31 Jul

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

English Online International Newspapers

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Relatives and royals mark WWI Passchendaele centenary

© POOL/AFP / by John THYS | Britain’s Prince Charles saluted the “courage and bravery” of soldiers who fought at Passchendaele, one of World War I’s bloodiest battles, as he joined Belgium’s King Philippe in laying floral tributes to mark the 100th anniversary of the what is also known as the third battle of Ypres


Britain’s Prince Charles hailed the “courage and bravery” of soldiers who fought at Passchendaele as he led thousands of their descendants at centenary tributes for one of World War I’s bloodiest battles.

In a solemn ceremony at the huge Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium, where 11,961 victims of the battle were laid to rest, British and Belgian royals stood side by side to honour those who fell.

Three months of fighting to gain the Flanders village of Passchendaele in horrific muddy conditions claimed around half a million allied and German casualties, for the gain of only a few miles of territory.

“We rememember it not only for the rain that fell, the mud that weighed down the living and swallowed the dead, but also for the courage and bravery of the men who fought here,” a solemn Charles told the ceremony.

“Drawn from many nations, we come together in their resting place… to promise that we will never forget,” the heir to the British throne said, wearing a beige summer suit with a red poppy on his lapel.

Descendants of the combatants also read out solemn tributes to those who died, standing amid the white headstones etched with names from Britain and Commonwealth countries like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

“My great, great uncle and namesake Sergeant William Rhodes, Cheshire Regiment, awarded the distinguished conduct medal, killed in action 31 July 1917, one hundred years ago today,” his descendant said.

– Kate lays wreath –

Charles’s son Prince William gave a short reading, while William’s wife Kate and Belgium’s Queen Mathilde laid flowers on German graves in a symbol of reconciliation.

Between hymns from a Welsh choir and brass bands of red uniformed royal guards wearing tall bearskin hats, British Prime Minister Theresa May — breaking off her three-week summer holiday — read a passage from the Bible honouring the dead.

The hour-long ceremony concluded when four Belgian Air Force F-16 jets roared over the cemetary.

The blue skies and fluffy white clouds drifting over green Flanders fields for Monday’s ceremony stood in stark contrast to the reality of Passchendaele 100 years ago, when heavy rains turned the battlefield into a quagmire.

Sometimes known as the third battle of Ypres, Passchendaele has become synonymous with the bloody trench war stalemate that World War I became.

The battle officially began at 3:50 a.m. on July 31, 1917 with the aim of driving the Germans from the Belgian ports on the English Channel, where German U-boats lurked.

But in the end, the Commonwealth troops advanced only five miles (eight kilometres), albeit weakening German defences.

The commemorations began Sunday evening when Prince William and King Philippe of Belgium laid wreathes at the Menin Gate, the monument which honours the dead of the armies of the British empire.


World Politics

United States

Organizer says unlike 1917 march against Woodrow Wilson’s civil rights failures, this had no demands but adds: ‘I don’t know that we’re in such a different space’

Silent Protest Art March, Bryant Park, New York

In protest at the policies of the Trump administration and threats to various communities in America, artists, activists and community members participated in the solidarity march to bring attention to the marginalized. Photograph: Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

On a July day in 1917, in the face of a presidential administration seen as taking regressive steps on civil rights, nearly 10,000 black Americans walked down Fifth Avenue in New York. Wearing uniform clothing and carrying signs, demanding federal action over the lynchings of black men, they marched in total silence.

A century later, also clad in white, a much smaller group assembled outside Bryant Park on Friday. They were there to commemorate the occasion in a world, attendees said, that did not feel altogether changed.

“It just seems like we’ve gone in a circle,” said Sacha Dent, an educator from the city. “And it’s the same thing with not just things that are like lynchings and close to lynchings but just the hate … everywhere.”

The attendees held portraits of well-known victims of police and vigilante violence – Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice – and of people who lost their lives after traumatic encounters with the criminal justice system, such as Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder.

“I called around and I realized that no one was marking the moment,” said the march organizer, Marsha Reid, “and that seemed astonishing and a little sad to me considering the relevance of the current moment … So I did it.”

The original march was organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the famous civil rights thinker WEB DuBois, a founder of the organization. It was conceived in a direct response to a white race-mob attack in East St Louis in which more than 100 black Americans were killed and another 6,000 had their homes burned to the ground.

According to the NAACP, the 1917 march was the first protest of its kind in New York and the second instance of African Americans publicly demonstrating for civil rights.

On Friday, visitors to the US Google homepage were greeted with a “doodle” commemorating the centennial. The tech giant recently partnered with Equal Justice Initiative for a digital project on lynching.

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Long-distance services could be devastated by budget cuts, and the blow will be especially painful in rural areas that bought the president’s infrastructure pitch

amtrak train

The National Association of Railroad Passengers warned Trump’s proposed budget cuts to Amtrak ‘wipes out funding for long-distance train service in over 220 cities and towns and in 23 states that will lose train service completely”. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The routes have names that evoke glorious Americana and the frontier spirit: the Empire Builder, the Silver Meteor, the Sunset Limited, the Texas Eagle, the Coast Starlight and the California Zephyr.

But a president who ran on a nostalgic promise to “make America great again” appears to have little interest in reviving once mighty railroads that stood as symbols of American capitalist ambition in the era of the robber barons.

While he has touted a $1tn investment plan for America’s infrastructure – which so far shows few signs of materialising – the president’s proposed budget included $630m in cuts for Amtrak that would devastate long-distance services.

An advocacy group, the National Association of Railroad Passengers (Narp), warned the budget “wipes out funding for long-distance train service in over 220 cities and towns and in 23 states that will lose train service completely”. Almost all those states are in the middle of the country and voted for Trump. Most of the stations said to be at risk are in rural areas.

Narp launched a “Rally for Trains” campaign that saw events last month across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to Miami, Florida, via Wausau, Wisconsin.

One rally was in Alpine, a west Texas town of about 6,000 people in Brewster County – an area bigger than Connecticut that gave 53% of its votes to Trump in the 2016 presidential election. A Trump-Pence Make America Great Again poster is fixed to a balcony above a store opposite the station along one of Alpine’s main drags, which could pass for a western film set but for a Thai food truck.

Inside the smart waiting room – which has a mural of a ticket office window in lieu of an actual ticket office – Gwynne Jamieson wielded a placard that read: “Trump promised more infrastructure, we get less? Save Alpine’s Amtrak!”

A sprightly 71-year-old with a background in marketing, Jamieson fell in love with trains on long trips through her native Canada. She moved to Alpine three and a half years ago, from Massachusetts. Now she leads the local effort to save the station, arranging rallies and letter-writing campaigns. “Passenger service to me is everything,” she said.

Owing its existence to the arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad in 1882, Alpine is a gateway to Big Bend national park and the hipster haven of Marfa.

The next nearest Amtrak station, Sanderson, is 85 miles away. The loss of a service used by about 5,000 people a year, Jamieson said, would be a grievous blow for local people and tourists. A woman sitting on a bench was waiting to pick up passengers arriving from Los Angeles for the Marfa film festival.

Here, bus service to major cities is infrequent and indirect and the nearest commercial airports are three or four hours away. So the train is a valuable option, even if it does take 14 hours and 25 minutes to traverse the 596 miles from Alpine to Houston – five or six hours slower than in a car.

“That’s a long drive. Amtrak was just the perfect thing for me; you could sleep, you could read,” said Chris Sweeney, 61, who spent two years commuting from Houston to Alpine by train. “Riding trains, there’s something kind of romantic about it. You get to see stuff you wouldn’t see if you were flying or driving.”

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‘I died in hell’: sacrifice of war dead remembered at Passchendaele

Centenary of Passchendaele battle, synonymous with the horrors of the first world war, marked by 54,000 blood-red poppies falling from the Menin Gate

As the sun went down on Ypres on Sunday, the shale grey stone floor of the old Belgian town’s Menin Gate, the world’s first memorial to those who fell but who were never found during the first world war, was slowly covered by more than 54,000 blood-red poppies falling from its high arch. There was a paper flower for each name engraved upon the vast gate.

A crowd numbering in the thousands, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Theresa May and the King and Queen of Belgium, Philippe and Mathilde, watched as the poppies drifted down in the still evening air. The young voices of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, standing below the gate’s 14-metre-high ceiling, sang the Ypres hymn: “O valiant hearts who to your glory came, / Through dust of conflict and through battle flame; / Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved; / Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.”

Poppies are released from the Menin Gate at the end of the wreath laying ceremony during commemorations marking the centenary of Passchendale.

Poppies are released from the Menin Gate at the end of the wreath laying ceremony during commemorations marking the centenary of Passchendale. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

More than 800,000 soldiers on both sides of the war died in the blood and mud of the Ypres salient between 1914 and 1918. Many marched on the so-called Menin road, on which the gate built in 1927 now stands, from Ypres town to the front lines. Still today, the remains of dozens of men are found every year in Flanders fields, identified initially by the colouring and markings of the boots in which they died.

Of the three major battles in Ypres, however, it is the third and final, whose centenary will pass in the early hours of Monday, that bears the greatest infamy. “I died in hell – they called it Passchendaele,” the soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote of the carnage that raged from 31 July until 10 November 1917. Perhaps the first world war battle that is today most sharp in the collective British consciousness is the Somme, but at the time it was this battle, and this place, that was synonymous with the hopelessness and horror of what was playing out on foreign fields.

So it is, in this centenary period, that among the many battles and places, Passchendaele, and Ypres, have followed Gallipoli and the Somme, in being conferred by the British government with what is likely to be a last great act of remembrance, certainly in the presence of the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews of those who fought.

In his speech, Prince William echoed the words of Winston Churchill, who in 1919 said of Ypres: “A more sacred place for the British does not exist in the world.” William added: “During the first world war Britain and Belgium stood shoulder to shoulder. One hundred years on, we still stand together, gathering as so many do every night, in remembrance of that sacrifice.”

(LtoR) Queen Mathilde of Belgium, King Philippe of Belgium and West-Flanders province governor Carl Decaluw.

(LtoR) Queen Mathilde of Belgium, King Philippe of Belgium and West-Flanders province governor Carl Decaluw. Photograph: Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty Images

One of the direct descendants who gathered in Ypres, Mike Copland, 70 – whose father, Bill, signed up when he was 15, fought, survived, and went on to be a commando at the age of 40 in the second world war – said he dearly hoped the names of Ypres and Passchendaele would continue to mean something to the next generation. “It is not about glorifying it,” he said, standing next to his son Chris, 43, and grandson William, 7. “But there are too many people who look blank at you when you mention these names. It should trigger something. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Copland said he feared that those lessons were being lost. “We have had 70 years without major war,” he said. “I just hope we remember that we need to work together in Europe. My father never spoke about it. He died at the age of 80 in 1979. I don’t think he ever came here, not with us, anyway. It’s important we are here.”

Sunday evening’s ceremony, attended by 19 representatives of nations that shed blood on the salient, including Australia, Canada, India and South Africa, had started with the traditional heralding of the Last Post. In a gesture repeated every evening since 1928, bar a period of occupation during the second world war, the local buglers sounded their lament to those who were lost. In a sign of today’s troubled times, snipers could be seen, however, sat on top of the gate watching down.

Following William’s words, King Philippe, addressed the crowds to reflect on the sacrifices made and the significance of Ypres – Ieper to the Belgians, and “Wipers” to the British and Commonwealth soldiers – before a reading from Benoit Mottrie, the chairman of the Last Post association, the group of volunteers keeping the ritual going.

As the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Irish Regiment, led by Pipe Major, Nicholas Colwell, played, wreaths were then laid side by side by King Philippe and William, followed by Theresa May and the Belgian defence minister, Steven Vandeput. A tribute on the prime minister’s read: “With profound gratitude and respect, we remember the service of those who served on the Ypres salient.”

Later in the evening, under clouds tinted red by the last of the sun, the British and Belgian royals joined 6,000 or more in the market square for a spectacular show broadcast live on BBC.

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