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Albert the Peacemaker

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BerichtGeplaatst: 27 Jan 2010 0:29    Onderwerp: Albert the Peacemaker Reageer met quote

Albert the Peacemaker

To Albert, everyone who came to visit his church was a ‘dear friend’. Over two decades he greeted thousands of travellers, historians, families and pilgrims, all seeking knowledge about this tiny corner of Belgium and its crucial roll in the Great War.

Albert Ghekiere was the curator of the little church in Messines, the ‘smallest town of Belgium’, he would tell us. Messines is a few miles from the town of Ieper, once called Ypres, and known to the British soldiers of WWI as Wipers – a place that haunted a generation. Ypres stood at the northernmost end of the huge line of trenches called the Western Front – 400 miles of mud and barbed wire that stretched from Belgium in the north, down through France, and ending in the south at the Swiss border.

When the German army’s audacious Schlieffen plan failed to capture France in August 1914, the opposing armies dug in, and four years of near-stalemate was the result, punctuated by disastrous attempts to break through the line. Ypres held the key – it was all that stood between the German army and the Channel ports, and the British were sworn to defend Ypres at any cost. That cost was almost impossibly high.

Albert himself was absolutely uninterested in the tactics and strategies of the war, but he would explain in his broken English that at the end of the 18th century, the French Revolutionaries ‘made guns with ours bells’. The church tower had been stripped of its carillon, and the huge medieval iron bells were melted down, leaving Messines church tower silent for 200 years. In the 1980s, Albert decided that he would like to make a new set of bells, one that would symbolise peace, and he set about contacting anyone he thought could help him, including the Pope. Many in the church authorities thought he was crackers, but in Albert’s own words, ‘I am mad, but I am not dangerous’.

Almost single-handedly, Albert raised money for a new set of bells, and the contributions still pour in from all over the world

The tower at Messines church has a stone spiral staircase that leads to the wooden rafters where the bells hang. Each one has an inscription or a dedication, and they ring out folk tunes every 15 minutes, as well as being activated by a keyboard down in the church. You touch the keys, the bells ring. A narrow wooden stair takes you above the bells, through a hatch, and up into the highest part of the church tower, where a stunning panorama stretches out before you. A few miles away stand the spires of Ypres. Just a field’s distance in the other direction is Ploegsteert Wood, called Plugstreet by the soldiers, scene of the famous Christmas truce in 1914 when troops of both sides met in No-Man’s-Land, exchanged gifts, shared food and drink, and even kicked a football around. Here and there across the flat landscape you can make out a gleam of white stone – indication of one of the many Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries that dot the countryside. Away to the north, the tiny village of Passchendaele, whose battle came to symbolise every horror of trench warfare and muddy, bloody, desperate death.

The town of Messines itself sits on a low ridge that had strategic importance during the war. The Germans held it, and to capture the ridge, the British resorted to digging tunnels and laying huge explosive mines. On 7 June 1917, 19 of the 21 mines exploded, ripping the top off the Messines Ridge and killing thousands. (Of the remaining 2 mines, one exploded in 1955 and killed a cow; the other has never been located). General Plumer said before the attack: ‘Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.’

Albert explained how Messines church was shelled and the tower destroyed, but that the crypt survived and was used by the German army as a field hospital. One of the many thousands of casualties treated there was a young corporal Hitler, who later painted a watercolour of the area which he sent home. Albert went on to say that he himself spoke a little of many languages: French, German, Dutch, English and more, because he was firmly of the opinion that if we could communicate better with one another, we could ensure an end to war. Albert believed that nothing was impossible, and remained resolutely optimistic until the day of his death in 2003.

To visit the battlefields of the Ypres Salient is to experience a hundred different emotions. There are a thousand stories of personal heroism and a million meaningless deaths – every field seems to have a cemetery; row upon row of white headstones. It is said that of all the British soldiers who died in the whole of the war, 1 in 4 of them died defending the city of Ypres. Not for nothing is it known as the Graveyard of the British Army. Amidst the echoes of ‘Tipperary’, surrounded by the gentle green of the Belgian countryside, and just a stone’s throw from some of the bloodiest battlefields the world has ever seen, there stands a small town that has become a place of peace and reconciliation. The Peace Carillon of Messines, Albert Ghekiere’s legacy, rings out every quarter of an hour, and every person who met Albert and heard about his vision will remember his voice: ‘Be optimist, dear friends. Nothing is impossible’.
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