When Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 arrives in Southampton on Wednesday October 8, she will bring home a very special cargo item – the final sandbag to make the journey from the First World War cemeteries in Belgium, containing soil from those cemeteries to create a Flanders Field Memorial Garden.
The arrival of this special cargo, and its subsequent onward journey to The Guards Museum in London, marks the culmination of a project begun several years ago when the idea first formed 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 in World War 1.
This project has been unique in that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had previously never allowed soil to leave the battlefield cemeteries. Furthermore, the 70 sandbags were gathered by British and Belgian school children during the summer of 2013, and over 1,000 children from 140 schools took part. His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh and His Royal Highness Prince Laurent of the Belgians attended a ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres on 11 November 2013 when the sandbags of soil were brought together for the journey to England. That journey took place on a frigate from Belgium to the Thames. The sandbags were then moved on to a King's Troop RHA gun carriage with a mounted escort accompanying it to its final resting place in Wellington Barracks. Her Majesty The Queen will open the Flanders Field Memorial Garden in November.
The final sandbag of soil will be taken from the Ypres Cemetery and, under the iconic Menin Gate, will be presented to Captain Kevin Oprey, Master of Queen Mary 2, prior to being taken aboard the ship in Zeebrugge on 5 October where it will be on prominent display for the ship’s 2,600 passengers. A Commemorative Dinner for all passengers will be held on 6 October and Andrew Wallis, curator of the Guards Museum, will give a lecture about this project.
“We at The Guards Museum are thrilled to be working with Cunard in transporting this last bag to its final resting place in Wellington Barracks,” said Wallis. “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 on board Queen Mary 2 will empathise and share in this act of remembrance and commemoration.”
After being saluted by fireboats on arrival in Southampton on 8 October, Captain Oprey will present the sandbag to the Mayor of Southampton, who is also Admiral of the Port. Soldiers, the Padre and military vehicles from 17 PM Regiment will welcome the soil home. They will then take charge of the sandbag and progress it through the City of Southampton to the Civic Hall, where it will remain overnight and on display to the public before its final journey the next day to Southampton Central station where it will take the 1300 hours departure to London Waterloo. Upon arrival there, the sandbag will be taken to its final resting place at the Guards Museum and the Memorial Garden.
David Dingle, chairman of Cunard Line, commented, “We are honoured to play a small role in such a worthwhile and thought-provoking project. The centenary of the start of the First World War was a time for all of us at Cunard to reflect on the sacrifices of that immensely brave and selfless generation as well as remember the 20 ships Cunard itself lost due to enemy action in that awful conflict. We will remember them.”