THE DUKE OF CAMBRIDGE marked the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into the First World War at an international commemoration service in Belgium yesterday, saying: “We were enemies more than once in the last century, and today we are friends and allies.”
William saluted those who died in the Great War as he addressed the first of a series of events in Belgium attended by heads of state including German president Joachim Gauck.
Delivering a speech in Liege, he said that war between the nations, which claimed the lives of millions between 1914 and 1918, including 750,000 British and Commonwealth troops, was now “unthinkable”.
But he warned that recent events in Ukraine were testament to the fact that “instability continues to stalk our continent”. William was joined by wife Kate at the Allies’ Memorial at Cointe. The duchess, who wore a cream coat dress and pale hat, was seen chatting to French president Francois Hollande before the ceremony started.
Ireland’s president, Michael D Higgins, and Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde also attended.
William told the guests: “These trenches have left an indelible scar on your land – they speak of the horrors of war but also of your forebears’ courage.
“That courage was shown not just by your armed forces but by your civilian populations. I know that in the coming months, you will be commemorating the massacre at Dinan and the burning of the great library at Leuven.
“Many nations here today, the United Kingdom among them, owe you a great debt of gratitude for your fortitude and resistance.”
He went on: “The peace that we here enjoy together as allies and partners does not simply mean no more bloodshed – it means something deeper than that. The fact that the presidents of Germany and Austria are here today, and that other nations – then enemies – are here too, bears testimony to the power of reconciliation.
“Not only is war between us unthinkable, but former adversaries have worked together for three generations to spread and entrench democracy, prosperity and the rule of law across Europe, and to promote our shared values around the world. We were enemies more than once in the last century, and today we are friends and allies. We salute those who died to give us our freedom. We will remember them.”
As part of the ceremony, a 10-year-old girl released a white balloon as a sign of peace and reconciliation. At the same time, thousands of other balloons in the colours of the flags of the countries invited to the commemoration were also released.
President Gauck said it was “unjustifiable” for Germany to have invaded Belgium, adding that nationalism “bonded almost everyone’s hearts and minds”. He added: “We are grateful to have been able to live together with peace for so long in Europe.”
Many British military personnel travelled to Belgium to mark the centenary, and spoke of their pride at commemorating their predecessors.
Flight Lieutenant Gavin Brockie and his cousin, Chief Petty Officer Michael Last, attended a ceremony in memory of their great-grandfather, Corporal Walter George Last, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, who was killed in action on 23 August, 1914 and is buried at the cemetery.
Flt Lt Brockie said: “Today was a family pilgrimage to the grave of my great-grandfather, Corporal Last, who is buried at St Symphorien.
“To be here in uniform, on the day of the Centenary of the start of the First World War, is an absolute honour, and one I won’t ever forget.”
Sergeant Sean Jones, of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, who was awarded the Military Cross after showing “unflinching courage” in Afghanistan, said: “It’s a moment of great pride, all these guys from our forebear regiments, mine especially, they died here, and it’s our chance to read or have something to do in their honour.”
The 27-year-old, from Shrewsbury, Shropshire, introduced a reading penned by Lance Corporal Frank Agger, who is buried in the cemetery and was in the Middlesex regiment, one of Sgt Jones’ own regiment’s forebear regiments.
He said: “World War One was brutal, we don’t go in trenches and it isn’t the case you blow a whistle and we get up and off you go.”
Second Lieutenant Luke Sheaf, from the Royal Anglian Regiment, read a diary extract from an anonymous British officer, dated 1919, at the ceremony.
The 26-year-old, from Eynsford, Kent, said: “The chance of being involved in something with this much grandeur is probably not going to happen again in my time in the army.”