th Ulster Division only intensified those emotions as I pictured my father, his brother, Hamilton - later to become a POW, and my mother’s four brothers, the youngest of which, uncle Johnny Curry, was only 15 years of age, all ‘going over the top’ on the 1st July 1916 into the greatest single disaster in the history of the British army.

“This however did not prepare me for the sight that was to confront me when we arrived at the little village of Guillimont only 5 or 6 miles away where the men of the Nationalist 16th Irish Division had fought and died. There I saw a neglected Celtic cross, surrounded by a rusting metal railing, bearing the inscription in Irish, translated into English, ‘TO THE GLORY OF IRELAND’.

“I felt a mixture of embarrassment and shame. Was this the only glory that was to be afforded them?

“How could the memory of those from the Unionist 36th Ulster Division be so revered while that of the young men of the Nationalist 16th Irish Division had been confined to the annals of a forgotten history? I could not speak, I was confused, I was angry at the difference between the two memorials and I was full of guilt that my educational system had not taught me anything about this part of history and angry at myself for not making the effort to find out.

“That night at dinner in the hotel in Arras I vowed to do something about it. I didn’t know what, but I was going to do something. I had to make amends.

“Along with the rest of the group it was agreed that we would create a new organisation, later to become ‘The Journey Of Reconciliation Trust’, of which I had the privilege of serving as Joint Executive Chairman. It was the JORT that was to build the ‘Island of Ireland Peace Park’ in Messines to symbolise the coming together of the Cross at Guillimont and the Ulster Tower in a joint memorial to the memory of all those from the Island of Ireland who fought and died in The Great War.

“Messines was selected because it was at the battle of Messines on 7th June 1917 that the Nationalist 16th Irish Division and the Unionist 36th Ulster Division fought and died together for the first time and where the young John Meeke of the 36th Division risked his life to retrieve the badly wounded Major Willie Redmond of the 16th Division from the battlefield.

“Two men from different traditions, both there for different political reasons, sworn enemies in Ireland, brothers in arms on a foreign battlefield fighting a common enemy.

“Why was I not taught this in my history class at school? Why was it kept from me? It was the story that was to transform my life and when the JORT decided that its work was completed with the official opening of the Peace Park on 11th November 1998 I decided to set up the International School for Peace Studies to tell the story to others, especially our young people.”

The ISPS website declares: “The International School for Peace Studies is dedicated to the resolving of differences and conflict transformation through exclusively peaceful means, and rejects all forms of violence or intimidation as a means of creating change.

“The International School for Peace Studies has developed a unique and completely original experiential learning programme called ‘The Messines Experience’.

“The programme uses the events of The Great War (1914 - 18) to engage participants in learning about their shared history, cultural heritage, peace and reconciliation, and the futility of war. Various levels of accreditation are available, and all qualifications are nationally recognised.

“The Messines Experience represents an opportunity to inform and inspire a new generation of citizens in Europe and beyond by explaining the continuing relevance of this period of history, and exploring how the events of 1914-18 shaped so much of the society in which we live today.

“The programme also promotes our belief in the ineffectiveness of engaging in aggressive behaviour as a means of creating change, and the detrimental consequences that arise when we choose conflict over compromise.

“In doing so, we believe that differing communities and different participants from all over the world can be brought closer together by way of ‘Reconciliation Through Remembrance’.”