WWI looms large at Ypres EU summit

June 26, 2014
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File picture shows headstones at a WWI cemetery in the Belgian town of Ypres/AFP
File picture shows headstones at a WWI cemetery in the Belgian town of Ypres/AFP

, YPRES, June 26- A scene of carnage in World War I, the small Belgian town of Ypres is a warning written in blood for EU leaders Thursday of what happens when statesmen fail to preserve the peace.

It was here that modern industrial warfare revealed its true horror, with the Germans first in 1915 to use poisonous mustard gas, dubbed ‘Yperite,’ which burned and blinded its victims.

The Allied powers soon responded in kind.

Now a bustling, busy place, Ypres and its proud medieval cloth hall were reduced to rubble by incessant German shelling.

Through the wreckage, hundreds of thousands of mostly British troops marched to the Menin Road and the trenches a couple of miles (kilometres) distant.

The only thing left intact was the town’s massive ramparts, built by French King Louis XIV’s great military architect Vauban to create killing grounds no one could survive.

Now used by joggers or families out for a picnic or walk, they are a reminder of the endless European wars fought here over hundreds of years between French and Spanish, Germans and English in ever changing alliances.

The symbolic centrepiece of Thursday’s EU summit, hosted by European Council head Herman Van Rompuy, is the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, the imposing monument which honours the dead of the armies of the British empire “who stood here and who have no known grave.”

Some 55,000 names are inscribed on its great limestone walls, where visitors leave small wooden crosses adorned with a red poppy, or a wreath and a few words of gratitude and comfort, 100 years later.

“It will be a moving ceremony because we are here testifying what Europe is — a project of peace, a project of solidarity, a project of cooperation,” Van Rompuy said recently.

The endless rollcall of names is sobering in the silence of the crowd as four members of the Ypres fire brigade play the Last Post, the lament for the dead, under its echoing arches.

First begun as a gesture of thanks to the allies by the town in 1928, the ceremony has continued every night since, except during World War II — yet another conflict whose dead lie here.

There are many emotions — pride in the soldiers’ sacrifice, anger at the waste of their young lives, determination to prevent a repeat, a weariness that nothing changes and never will.

– Europe a ‘model of peace’ –

“We are not perfect but for many people outside Europe we are still a model of peace, of democracy, of prosperity,” Van Rompuy said.

It was two years ago in 2012 that Van Rompuy accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU for turning Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”

When beset by one crisis after another, he has always stressed how the 28-nation bloc has helped keep the blight of war at bay.

Ypres, painstakingly rebuilt after the war, is surrounded by fields pockmarked with brutal, crude concrete bunkers and cemeteries, the most telling at Tyne Cot on the road to the small village of Passchendaele.

Scene of another bloodbath in 1917 and whose name eerily echoes in English the word ‘passion,’ the crucifixion of Christ, it records thousands of British Commonwealth soldiers killed on the gentle incline up to the village.

There are some 11,000 graves, row after row of simple white stones engraved with the name of the soldiers, their regiments and date of death.

Many are for a “Soldier known unto God,” while 35,000 names, of those who disappeared without trace in the Flanders mud, are inscribed on stone panels.

Tyne Cot, however, only counts a small fraction of the total casualties, put at some 245,000 British dead and wounded and perhaps 270,000 for the Germans in this single battle.

“We came to see the waste of war,” one British man said. “But we are also grateful for the fact that (the young soldiers) were prepared to come here, to do this.”

“For me, this is so overwhelming — the numbers that came here and died. This proves how useless the war was,” said Belgian schoolteacher Els Chalmet as she led a group of pupils visiting Tyne Cot.

After the Last Post ceremony, the EU leaders meet over dinner in Ypres’ cloth hall, before returning to Brussels and hard-nosed bargaining over the bloc’s future direction and leadership.

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