Politics must not overshadow poignant anniversaries of two World Wars

Message from His Majesty, WWII New Testament
Message from His Majesty, WWII New Testament

Last year the News Letter and the rest of the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War.

Roamer readers shared heroic and often tragic accounts of local men who signed up, of women who went to the front as nurses, and of the ‘home front’ where people toiled tirelessly for victory.

Last year’s 70th anniversary of D-Day, the ‘beginning of the end’ of WWII, also brought a flow of memories and wartime accounts continued arriving in Roamer’s mailbox.

Another of those, with more soon to follow, ends today’s page.

Our current nationwide ‘election fever’ hopefully will not nudge another anniversary towards the side-lines.

Friday, May 8, the day that vote-counting will be in full swing, marks 70 years since the end of WWII in Europe - V.E. Day or ‘Victory in Europe’ Day.

The occasion will be commemorated with events all across the UK, particularly the lighting of beacons at or around 9.30 pm - the traditional time of the ‘going down of the sun.’

Amidst last year’s commemorations people often aired their hopes that the remembering wouldn’t end.

The year had brought an extraordinary surge of national and international reverence and reflection, but with the anniversaries ‘expended’, so to speak, many folk hoped that the honouring of the dead, and of those who returned home after war, must continue.

As the 70th anniversary of WWII’s Victory in Europe approaches there are hugely significant centenaries from both wars that deserve profound commemoration.

The German blitz on Belfast will be recalled by many, the first raid on April 7 and 8, 1941 by eight enemy bombers and the second raid on April 15 and 16 by 180 aircraft.

Over 670 bombs and approximately 29,000 incendiaries fell mainly on residential areas in the docklands.

The third raid on May 4 and 5, 1941 by over 200 Luftwaffe bombers lasted for three hours. Hundreds of tons of high explosives and many tens of thousands of incendiaries devastated the city and the docks.

Over 1,000 people died and there was substantial damage to housing.

Belfast’s War Memorial Museum in Talbot Street will be hosting a 74th anniversary commemorative service on April 15, and there’s an ongoing exhibition and display of art-works and artefacts specifically relating to the air attacks on Belfast.

The Museum is also hosting a Victory in Europe family-day event on May 9. There’s more information on www.niwarmemorial.org bearing the welcoming invitation to “call in and tell us what you know about the 1945 V.E. Day celebrations.”

In the lead-up to the V.E. Day anniversaries come many WWI centenary commemorations which might be overshadowed by burgeoning election coverage.

On April 22, 2015 the second Battle of Ypres began, marking the first deployment of poison gas by Germany, though the devious weaponry had previously been used unsuccessfully by the Germans west of Warsaw, in what is now Poland.

A century ago on April 25 during the allied landing at Gallipoli 70,000 British, Commonwealth and French troops came under heavy fire.

On ‘Y’ Beach, the most northern landing site on Cape Helles, over 1,200 out of the Allied force of 1,500 men became casualties.

Due to a combination of poor leadership, confusing or non-existent orders and a phenomenon known as ‘straggling’ (where men, lacking instructions simply returned to the beach) ‘Y’ beach was evacuated and it took several weeks and many hundreds of lives to regain it.

And a century ago on our forthcoming polling day, May 7, 1915, the British ocean-liner Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat off the Head of Old Kinsale, Ireland.

At around 2.10 pm a single torpedo hit Lusitania, which tilted over after a massive explosion and sank within minutes.

Of approximately 2,000 on board, over 1,200 perished.

There’ll be more wartime accounts and recollections on this page as these historic anniversaries approach, and if you have any that you’d be willing to share here, please send them to Roamer.

For all of this month the Belfast’s Linen Hall Library joins with the Somme Museum to commemorate the essential role that women played in WWI at home and on the front line.

An entrance-free exhibition in the Library entitled ‘Women and the First World War’ examines the vital part played by women when the men of Ulster marched off to the trenches. Topics covered include women on the front line, notable women of the era and the suffragette movement.

For details visit www.linenhall.com.

Today’s page ends with two more vivid reminders of both world wars.

“I have an R.A.F. New Testament,” W.J. Graham wrote from Ballymena last year when the world was remembering its wars.

“I enclose a photo of the front inside page” he added, “which was signed ‘from grandfather, Beulah Hill’. Would anyone know who ‘grandfather’ was?”

The New Testament, dated September 15, 1939, began with a message from His Majesty King George VI.

“I have also enclosed a photo of a brass box,” Mr Graham’s letter continued, “which was sent to troops in WWI by Princess Mary, daughter of King George V.

‘‘Some of the boxes contained tobacco, cigarettes or chocolate, and a little pencil made out of an empty 303 bullet cartridge.”

It would be wonderful if any News Letter readers could share more information about the WWII New Testaments or the WWI brass boxes - or about any V.E. Day anniversary events in Northern Ireland.