In Remembrance week, one hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, two Royal heads of state joined in remembrance and thanks at the opening of a commemorative garden at Wellington Barracks in London.
The Flanders’ Fields Memorial Garden has been created with soil taken from the 70 battlefields and FWW Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries in Flanders where so many millions had died in the Great War. This "sacred soil" was gathered in unprecedented ceremonies, with the support of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, by Belgian and British school children, several of whom attended today’s opening event.
To the accompaniment of music from the Band of the Grenadier Guards and the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry, a service of dedication was held at the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain; His Majesty Philippe, The King of the Belgians; His Royal Highness Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh; and His Royal Highness Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge.
A string quartet from the Yehudi Menuhin School played a piece of music specially written for the occasion entitled “No One Won”.
Following prayers, Her Majesty The Queen, and the King of the Belgians, laid wreaths in the garden, followed by wreath laying by representatives of the seven Guards Regiments of the Household Division.
Immediately after the ceremony, the Major General of the Household Division, Major General Edward Smyth-Osbourne, escorted the Royal party into the narthex of the Guards Chapel where they received gifts including a reliquary of soil taken from each of the 70 cemeteries. They also met 30 of the key supporters of the garden project.
After the departure of Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, The King of the Belgians attended a reception on the Wellington Barracks forecourt for 300 guests, all of whom have donated their time or money to the creation of this special memorial garden.
The Flanders Fields memorial garden has been created in London at Wellington Barracks adjacent to Buckingham Palace. Designed by a Belgian architect, Piet Blanckaert, it is inspired by the design of the First World War Memorials and carries the insignia of all the seven Guards Regiments who sacrificed so much on the battlefields of Flanders. During the course of the war they were awarded 25 VCs and 16,000 soldiers from the Household Division lay dead now buried in the 70 cemeteries of Flanders or remembered on the walls of the Menin Gate in Ypres.
Major General Edward Smyth-Osbourne, the General Officer Commanding the Household Division and Headquarters London District, said: "The Guards fought in almost every battle of the First World War. This memorial garden stands proud testament to their achievements in what Winston Churchill called ‘the World Crisis’, and is testament to the traditions that we all strive to live up to today”.
The design of the garden – intended to be a quiet place of reflection and contemplation – is full of symbolism. The first level of soil takes the form of a rectangle that refers to the cemeteries and symbolises death. On top of it is a circular soil bed, representing eternity as a victory over death. The circular shape also refers to the opening in the roof of the Menin Gate in Ypres, from which every year on 11 November poppies rain down. The central circular bed of the garden holds the sacred soil and is inscribed with the words of John McCrae’s famous poem: “In Flanders’ Fields”. In this way, the circle is a final resting place for the earth, a symbolic return of the soldiers who died on the Fields. The garden also has trees indigenous to the battlefields of Flanders.
On Armistice Day last year, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH Prince Laurent of Belgium joined British and Belgian soldiers, and school children from both nations to gather for a special Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres. In scenes that conjured images from a hundred years ago, the F Troop Gun Carriage of the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery was laden with 70 First World War style sandbags, each filled with soil from a specific cemetery. The Menin Gate is the official Memorial to the Missing dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient and whose final resting place is unknown. The Gun Carriage with its precious cargo then began a journey that those millions lost could never make: the journey home.
Combined with the Guards Museum and Guards Chapel, the new public access venue at Wellington Barracks will provide a rewarding experience for people in Britain who may be unable to make the journey to the battlefields themselves.
The Memorial Garden ‘Flanders Fields 1914-2014’ is an initiative of The Guards Museum and supported by Flanders House in London. The Belgian people hope it will be a unique opportunity not only to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Great War but also to thank the British people for coming to their aid and for the sacrifices made in liberating their country.
The First World War, also known as the Great War, was the first international conflict on a global scale. Millions of soldiers and civilians from no less than 50 countries lost their lives. All over the world, the name ‘Flanders Fields’ has come to be associated with unprecedented human suffering and material destruction.
Guards Museum Curator Andrew Wallis said: ”If you would like to help us raise the funds for the upkeep of this powerful commemorative memorial or find out more, please go to the project website where you can find a number of ways in which you can get involved: www.flandersfieldappeal.com “
The Garden will be open to the public daily from 10am – 4pm.