First time Protestant and Catholic fought side by side in World War I

Today is the centenary of one of most apocalyptic Allied attacks on the German lines during WWI - the Battle of Messines Ridge in West Flanders, Belgium.

The synchronised detonation of 19 unprecedentedly huge mines buried by the Allies deep under enemy trenches brought instant death to many thousands of German soldiers, and the ensuing week-long battle bestowed a relentlessly burgeoning tally of causalities on both sides.

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

Roamer’s page has recently sampled several of the commemorative events, here and in Belgium, including ‘Shankill Messines 100’ at Belfast’s Townsend Street Presbyterian Church this Saturday (details at www.historyhubulster.co.uk) and Bangor artist Leslie Nicholl’s exhibition called ‘The Stretcher Bearer’ in Stormont’s Long Gallery.

Gavin Bamford, Chairman of History Hub Ulster which is co-hosting the Shankill centenary, told us last week about the Unionist and Nationalist soldiers from Ireland “fighting side-by-side, their political differences set aside to face the common foe.”

Leslie Nicholl’s evocative paintings and drawings, on display until 16 June for people attending meetings or scheduled events in Stormont, depict soldiers’ faces, poignantly textured with soil and poppy seeds from Messines.

The artist vividly portrays their anguished eyes revealing “the shared horrors of the young men from Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster.”

This afternoon in The Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines there’s a special memorial event where vast mine-craters still punctuate the landscape, one of them the serene, water-filled Spanbroekmolen crater known as The Pool of Peace or the Lone Tree Crater, the site of the largest of the mines detonated at the start of the battle.

The centenary commemorations are jointly led by the Governments of Ireland and the UK, in partnership with the Mayor of Messines.

The Peace Park proceedings take place in the shadow of a traditional Irish Round Tower and a large standing-stone gilded with a peace pledge appealing for the people of Ireland to build a peaceful and tolerant society and to remember “the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.”

The Allies started tunnelling towards the German lines at Messines Ridge early in 1916.

In the face of German counter-mining, thousands of feet of deep tunnels were constructed.

Sometimes the British tunnellers encountered their German counterparts resulting in fierce, underground, hand-to-hand fighting.

Above ground, for weeks before 7 June 1917, thousands of heavy Allied guns and howitzers bombarded the German trenches with countless pounds of explosives.

A century ago this morning at 3.10 am 19 underground Allied mines were detonated in an unprecedented collective blast that peaked on far-away seismographs and was heard in London and Dublin.

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

Hundreds of the Allied soldiers waiting to go over the top were severely shocked, deafened and concussed. Private Jack Christie from the Shankill area of Belfast, who had been a member of the UVF, was a stretcher bearer with the Ulster Division.

Referring to his comrades in the 16th Division Private Christie said later “we should not allow politics to blind us to the truth about things - bravery and loyalty is not all on one side. We had the greatest respect for the 16th.”

Another stretcher-bearer from the Ulster Division demonstrated that political allegiance had no place on the battlefield.

Private John Meeke of the 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was awarded the Military Medal for rescuing Major Willie Redmond of the 16th Division.

Redmond was the Nationalist MP for East Clare, a member of the Irish Volunteers and the brother of John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Private Meeke, who enlisted in March 1916, was searching the battlefield for wounded comrades when he happened to see Major Redmond fall.

Despite heavy machine-gun and artillery fire, Meeke made his way to Redmond’s position to render assistance, taking shelter in shell holes and any other meagre cover he could find in the desolate, pock-marked landscape.

He arrived at the Major without injury and found him seriously wounded in the left knee and right arm at the elbow and weak from loss of blood.

Meeke dressed one of the wounds and was working on another when shrapnel struck him on the left side, inflicting serious wounds.

He was hit a second time but this did not deter him from his work, which he completed despite his injury.

Meeke disobeyed a direct order from Major Redmond to abandon him and struggled across the battlefield with his charge until he met up with Lieutenant Charles Paul and a party from the 11th Royal Irish Rifles who were escorting German prisoners to the rear.

Together they got Major Redmond to the casualty clearing station located in the Catholic Hospice at Locre.

Major Redmond died later that afternoon.

Many hundreds of soldiers from Ireland perished side by side at Messines Ridge, protestant and catholic, unionist and nationalist, and they’re commemorated on standing stones in the Island of Ireland Peace Park along with the WWI total of 32,186 killed, wounded or missing from the 36th (Ulster) Division; 9,363 from the 10th and 28,398 from the 16th Irish Divisions respectively.