Battle of Messines: Prince and Kenny united in poignant remembrance

The Duke of Cambridge (right) and Taoiseach Enda Kenny lay wreaths at the foot of a gigantic cross
The Duke of Cambridge (right) and Taoiseach Enda Kenny lay wreaths at the foot of a gigantic cross

The Duke of Cambridge and Irish Premier Enda Kenny have taken part in a poignant UK-Irish ceremony in Belgium to mark the centenary of a First World War battle where unionist and nationalist soldiers from Ireland fought together.

Prince William and the taoiseach were joined by Princess Astrid of Belgium at the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines in Flanders, to commemorate the first day of the week-long battle.

Irish and UK representatives at the ceremony at the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, Belgium

Irish and UK representatives at the ceremony at the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines, Belgium

They laid wreaths at the foot of the Round Tower memorial, where unionist and nationalists fought and died together in the trenches.

It was an emotional day for the descendants of those who fought at the battle.

The families of two soldiers who are buried at nearby Wytschaete Cemetery met with William, Princess Astrid and the taoiseach,

Political representatives from across Northern Ireland and the Republic also attended the commemoration.

The Duke of Cambridge, Princess Astrid of Belgium and Taoiseach Enda Kenny ahead of the ceremony

The Duke of Cambridge, Princess Astrid of Belgium and Taoiseach Enda Kenny ahead of the ceremony

DUP leader Arlene Foster, Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey, SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly and Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie travelled together to the shared commemoration via train and coach.

The successful Allied offensive on June 7, 1917 was the first occasion the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish divisions fought together in the front line.

The two divisions predominantly comprised men who were on opposing sides of the great political upheaval back in Ireland around whether the country should be granted self-governance from Westminster.

The commemoration focused on the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines. The park was built in 1998 – the year of the historic Good Friday Agreement – to mark the sacrifice of all those Irishmen who fought and died in the war.

The Duke of Cambridge (right) meeting the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order Reverend Mervyn Gibson

The Duke of Cambridge (right) meeting the Grand Secretary of the Orange Order Reverend Mervyn Gibson

Following the ceremony at the Peace Park, William, Mr Kenny and Princess Astrid travelled to Wytschaete Cemetery to pay their respects at the 16th Irish Division Memorial Cross.

They each laid a wreath at the foot of the new memorial erected at the entrance of the cemetery last week.

The memorial depicts a scene that many believe encapsulates the legacy of the day Irish Protestant and Catholic soldiers fought together – the attempted battlefield rescue of fatally wounded 56-year-old nationalist Home Rule MP Willie Redmond by a young unionist private, John Meeke.

Major Redmond’s brother John was the leader of the constitutional nationalist Home Rule movement.

Troops march past the Irish-style tower at the Island of Ireland Peace Park

Troops march past the Irish-style tower at the Island of Ireland Peace Park

While at the cemetery William, Mr Kenny and Princess Astrid joined descendants of soldiers Joseph Stevenson and John Halpin at their gravesides to pay their respects.

To conclude the commemoration, two local children, Marie Vancoyseele and Dejour Kjentha, provided Flanders soil to two school children from the island of Ireland.

Tomas Mac Aisha from Dublin and Reuben Elliott from Lisburn will bring the boxes of soil back home for a memorial project.

The commemoration in Belgium was Mr Kenny’s last overseas engagement as taoiseach ahead of him stepping down from the role later this month.

The capture of Messines Ridge was a key objective of the Allied Forces ahead of their mid-summer 1917 offensive on German lines between the nearby town of Ypres and the small village of Passchendaele – a battle that has since become synonymous with the horrors of trench warfare.

The Allies sustained around 10,000 casualties during the Battle of Messines, the Germans around 25,000. Between them the 36th and 16th lost around 2,500 killed, injured or missing.

The two divisions fought together only twice in the First World War. The second came in a heavy defeat, two months after Messines, during an ill-fated offensive at nearby Langemark in the first weeks of the Battle of Passchendaele.