Sacred soil from Flanders for WWI garden in London

Summary

Sandbags full of earth from Flanders' military cemeteries are to be shipped to London, where it will be an integral part of a memorial garden near Buckingham Palace.

Garden represents return of British soldiers

In the Cloth Hall of Ypres, 70 sandbags lie piled up. It’s nothing to do with an imminent flood: The bags contain earth from several British military cemeteries in Belgium and are intended for a memorial garden in London.

On each of the brown jute bags a name has been written, indicating the cemetery where the earth comes from, next to a picture of a poppy. Most of these names refer to places in the Westhoek area of West Flanders, known as Flanders Fields. The “sacred soil” has been collected by local schoolchildren and brought together in the Cloth Hall, also home to the In Flanders Fields museum.

The sandbags are to be shipped to London, where the earth will be part of a memorial garden at the Wellington Barracks near Buckingham Palace. The garden, an initiative of the Guards Museum with support from Flanders House in London, should be ready next year for the commemoration of 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. On November 8, it will be inaugurated in the presence of members of the Belgian and British royal families.

The design of the garden – intended to be a quiet place of reflection and contemplation – is full of symbolism. The first level of soil takes the form of a rectangle that refers to the cemeteries and symbolises death. On top of it is a circular soil bed, representing eternity as a victory over death. The circular shape also refers to the opening in the roof of the Menin Gate in Ypres, the most famous monument of Flanders Fields, from which every year on 11 November poppies rain down.

Sacred soil

On the white stone wall of the circle, the poem “In Flanders Fields” will be engraved, as well as the names of several British regiments that fought in the Great War. “The sacred soil from Flanders Fields will end up in the central circle of the garden,” says Andrew Walles, curator of the Guard Museum and one of the British promoters behind the project. “In this way, the circle becomes a final resting place for the earth, a symbolic return of the soldiers who died on the Fields.”

The historical bonds between Great Britain and Belgium are unique

- Kris Peeters

The soil from Flanders Fields – “Sacred soil,” according to Andrew Wallis, curator of the Guards Museum and one of the driving forces behind the idea of the garden, was collected by children from 70 schools in Belgium and the UK. The children will also write texts which will be included in the garden, and in a book to be kept in the nearby Guards Museum. 

The London garden is the first of its kind, but there are plans to set up similar memorial gardens in France, Germany, New Zealand and Canada as part of the Flemish government’s commemoration of the 1914-18 war.  Flanders’ minister-president, Kris Peeters, took part in a ceremony in Ypres last week, when the sandbags were presented. “This is one of the strongest signals, because it’s really moving when you see those 70 sandbags in all their symbolic importance,” he said. “The historical bonds between Great Britain and Belgium, in particular the battlefields and cemeteries in Flanders, are unique. That is why I consider it important that our first memorial garden is created in London.”

The Memorial Garden was designed by Bruges landscape architect Piet Blankaert, whose aim is to evoke the simple character of the military cemeteries. “The Memorial Garden is simple by its design, a representation of the graveyards in Flanders Fields brought to London,” he said.