BRUSSELS — Where their countrymen once slaughtered each other with machine guns, artillery and poison gas, the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and other European Union member states met Thursday to solemnly mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and rededicate themselves to peace and collaboration.
About half a million people died in the arduous battles in the flat and often muddy killing grounds in and around the small Belgian city of Ypres in western Flanders between 1914-18, according to historians. That makes it one of the sites most poignantly reflecting the savagery of what became known as “The Great War.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said holding a summit of the 28-nation European Union in the city that had to be rebuilt from scratch after the fighting ended sends a powerful signal.
“I believe this shows us again in which good times we live today because the European Union exists and because we have learned from history,” Merkel said.
To commemorate the war, the leaders walked through Ypres to the sound of drums to attend the “Last Post,” a bugle salute to the fallen performed each evening at Menin Gate. The gate has been erected as a memorial on the main road where British and Commonwealth soldiers marched off to the front, many to never return.
World War I was unprecedented in scope and savagery: It claimed some 14 million lives – 5 million civilians and 9 million soldiers – including sailors and airmen from 28 countries, and left at least 7 million troops permanently disabled.
In a sign of how much Europe has changed since nationalism caused neighboring nations to go to war, the public gathered on the sidelines of the Ypres summit venue cheered when German leader Merkel arrived. Breaching protocol, she was the only leader to walk toward the crowd of locals, shaking hands and commenting on how nicely the town center had been rebuilt.
“Thank you for hosting us,” she told several people in the crowd.
Hours before the leaders arrived, 81-year-old Arthur Siggee and his wife Audrey, from Lincolnshire, England, were still searching for a long lost relative’s name on the walls of the Menin Gate memorial.
Siggee carried with him a photo of his uncles, three brothers who all lost their lives in the battles of the Somme area of northern France.
“This might be our last trip back, we are both in our 80s so we can’t do this much more,” he said.
Over dinner at Ypres, the EU leaders were set to go back to the business of running what has become a bloc encompassing more than 500 million people, forming the world’s largest economy.
During their working session, they were set to discuss a “strategic agenda,” mapping out the policy priorities for the next five years.
Some EU leaders have demanded a course correction following the success of political parties hostile to greater European integration in May’s European Parliament elections.
The leaders meet again Friday in Brussels to discuss the situation in Ukraine, including deciding on possible new sanctions against Russia for its actions there. They are also set to choose their candidate to head the next EU Commission, the bloc’s powerful executive arm, a rancorous issue that has pitted Britain against Germany, France and several other EU nations who support the former long-time Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Separately, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said leaders had tentatively agreed to hold another summit July 17th to nominate a successor to the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, whose term expires in the fall.
Virginia Mayo in Ypres, Belgium, contributed reporting.