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WW1 battlefield soil carried to London ahead of centenary

By Sebastian Salek, for CNN
November 30, 2013 -- Updated 1034 GMT (1834 HKT)
One of the bags of soil is handed over on board HMS Belfast in London
One of the bags of soil is handed over on board HMS Belfast in London
  • 70 bags of soil from WW1 cemeteries, battlefields in Belgium taken to London
  • They will form part of a memorial garden to remember those who died
  • Garden will open on November 9, 2014 at Wellington Barracks in London
  • That date coincides with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I

London (CNN) -- It was a journey that those who lost their lives in Flanders Fields would never make.

Seventy bags of soil, one from each of the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries and battlefields in Flanders, Belgium, have arrived in London on a Belgian Navy frigate, where they will form part of a memorial garden to remember those who died in the bloodshed of World War I.

As part of a somber ceremony attended by British and Belgian dignitaries alike, the bags of soil were moved Friday onto a decomissioned British warship, HMS Belfast. On Saturday they were being taken to Wellington Barracks near Buckingham Palace.

There they will complete the symbolic memorial garden forming a circular soil bed that references the opening in the roof of the Menin Gate in Ypres, from which poppies rain down each year on November 11, and bears the words of John McCrae's famous poem, "In Flanders' Fields."

But the public will have to wait a while before they can visit the garden, which opens on 9 November 2014 immediately after the Cenotaph ceremony to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

For Andrew Wallis, curator of the Guards Museum and brainchild of the project, the garden is about emphasizing the importance of remembrance to younger generations.

"The fact that you and I can stand here today as free people, to have free thoughts and to do free actions: somebody actually fought and died for that freedom that we enjoy today," he told CNN.

"There was a generation of people who marched away from Wellington Barracks and never came home.

"If we are to get the generation of tomorrow to understand what this is about, for us to pass the torch of remembrance to them, we have to help them understand the significance of this sacrifice."

The memorial garden is just one manifestation of a bond between the UK and Belgium that predates the battles of World War I. The Grenadier Guards, an infantry regiment of the British Army, can be traced back to 1656 when it formed in Bruges to protect the exiled Charles II, and it was the Welsh Guards that liberated Belgium at the end of World War II.

The initial idea was hatched five and a half years ago after Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Parade, but Wallis admits pulling off the project has been a challenge.

"It takes a very long time to get planning permission for something like this right in the heart of royal London, and to get all the various agencies involved to give their agreement.

"It's been an uphill struggle, but we're there now and we're very grateful for everyone for their support."

However, the project is only just over halfway towards reaching its funding goal of £700,000 ($1,150,000) and for the rest Wallis is looking closer to home than Flanders.

"The Belgian people have already produced £420,000," he said.

"So it's time for the Brits to step up and help us complete this unique memorial to the fallen."

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