The year 2017 is set to be an historic one for Belgium and Flanders Field in particular, for a programme of commemorative exhibitions and events is taking place to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War battles of Messines and Passchendaele.
Last week there were ceremonies to mark the centenary of the Battle of Messines – also known as the Battle of the Mines – while on 31 July it will be exactly 100 years since the commencement of the Battle of Passchendaele.
The Battle of Messines was commemorated in a shared UK-Ireland ceremony at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines and Wytschaete Cemetery Heuvelland when Prince William, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Princess Astrid of Belgium were among those attending the centenary services.
In a battle which saw soldiers from the North and South of Ireland fighting side by side, it was the first time that the two divisions fought at the same time, despite serving in the Somme at different times.
And officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele became notorious for the appalling conditions endured by those who fought there. Lasting four months, there were eight separate attacks and more than half a million casualties with the Allied forces advancing just five miles.
Despite the heaviest rain in 30 years which turned the ground into a veritable muddy quagmire, British and Canadian forces finally captured the remains of Passchendaele village on 6 November 1917 after which a staggering 61 Victoria Crosses were awarded… the most in any single battle before our since.
Even today you can still see the scars in the landscape which are littered by places of remembrance and commemoration.
The project ‘1917 – Total War in Flanders’ connects these various locations in a route of exhibitions and info-modules across Flanders Fields in 2017; from Messines to Houthulst and Poperinge to Zonnebeke.
This project includes information points telling the stories of the role of the Allied partners during the Battle of Passchendaele from the frontline to the preparation of the hospital behind the lines.
On 30 and 31 July, the UK Government in partnership with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), the city of Ypres, the Municipality of Zonnebeke and the Memorial Museum Passchendaele will mark the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres.
The official commemoration begins on the eve of 30 July with a traditional Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, followed by a special live performance in Ypres Market Square. The following day there will be service of commemoration set amongst the graves and names at the CWGC Tyne Cot Cemetery.
The UK Government has also organised a public ballot to allocate 4,000 tickets in pairs free of charge for descendants to attend the commemorative event at the vast Tyne Cot Cemetery while over the next five years, €6.5million Euros will be assigned to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the upkeep of the many cemetaries and memorials which litter the Flanders landscape.