Flanders House holds annual memorial service at Manhattan’s DeWitt Clinton Park

Posted on centenarynews.com on 02 June 2014
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Dr. Jillian Davidson writes for Centenary News about Flanders House's annual memorial service at the Clinton War Memorial.

On May 29th, designated by Mayor de Blasio as Flanders Fields Memorial Day in N.Y.C., Flanders House convened the annual memorial service at Manhattan’s DeWitt Clinton Park. Gathered around the Clinton War Memorial, also known as the “In Flanders Fields Doughboy”, were active-duty servicemen, veterans, veteran advocates, government representatives, foreign dignitaries, WWI commemorators and local guests. The ceremony was hosted by Kris Dierckx, Representative of the Government of Flanders and organized by Nicolas Polet, Director of Communications and Public Affairs at Flanders House.

Flanders Field Cemetery

In significant ways, the memorial service mirrored President Obama’s visit of earlier this year to the Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in the Flemish town of Waregem. Themes of remembrance, gratitude, friendship, unity, continuity and peace connected the two events. 

In March, in Waregem, President Obama had thanked the staff of Flanders Field Cemetery and the people of Belgium for their devotion in watching over the 368 American soldiers who died fighting in Flanders’ fields during World War One. 

As he stood on Waregem’s hallowed ground, a testament to the sacrifice which the American soldiers had made in France and Belgium, he recalled the courage of brave little Belgium and reaffirmed the lasting bonds between the two countries and their binding commitment to peace. “The lessons of that war speak to us still: our nations are part of an international effort to destroy serious chemical weapons, the same kinds of weapons that were used to such devastating effect on these very fields.” 

President Obama then quoted from John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Field,” and in particular his plea that future generations not break faith with those who sleep in Flanders field. Responding himself to that plea, Obama assured, “What I’ve seen in Flanders fields will stay with me always. To all who sleep here, we can say we caught the torch, we kept the faith, and Americans and Belgians will always stand together for freedom, for dignity, and for the triumph of the human spirit.”

Commemoration

At the Flanders House Memorial Day commemoration in Manhattan, Kris Dierckx referred to Obama’s visit to Waregem and spoke of very similar issues and concerns in his opening remarks. “Memorial Day has always been a day of unity – a time to come together in remembrance of our fallen heroes from past and present and to honor and support their loved ones whose lives have been altered forever.” 

As part of the centennial of the First World War, Mr. Dierckx reaffirmed his government’s commitment to honor the victims of one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. “It is our explicit ambition to establish a humanitarian and internationally oriented project, which we wish to associate with the message of peace.”

William Castro, Manhattan Borough Commissioner for New York City’s Parks and Recreation, then thanked the Government of Flanders for its generous seven-year sponsorship program of the Clinton Park and statue. He explained how the local community had wanted a permanent reminder of the soldiers who never returned and so erected the statue in 1929, at the time of the depression. He pledged the city’s commitment to try and instill the historic and cultural importance of the war in younger generations. The statue is to serve as “an active reminder that’s never-changing in this ever-changing city.” 

Jean-Daniel Noland, former chair of Community Board 4, pointed across the street from the park to the tenement building built in 1911. The newly arrived immigrants of this neighborhood, he explained, served and died in Europe. “We honor their memory” and, thanks to the generous gift from the Government of Flanders to adopt and care for the statue garden, “we will not forget our history.”

Lieutenant Colonel Brian Marshall, executive officer of the 106th Regiment, U.S. Army and NY National Guard, paraphrased from the 2013 Memorial Day speech given by the former US ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman. “We will never know why those American soldiers came to Europe, but as Gutman so eloquently put it in 2013, we stand together with so many others, we stand together in love of freedom, of democracy, of peace and of prosperity for all.”  

"Remembering our loss"
 
Ryan Hegg, deputy director of the United War Veterans Council, took the opportunity to remember the people of Flanders, the men and women who for four years saw their home become a battleground. “We are honored and privileged that they are part of remembering our loss as well.”  

Two members of the U.S. WWI Centennial Commission were present at the ceremony: Edwin Fountain and Jim Whitfield. Edwin Fountain thanked Flanders House for showing respects to American servicemen. He acknowledged that the ties of friendship between America and Flanders had been forged in the shared sacrifice of the two World Wars and were as essential today as they were one hundred years ago to help preserve peace. Looking at the statue and reading from McCrae’s poem inscribed on the pedestal, Fountain declared: “McCrae talks about ‘not breaking faith’ and, to us, that is the purpose of the Centennial -- not to break faith with the sacrifice of all the world’s veterans of World War I.”

The dual mission of the centennial commission, Fountain continued, is to educate and to commemorate. He outlined plans for a national World War One educational program and mentioned in passing the national World War One memorial project, but emphasized that remembrance in the United States has historically been and ultimately must be on a local level, just as this service was. 

“A chief part of what the commission will be doing is to enlist the efforts of local organizations to focus on remembrance at the local level, to dust off and restore and bring attention back to these local memorials which commemorate the local citizens. Working from the ground up, we as a nation can in turn collectively properly honor and salute the memory of our soldiers who fought and died. More importantly, we can take what lessons we can from the war so that we avoid another such conflict today and the need for further memorials like this in the future.” In other words, the commission hopes that other organizations will follow the lead of Flanders House in fulfilling John McCrae’s famous words not to break faith with the sacrifice of World War One soldiers.

Marco Reininger, from the Society of Artistic Veterans, an actor, writer and veteran advocate, then recited John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Field.” Afterwards, at the close of the service, Reininger spoke passionately of the powerful effect McCrae’s words and pain has long held on him. “Today, two months before we mark World War One’s centennial, the belligerent nations of the Great War are at peace with one another, and its people share values of freedom, democracy and love of humanity. Our peoples learnt by talking, remembering, reading poems, watching plays, writing movies, painting pictures and discussing mistakes of the past and thus they have honored the dead. I invite you today to let [Lieutenant] Colonel McCrae’s pain touch you, let his words make you nostalgic. No greater honor could you do the fallen. Lest we forget.”

 © Centenary Digital Ltd & Author