World War I garden calls for support after 70 bags of Flanders soil arrives from Belgium

By Ben Miller | 29 November 2013

Arriving on a Belgian Navy frigate, 70 bags of soil from First World War battlefields will fill a new memorial garden at Wellington Barracks which has been five-and-a-half years in the making

A photo of a procession carrying sandbags through the streets while crowds watch on
Sent off by a procession at The Menin Gate, in Belgium, 70 sandbags of soil have arrived for a memorial garden in London© Crown Copyright 2013. Photo: Sergeant Adrian Harlen
“What you’ve got to understand, and what I really didn’t pick up on…in Belgium, this is huge,” says Andrew Wallis, the Curator of London’s Guards Museum, which is creating the Flanders Field Memorial Garden.

Wallis watched the soil arrive in the company of Nick Vandermarliere, the former representative of the Flemish government in London, and Piet Blanckaert, the Bruges landscape architect who will create the garden.

“The three of us stood there on the quarter-deck of HMS Belfast watching Tower Bridge come up and London coming to a standstill. You think, ‘wow, this is really, really special.’

“This massive frigate comes through and ties up alongside Belfast. Piet said, ‘you Brits, you just don’t get it. You’ve never been invaded, you’ve never had another country tell you how you’re gonna live your life.

“’The fact that Great Britain has repeatedly come to Belgium’s aid and liberated us…we feel such a debt. You don’t get it the way we get it.’ I can see that now, but at the time I didn’t understand.”

A photo of a number of sandbags on a boat
© Crown Copyright 2013. Photo: Sergeant Adrian Harlen
Wallis launched the idea after a reflective discussion with two Belgian friends at the Barracks.

“They said, ‘this rather miserable pond that you have here – you want to get rid of this and create a garden. And wouldn’t it be nice if that garden was a memorial garden, because we in Belgium really feel a great debt to you guys?’”

He calls it “a lightbulb moment”. “But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, understandably, weren’t going to let us take the 500 tonnes of soil it took.” Nevertheless, the sandbag of soil they allowed to be taken from each of the 70 battlefields represents an unprecedented agreement.

“This is the very first time, and we are very, very grateful to them for their co-operation. I really do have to account for every grain of soil – and rightly so, because it is sacred in more ways than one.”

The plan now needs help closer to home. “It’s a £700,000 project and the people of Belgium have already stumped up £420,000,” explains Wallis.

“I think it now behoves the people of Great Britain to perhaps step up and support this project. Otherwise I’m going to have to start taking in washing. Or get a paper round.

“The ceremony is massively important but I really need the corporate world and the public to step up now. I think the concept strikes a chord with people.”

Supporters can text donations, sponsor a sandbag or receive original artworks from the artists whose work will appear in the garden.

“Tomorrow, when the 70 bags are emptied into the central, circular bed, that will just finish it off,” says Wallis.

“And then next year poppies will naturally come up – that, I think, will be a really wonderful moment.

“Naively I said, ‘are we going to have to plant the poppy seeds?’ All the Belgians rolled around laughing.

“They said if you take soil from the battlefield, you’re getting poppies whether you want them or not.”

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A photo of a man in military uniform walking past a crowd
Prince Philip attended the ceremony in Belgium© Crown Copyright 2013. Photo: Sergeant Adrian Harlen
A photo of military officers carrying sandbags on a ship
Soldiers from both countries helped carry the soil© Crown Copyright 2013. Photo: Sergeant Adrian Harlen
A photo of sandbags
Flanders House, in London, is supporting the project© Crown Copyright 2013. Photo: Sergeant Adrian Harlen
A photo of two ships passing under a bridge on a river
The Belgian frigate docked next to HMS Belfast© Crown Copyright 2013. Photo: Sergeant Adrian Harlen
A photo of a large memorial field full of poppies outside a stone house
The garden is expected to officially open on November 9 2014© Crown Copyright 2013. Photo: Sergeant Adrian Harlen
A photo of a war memorial made of stone recording the names of deceased soldiers
The idea will represent a symbolic return for the soldiers who fell in the Fields© Crown Copyright 2013. Photo: Sergeant Adrian Harlen
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