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Last Updated: Friday, 8 June 2007, 08:52 GMT 09:52 UK
Brothers in arms sacrifice marked

By Ruth McDonald
BBC Newsline

Driving from Brussels, Messines, at first glance, is like any small provincial Belgian town.

The small town square, the neat little church, the narrow streets. Quiet during a weekday morning, with just a handful of locals out for a walk, or running errands.

British troops leap over a trench - pic courtesy National Army Museum
Messines was the first time the Irish and Ulster divisions fought together

But this week Messines has been thrust into the spotlight.

On 7 June 1917, the British Second Army, under the command of General Herbert Plummer, launched the Battle of Messines.

It was one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.

The battle had been months in the planning, and centred around the strategically important Messines Ridge.

It's said that the sound of the mine explosions launched during the Battle of Messines could be heard as far away as Dublin.

More than 40,000 men lost their lives during the fighting.

This weekend Messines plays host to the president of Ireland as a week of commemoration ceremonies draws to a close.

Thursday saw the New Zealanders who lost their lives in that terrible battle remembered at a simple ceremony just outside the town centre.

The beautiful, haunting sound of a Maori song echoed through the cemetery as hundreds gathered to honour the young men who gave their lives, so far from home.

The events in Messines 90 years ago have special resonance in the political landscape in Northern Ireland today.

Side-by-side

Ninety years ago, the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster divisions fought side-by-side to capture the small town of Wystenchaete.

It was the first time the two divisions had fought together. Ninety years on, a conflict resolution centre stands just outside Messines.

It has played host to former paramilitary prisoners from republican and loyalist traditions in the past.

The driving force behind the Messines concept, Glenn Barr, speaks passionately about the work that's gone into the building.

He points to the divided history of Europe, and the reconciliation that's been achieved since the end of the Second World War.

The Messines project has also given birth to a peace centre outside the village.

A grey tower stands, reaching up to the sky.

Stone slabs are laid into the earth, bearing lines of poetry from those who served in the First World War, or simply lines from a letter written from the trenches to a loved one at home.

The centre is strangely calming and peaceful.

Headstones
The graves of unknown Irish soldiers

The tall, thin peace tower dominates the flat landscape all around it.

You think of the ancient round towers of Ireland, part of that country's architectural heritage.

It's odd, but strangely appropriate, to see this structure in the middle of these fields.

As you walk around, you can't help wondering, what must it have been like all those years ago?

When the quiet countryside was turned into the most awful of killing fields; when thousands of young men - the heart of a generation - were slaughtered in their thousands.

For many who fell, there isn't even a marked grave.

Just the words; "Known Only to God" carved into a simple headstone.

But many in Messines hope the town will become a symbol of peace, not war, in years to come.

The Peace Village is now integral to the town.

It's a key part of the living history of Messines.

The international board which runs it wants the village to become, as it puts it, a centre of excellence for the delivery of programmes designed to bring about conflict resolution - not just on the island of Ireland, but all across the world.


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