Crossing the Divide

It’s about time I posted on this blog as it costs money to keep it going. But who reads blogs nowadays – it’s all vlogs, Twitter threads and whatever goes on in the strange lands of TikTok and Instagram?

My thoughts on this blog post stem from the presentation I gave to the Surrey branch of Western Front Association on Wednesday (15th February 2023) about the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines, Belgium. Many of their members had visited the Peace Park, as have no doubt readers of this blog, but they were keen to hear and see, via my PowerPoint slides, the wider story that they had not picked up during their fleeting visit.

My photo

I was fortunate that back in 2008 I was given a photocopy of an illustrated document that detailed the background and events leading to the opening of Peace Park, much of which cannot be discovered by a search of the internet. I’m not going to reproduce my presentation in this blog, but rather ruminate on what I consider to be an oddity of the Peace Park and also a missed opportunity.

Both of these issues relate to individual servicemen of the Great War from the Island of Ireland chosen to be named in the Peace Park. On the only other occasion that I have given a version of this talk (my first one ever back in 2008) I tried the patience of both the audience and myself telling the biographies of the nine men that are named. One soon learns that less is more! In any case, as the ethos of the memorial site is about peace and reconciliation, the individual biographies are of small significance. The nine men are a representative sample; across 10th (Irish) Division, 16th (Irish) Division and 36th (Ulster) Division there are four officers, one NCO, one Private, one war artist, one chaplain and one stretcher bearer who then went into military intelligence.

Having said that, I find it strange that there is nothing in the Peace Park dedicated to the story of Major William Redmond of 16th (Irish) Division and Private John Meeke of 36th (Ulster) Division. Although the overarching message of the Peace Park is not about the Battle of Messines, the reason the site was chosen is because the southern Irish 16th and northern Irish 36th Divisions lived, worked and fought side by side on the Messines Ridge.


Image from Western Front Association

One of the architectural features of the Peace Park is a bronze topped stone with a map depicting the deployment of the two divisions side by side for the battle, during which Major Redmond sustained fairly minor wounds to his wrist and leg. He was attended to by Private Meeke and taken to a Field Ambulance Station of 36th (Ulster) Division where the 53 year old subsequently died from the shock of his wounds. During their preparations, on the field of battle and in the medical environment, differences of north and south, loyalist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant did not matter. No story exemplifies this more than that of Redmond and Meeke (the story is well enough known for there to be plenty of material on the internet, for those who don’t know it).


Private John Meeke (image from Ballymoney Museum)

The other missed opportunity (in my opinion) relates to the nine flat stones, each of which is inscribed with a quote from the named individual. I don’t know how these men and their quotes were chosen and I should imagine it was a difficult and, perhaps, contentious task. Obviously there had to be something in the public domain from which the quotes could be sourced e.g. the Imperial War Museum in London holds an unpublished memoir of Private David Starrett of 36th (Ulster) Division.

My photo

Another of the stones is to a chaplain of 16th (Irish) Division, Fr Francis Gleeson, whose papers have been digitalised by University College Dublin. I have not read any of the documents because I’ve only just discovered they have been digitalised and I wonder if there are any examples in them of the priest reaching out to cross divides? I ask this because one of the main drivers for the establishment of the Peace Park, the late Paddy Harte, a former Teachta Dála of Dáil Éireann, said of another chaplain: “Both Protestant and Catholic alike praised Fr Willie Doyle whose name is chiselled on the Tyne Cot memorial. He did not see soldiers as friend or foe, Catholic or Protestant, but as human beings in need of spiritual aid.”


A more recent addition to the Peace Park than at my last visit. Photo kindly provided by Genevra Charsley (Glen Barr was a community activist from Northern Ireland)

In addition to this, Fr Doyle was also well known for his humour and his positive outlook, even if forced at times, which kept up the morale of the men to whom he ministered. Yet only one of the nine Peace Park stones contains an uplifting quote – that by Terence Poulter relating to the armistice. The other eight stones reference either the miseries of war, or are despairing or melancholy in tone.

My photo and contrary to what I said above I am advised this was chosen by Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association

As Peter Hart and Gary Bain say in their Introduction to their book ‘Laugh or Cry’ “This is a book that looks at the way humour helped the soldiers survive their terrible experiences … ‘You have to laugh or you would cry’ could have been their motto.” Taff Gillingham points out in the Preface “In some cases even their darkest moments had been alleviated with a well-timed quip from a chum … It kept his spirits up at times when others may have given in and plays a vital part in helping us to understand the Army of 1914-18.”

And so, returning to the Peace Park, the quotes chosen there focus on the ‘terrible’ :-

My photo

Here is something uplifting from Fr Doyle.

My photo of portrait in descendants’ family home


“I am writing the same afternoon and the Bosch has begun again his old game, quite spoiling my lunch.  It was all so quiet and peaceful when suddenly a biggish shell came plump down close to where I was writing, sitting.  Three of my lads came tearing in to my dug-out, they had nearly been sent to glory and felt they were safe with the priest.  The poor priest cracks a joke or two, makes them forget their terror, and goes on with his lunch while every morsel sticks in his throat from fear and dread of the next shell.  A moment passes, two – ‘here he comes’ – dead silence and anxious faces for a second and then we all laugh, for it is one of our own shells going over to Fritz, a sort of polite ‘leaving cards.’  Five minutes more and we know all danger has passed, but it has been a memorable day for me, though only one of many such in the past.”

Even had someone suggested it, perhaps this quote was too long to fit on one of the stones, or could not be edited?

I’m going to finish with Paul Smith, who served with 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Unfortunately I do not have a photo of him, only several images from letters he wrote to a resident of Ypres, Dr Caenepeel, whom he met during a visit in 1970. The doctor had asked him for some information about Fr Willie Doyle, SJ, MC. The former Lance Corporal Smith described advancing into Wytschaete when the mines blew up on Messines and that during his recent visit:

“Our coach on our journey brought us through Wytschaete Village. The coach stopped outside a cottage, a lovely lady and her husband were at the door. The lady spoke good English. She asked if any 16th Division amongst us, I was the only one, I showed her my cap badge, Royal Dublin Fusiliers.”

Paul Smith was born in Manchester to an Irish mother and returned there post war, although he often visited Dublin, including to visit the father of the chaplain Willie Doyle. He travelled to Ypres in the Spring of 1970 with the Old Comrades Association of 19th Division. Had he lived in Ireland, no such opportunity would have been available to him.

Half a century on the Peace Park receives regular visitors of all ages from the Island of Ireland.

My photo from a photocopy


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