At a dockside ceremony at Cunard Line’s flagship Queen Mary 2 in Southampton today, the final bag of “Sacred Soil” was brought back to the UK. The soil was the last of 70 bags gathered from the First World War cemeteries in Belgium to create a Flanders Field Memorial Garden at The Guards Museum at Wellington Barracks in London.
The final bag of soil was gathered at the Ypres Cemetery. On Sunday 5 October, while the ship was berthed at Zeebrugge by the iconic Menin Gate war memorial, the bag was presented to Captain Kevin Oprey, master of Queen Mary 2, by Mr. Ian Hussein from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The sandbag was then brought aboard and placed on prominent display in the ship’s Grand Lobby for the 2,600 passengers to view. A Commemorative Dinner for all passengers was held on 6 October and Andrew Wallis, curator of the Guards Museum, gave a talk about the project to a packed audience.
The soil was brought ashore today by two Queen Mary 2 cadets and in a moving ceremony, Captain Kevin Oprey presented the sandbag to the Mayor of Southampton, Cllr Sue Blatchford, who is also Admiral of the Port. The soil was transferred from the ship’s care to a stretcher draped in a union jack flag, borne by soldiers of the 17 PM Regiment. The Regiment’s Padre then blessed the soil before the soldiers, in ceremonial dress, marched the stretcher to the bed of an awaiting military vehicle. Under the Regiment’s charge, this special cargo has now progressed through the City of Southampton to the Civic Hall where it will remain overnight, and on display to the public. Its final journey will be tomorrow to Southampton Central station where it will be taken aboard the 1300 hours train to London Waterloo. On arrival there, the soil will take its final resting place at the Guards Museum.
“It is an honour for Queen Mary 2 and Cunard Line to have played a part in bringing this last, special bag of soil home to the UK,” commented Captain Oprey. “Many of our passengers have been moved by the presence of the soil on board and have wanted to pay their respects. Today’s ceremony is a poignant reminder of the bravery and sacrifice made by so many in World War One.”
The delivery of the Sacred Soil by Queen Mary 2 marks the culmination of a project to build a Memorial Garden containing soil brought back from every battlefield in Flanders where soldiers of the seven regiments of the Household Division died during World War 1.
This has been a unique project in that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had previously never allowed soil to leave the battlefield cemeteries. The 70 bags of soil were gathered by British and Belgian school children during the summer of 2013 and over 1,000 children from 140 schools took part, including Upper Shirley High in Southampton. The sandbags are made of hessian to the same design and by the same Flemish company that produced them for the trenches 100 years ago. Her Majesty The Queen will open the Memorial Garden in November.
In attendance today was school teacher Jo Laybourne and her 15-year-old daughter Lizzie, a pupil at Upper Shirley High in Southampton who took part in the collection of soil in Belgium.
“It was very special for Lizzie and Upper Shirley High to have been chosen to take part in this project,” said Ms. Laybourne. “Like so many families, we lost relatives in World War One – my grandfather’s brother died in the Somme one year to the day after he arrived in France, and his two cousins aged 18 and 19 were also killed. Bringing the soil back to the UK is so symbolic of all the people who died on the battlefields and didn’t come home.”
Andrew Wallis, curator of the Guards Museum, said, “We at The Guards Museum are thrilled to have worked with Cunard in transporting this last bag to its final resting place in Wellington Barracks. The sacrifice made by the Guards in The Great War is echoed in the huge losses suffered by Cunard’s crew and passengers so we hope everyone onboard Queen Mary 2 will empathise and share in this act of remembrance and commemoration”.