The annual Liberation of Hechtel commemorations are normally attended by 50 or so members of the Welsh Guards Association during their Battlefield Tour when wreaths are laid to remember the many Welsh Guardsmen and local civilians who perished in 1944. 2020, being like no other year with the Coronavirus Pandemic affecting every aspect of our lives, the Battlefield Tour became a casualty of the Covid-19 restrictions and had to be cancelled. We had a fully subscribed tour planned and such is the popularity of the trip that every single person has already committed to attend next year in 2021 instead.
The Hechtel Commemorative event takes place every year on the Sunday nearest to 12th September to remember the liberation of the town by 1WG and 2WG (and SG) between 7 and 12 September 1944. The Germans decided to defend in strength given the importance of the crossroads in the town centre as it lay on the axis of the Beeringen-Endhoven road, which provided a direct corridor into the northern Netherlands held by the Germans. There is an excellent account of the battle is in the book Welsh Guards at War by Major LF Ellis. There was a heavy toll of lives lost on both sides and Hechtel was all but destroyed with the the murder of over 30 town civilians by the Germans.
Although unable to attend the scaled back Covid-19 commemorations as a formed Association, we as a Regiment are most fortunate that Lieutenant General Sir Ben Bathurst KCVO CBE who is currently the UK Military Representative to NATO and based in Brussels was able to attend with his ADC Capt NEM Fullwood AGC (RMP) to represent the Regiment, lay the Regimental wreaths at both the cemetery and the M4A2 Sherman Tank memorial in the town and address the assembled locals on our behalf.
General Ben's full speech is reproduced here:
Thank you Mr Mayor for your very kind words and thank you all for the very warm welcome I have received this morning. Despite the uncertain times in which we live, having all grown accustomed to cancelling plans and putting off occasions to meet with friends and family, it is so important that we are able to join together today to commemorate this important part of our shared history.
It is a great privilege for me to be here today, not only because I am currently serving as the United Kingdom’s Military Representative to NATO, but also because I joined the Welsh Guards 36 years ago and have been a part of that Regiment ever since. As a result of the intense fighting that took place in and around these streets some 76 years ago, my Regiment has a very close bond with the town of Hechtel and I must convey to you the gratitude of the entire regimental family for continuing to honour those in our ranks who lost their lives during the liberation of Belgium. We will remember them.
As we come together in remembrance today, it is equally important that we commemorate the terrible loss of life amongst the Belgian population of the town, who suffered so much during the course of the war, but whose bravery and resolution was essential to the eventual liberation. A wartime diary from a Welsh Guards Company Commander recalls that, before British casualties could be moved to the Regimental Aid Post, they were first tended to in an aid post by “two magnificent Belgian women who did wonderful work for us and for civilian casualties, never resting for three days”. It also recounts brave Belgian men who found their way across to the British forward positions to give information on the Germans, where they were retreating and where they were holding out.
We will shortly move from here to lay a wreath at the graves of those people from this town who lost their lives during that time, some for taking the risks I have described and others for no discernible reason at all. In doing so we will be reminded of the bonds our two countries share through common adversity. These bonds have endured and strengthened over the years and are multiplied through our alliance in NATO, including with our former adversaries who are now our friends and allies.
Welsh Guards will be forever grateful for the hospitality and friendship we are all afforded by the people of Belgium, helping to remember the fallen and as the host nation of the NATO Headquarters. So I am here in both capacities and Colonel Bonas, the Regimental Adjutant who would ordinarily attend this event, has asked me to convey the warm wishes of the 50 Welsh Guards veterans who would have been here today were it not for the current restrictions on travel.
He would have updated you on news of the Welsh Guards and this year, the Regiment was due to troop its Colour on the Queen’s Birthday parade on Horse Guards in London. Sadly, the parade on Horse Guards was cancelled due to COVID but Her Majesty’s birthday was nevertheless marked on 13th June by a special parade at Windsor Castle where she was isolating with the Duke of Edinburgh. It was a unique parade of fewer than 100 officers and soldiers on parade, including the first female Guardsman, but it was still a great honour for the Welsh Guards to mark the occasion
As you all know, 2020 marks the 75th Anniversary of the end of the war both in Europe and the Far East. Welsh Guards were able to pay our respects and honour all those who had fallen on Victory in Europe Day on the 8th May and last month our Colonel, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, laid a wreath at our National Memorial to commemorate Victory over Japan Day. In coming together today we are playing our own small part in commemorating those six long years of fighting across the globe, as well as the long years of occupation suffered by Hechtel and Belgium more widely.
It has been a great privilege for me to be here today and to have met you all, and I am grateful to the Mayor and Council for inviting me and for commemorating our shared endeavour in the Second World War.