Men of steel: joint WWI effort by nationalists and unionists remembered

The silhouette memorial of Major Willie Redmond being carried from the battlefield by private John Meeke
The silhouette memorial of Major Willie Redmond being carried from the battlefield by private John Meeke

A steel silhouette encapsulating the joint war effort of unionists and nationalists will be visited on Wednesday by a group of international dignitaries, who are marking the centenary of a major World War One battle.

It marks 100 years since the Battle of Messines began in Belgium involving both the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish divisions – made up in large measure from UVF men and Irish Volunteers, respectively.

The steel silhouette, erected close to Messines last week, is expected to be viewed by Prince William, the Irish taoiseach, and Princess Astrid of Belgium.

It depicts the attempted battlefield rescue of fatally-wounded 56-year-old Irish 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.

Members of the Redmond family are to attend Wednesday’s commemorations.

Two stone pillars – one marked 36th Ulster and one 16th Irish – already stand facing each other at the site.

Later this summer a bronze plaque commemorating the 1,200 soldiers from the 36th and 16th killed at Langemark near Frezenberg Ridge on August 16 will be fixed to a large granite memorial stone overlooking the Belgian fields where they fell.

One of the men behind the projects is retired Belgium army officer Erwin Ureel.

“The 36th and 16th only fought twice together and it’s really a story of triumph and disaster,” he said.

“Messines, since the late 1990s, is now an accepted story in Ireland but I think we should tell the whole story.

“The story of the disaster – the 16th of August – is completely forgotten in Ireland.”

He was referring to the divisions’ heavy defeat, two months after the capture of the Messines Ridge, in an offensive at nearby Langemark in the first weeks of the infamous Battle of Passchendaele.

Mr Ureel first organised an event to mark the life and death of Willie Redmond in 1997.

“His dramatic evacuation by this loyalist I think is an example for reconciliation in Ireland,” he said.

“That story should be used much more in Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland, to show what they can achieve.

“And that’s what Willie Redmond wanted to do.

“He made a famous speech in Westminster about two months before he died here in which he really pointed to what the Irish were doing here together on the front and how that could set an example for Ireland at home.”

Belgian historian Philippe Mingels, who specialises in the Irish contribution to the First World War, insists the co-operation between the 36th and 16th has not been overstated.

“Here they had a mutual enemy and it was all about surviving,” he said.

“Of course they wanted to win but they wanted to survive - so if you want to survive you are better off with a good partner at your side knowing that he will fight as hard as you will and that is what happened here.

“No matter what tradition they were from, they believed the others would not do less than them.”