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Commemorations held to mark Great War centenaries

Posted on: August 1, 2017 1:20 PM
The Band of the Welsh Guards and the Central Band of the RAF at Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Ypres in Belgium.
Photo Credit: UK Ministry of Defence

A number of events have taken place to mark the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. The Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began on 31 July 1917. It lasted for more than three months, coming to an end on 10 November. In that time, some 275,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel and around 200,000 Germans were killed – although some accounts put death toll much higher. Many bodies were consumed by the mud of the battlefields.

At Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Ypres, 35,000 military personnel are commemorated on a memorial wall; and the cemetery houses some 12,000 graves. Yesterday (Monday), the King and Queen of Belgians, joined the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the British Prime Minister Theresa May, the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, and other dignitaries for a commemoration service at the cemetery.

During the commemoration, letters from German and Allied troops and local civilians at the time of the battle were read out. Hymns were sung and prayers were said by the senior Royal Navy chaplain the Ven Ian Wheatley, Chaplain to the Fleet.

Later, in the afternoon, the Prince of Wales joined other dignitaries at a Welsh National Service of Remembrance in Langemark, Flanders. During the service, the Senior Bishop of the Church in Wales, the Rt Revd John Davies, Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, blessed a new memorial featuring seven stones, donated from a quarry in Pontypridd. The seven stones feature the cap badges of the five Welsh Regiments and two Welsh Divisions who took part in the battle.

A service was also held in England, at the National Memorial Arboretum near Lichfield in Staffordshire, which houses the national Armed Forces Memorial.

Elsewhere, Christian charity the Sailors Society laid a wreath in Portsmouth Harbour, on the south coast of England, to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the SS Belgian Prince in the Atlantic Ocean by a German submarine. After being torpedoed, the crew took to lifeboats, which were captured and then destroyed by the crew of the German submarine. Some 38 people were killed after being told to stand on the submarine which then submerged. The Captain of the SS Belgian prince, Harry Hassan, was taken on board the U-boat and was never seen again. He was later declared dead by a British court.

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The chief executive of the Sailors’ Society, Stuart Rivers, lays a wreath to commemorate the crew of the SS Belgium Prince.
Photo: The Sailors’ Society

There were only three survivors. They were taken to Londonderry in Northern Ireland and cared for by the then-named British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, which had opened a Sailors’ Rest in the city.

“This horrific event is one of the many examples of merchant seafarers paying the ultimate sacrifice to keep supply chains open during times of conflict, chief executive of the now-named Sailors’ Society, Stuart Rivers, said. “A century on, Sailors’ Society is still supporting the world’s merchant seafarers through crises such as piracy, kidnapping and abandonment.”

The German commander, Wilhelm Werner, was sought by the Allies for War Crimes for this and other atrocities, including the murder of the crew of the SS Torrington. He escaped to Brazil before returning to Germany where he served on the personal staff of Heinrich Himmler during the Second World War. He died in 1945.

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Two of the three survivors of the SS Belgium Prince.
Photo: The Sailors’ Society

Meanwhile, Britain’s Royal Mail have issued a postage stamp featuring the life-saving Bible of Private Lemuel Thomas Rees. Rees served with the 6th Battalion of the South Wales Borderers Regiment. During the Battle of Passchendaele, a German shell landed close by, throwing shrapnel through the air. Rees was seriously injured by the explosion, but his life was saved when a Sunday School Bible he had been given years earlier, and which he kept in his breast pocket, stopped shrapnel from piercing his heart. After four months in a field hospital he was repatriated back to the UK. But it wasn’t a happy ending for Rees. After returning to the Western Front, he was wounded in a gas attack and died from bronchial pneumonia and the effects of gas on 13 November 1918 – two days after the Armistice had been signed.

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A British postage stamp featuring the life-saving Bible of Private Lemuel Thomas Rees.
Photo: The Royal Mail

The new stamp is one of a series of commemorative stamps issued by the Royal Mail to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War. With a cover price of £1.57, the stamp is likely to be used only on larger mail items and parcels.