‘Eyes show the shared horrors of Protestant and Catholic soldiers’

The expression in their eyes caught me. Shell Shock, by Leslie Nicholl.
The expression in their eyes caught me. Shell Shock, by Leslie Nicholl.

I had to come, I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know where to be, I don’t know what to do” - the heartrending words of heartbroken Charlotte Campbell, the grieving mother of 15-year-old Olivia Campbell, speaking at a vigil for the dead and injured, including her beloved daughter, in the Manchester suicide-bomb.

“I just knew,” sobbed Charlotte, inconsolable but precise “something told me I had to come here.”

Embraced by distraught loved ones she added “as a family, we’re united, we’re standing strong. I ask her friends, strangers, relatives to do the same. Please stay together.”

Except for appalling pain and pointless death, the circumstances were somewhat different a century ago during WWI at the Battle of Messines Ridge, soon to be commemorated on 7 June.

But a message similar to Charlotte Campbell’s plaintive ‘please stay together’ echoes from the Belgian scene of tragedy and devastation.

At 3.10 am on 7 June 1917, on the undulating Messines Ridge in West Flanders, Belgium, 19 underground Allied mines were detonated in unprecedented explosions that peaked on distant seismographs and were heard over 150 miles away in London.

Estimates of the number of Germans killed in and after the explosions have been as high as 25,000, with up to 10,000 dying instantly.

The multiple blasts shocked and concussed hundreds of the British troops waiting to go over the top.

Allied losses in the ensuing week of fighting were heavy, if fewer than those sustained by the Germans.

The battle has enormous historic and symbolic significance for the UK and Ireland because Messines was the first time that the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions fought alongside each other during WWI.

Both fought at the Somme in 1916 but at different stages of the battle.

A joint-commemoration ceremony on 7 June in The Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines will be held in the poignant shadows of an Irish Round Tower and a large standing stone gilded with the peace pledge: “As Protestants and Catholics we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. We appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.”

Also marking the centenary of Messines Ridge, there’s a vividly evocative exhibition by Bangor artist Leslie Nicholl in Stormont’s Long Gallery from 2 - 16 June.

Entitled ‘The Stretcher Bearer’, the drawings and paintings are mostly of soldiers’ faces, here and there studded with real mud and poppy seeds from Messines, which Leslie has visited on his regular trips to WWI battlefields and war-torn landscapes. The soldiers’ images are based on old, damaged, glass-plate negatives,” he told me, adding “it was mostly the expression in their eyes that caught me - absolutely no different to the pain we experience during periods of great stress.”

Leslie highlighted an important contributor to his exhibition:

“Nichola Mallon MLA did all the hard work to get cross-party support for the exhibition due to the cross-community and shared cultural heritage it reflects and the shared horrors of the young men from Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster.”

Leslie put a lot of groundwork and research into his paintings “reading letters, diary entries, autobiographies, visiting museums in Dublin, Belfast, London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna”, which left him with “an unshakeable wonder” at the soldiers’ “modesty and reticence at not being seen as heroes but as people doing what was expected of them. They were brave beyond words.”

Announcing the Messines Ridge commemoration on 7 June in the Peace Park the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charles Flanagan said that the Irish soldiers “were brought together by diverse motivations but they shared a common purpose as soldiers and, caught up in the grim realities of war, no doubt a common desire: to survive and return home.”

Describing his forthcoming Stormont exhibition Leslie Nicholl explained “I would not have the courage to do what those young men did, but bearing in mind they were all volunteers and not coscripted, I am in awe of and full of respect for any human being who knowingly risks his or her own life to protect and attempt to save the life of another human being, fearing that they themselves might not survive doing so.”

For 18 months Allied soldiers had worked to place nearly 1 million pounds of explosives in tunnels under the German positions.

The tunnels extended to some 2,000 feet in length, and some were as much as 100 feet deep.

A German observer described the end result - “nineteen gigantic roses with carmine petals, enormous mushrooms rose slowly and majestically out of the ground and then split into pieces with a mighty roar, sending up multi-coloured columns of flame mixed with a mass of earth and splinters high in the sky.”

Apart from the massive loss of life on both sides during and after the detonation, 7,000 German prisoners were easily taken by the Allies - all too stunned, concussed or disoriented to resist.

Leslie quoted me a (maybe) apocryphal but hugely poignant saying about the Irish soldiers at Messines - “there was no Orange and Green in the trenches, only red.”

There’ll be more about his exhibition and the Messines Ridge centenary here next week.