Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde welcomed German president Joachim Gauck under cloudy skies for the late-morning ceremony at the Cointe allied memorial, amid pomp and military honour. During the ceremonies, the former enemies sat united, listening and applauding each other’s speeches.
Germany invaded neutral Belgium on August 4, 1914, as part of a planned attack on France. By nightfall, Britain had joined the war.
“It opened Pandora’s Box,” said Gauck who acknowledged that it “is anything but self-evident to stand and talk to you on this day.”
The war wasn’t expected to last long. But instead of weeks, the continent was plunged into hardship and misery for more than four years.
Gauck joined British Princes William and Harry at the Saint Symphorien cemetery for a similar remembrance. In Britain, there was a ceremony in Glasgow, Scotland, and a late-evening candlelit vigil at London’s Westminster Abbey.
The Great War, as it came to be known, is now often depicted as senseless slaughter that claimed an estimated 14 million lives, including nine million soldiers, sailors and airmen from 28 countries. At least seven million troops were left permanently disabled.
British prime minister David Cameron sought to debunk that notion.
“Although there was an enormous amount of waste and loss of life, there was a cause that young men rallied to at the beginning of the war, which was the idea that Europe shouldn’t be dominated by one power. That a country, a small country like Belgium, shouldn’t be simply snuffed out,” Cameron told the BBC.
On Sunday, an intense hug between Gauck and French president Francois Hollande during a remembrance ceremony in eastern France sealed again the friendship between the two neighbours.
Neutral Belgium’s involvement in the First World War stemmed from an ultimatum the country was given by Germany on August 2 1914 demanding free passage for its troops into France. Belgium rejected the demand and Germany invaded on the morning of August 4.
Other key guests from the 83 countries invited to the event included President Michael D Higgins.
A film was aired showing original archive images of the invasion of Belgium, the resistance of the Belgium Army and the destruction of Loncin Fort. Following speeches, two cannon shots were fired before the King of Belgium laid wreaths at the foot of the memorial.
King Philippe told the audience: “We are paying tribute to the courage and dignity of those engaged in the fighting and those who lived in inhuman conditions.
“We remember also the cruelty and barbarism, healed as we are of our resentment and of the terrible wounds that affected our families.
“Finally we are expressing our gratitude to all of those who, in the depths of the darkest nights of the conflict, built up the powerful momentum of solidarity when faced with the suffering of the people and the desperate food shortages.”
He added: “The memory of the First World War gives us food for thought about the responsibility of leaders and the decisions they can take to keep the peace and bring nations closer together.
“This challenge is now of major importance. The European memory reminds us that no peace can be sustained without a state of mind that overcomes the suffering endured, goes beyond the question of guilt and sets its sights firmly on the future.
“Peaceful Europe, unified Europe, democratic Europe. Peace is what our grandparents longed for with all their might.”