We interrupt your regular travel blog (not so regular I’m afraid) to bring you highlights of our European trip that pertain to the upcoming Remembrance Day ceremony on November 11.
We first must jump forward a few days to Day 14, July 13, 2015 when we are in Bruges.
We had always planned to visit Ypres, and when we told our Bruges B&B host, Nicole, that we were going to leave early, she said we had to see the Last Post ceremony, which is held at the Menin Gate Memorial.
Nicole said that as in many places in Europe, Ypres is commemorating the hundred year anniversary mark for each year of the Great War 1914-1918 therefore, at the Memorial, special choirs are singing nearly every night. So it is a special time to go.
So we decided to leave a little later than planned so that we could still see Ypres other sites and be there for the ceremony.
Words cannot express, pictures cannot do justice to the experience of seeing all the names at the Menin gate, and the Tyne Cot cemetery. I will let the pictures do most of the talking but I will say this: for us at home in Canada, whenever we find it hard to rouse ourselves from the comfort of our homes to go to a local cenotaph on November 11, please think on this, as I will.
From November 11, 1929 onward, the Last Post has sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial, every night and in all weathers.
Every, single night at 8.00pm! Not just once per year. Every night. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 1940 to 1944.
Nicole told us that the 4 buglers are from the town’s volunteer fire brigade. Apparently there are 6 or 8 of them that rotate duties in order to provide the 7 day a week coverage. One of the bugler volunteers is 90 years old and has been doing it for 60 years. A name and story is read out for one of the names on the walls (those that have no known grave). On July 9, 2015 they celebrated their 30,000 performance. There are well over 100,000 names of soldiers who died with no known grave to be honoured, so even with doing this every night, they are less than a third the way through.
As we set out it was rainy and stayed that way for most of first part of morning, and was windy and cold the whole day.
We arrived at Ypres and first parked just outside the gate and explored the memorial itself.
A seemingly never-ending proclamation of Canadians ..,
And a fitting reminder to not forget those whom we sometimes don’t think about as having stood and died along with our fathers, who perhaps were not of British, European, Canadian or American heritage…
And we strolled on the ramparts and the park along the river …
As we walked about in the damp and drizzle, MLW and I both expressed to each other our similar thoughts, which we summed up something like:
I think we can handle a little cold and wet to honour those who slogged it out scared to death, in the cold winters beneath the shrieking mortars, shelling bombardments, and gas attacks, often only to die in mud, blood, vomit and excrement among the trench rats and bodies of comrades and enemies alike.
One can never fully imagine the horror of it all, but going through the museum at Ypres, visiting the nearby sites and seeing the Menin Gate memorial itself forces one to at least make the attempt.
This is what the cemetery looked like immediately following the battle …
Canadian John McCrae is well remembered here.
And indeed a field of wild poppies grows nearby.
This memorial is not Canadian, but as my father was from Yorkshire (although the East Riding), I felt I could pay tribute.
Next we went to see the 10 metre high statue of the Brooding Soldier or ‘De Canadien’ as it is known locally. It was sculpted by F.C. Clemeshaw, the runner-up in the competition to design the Vimy Ridge monument, and erected at Vancouver Corner in Sint Juliaan.
The Brooding Soldier’s bowed head is looking in the direction from which a cloud of chlorine gas approached on April 22, 1915; the first large-scale chemical attack in the history of warfare.
We signed the register book, an unexpected pleasure.
As you walk through the introductory visitor centre, you can’t help compare the picture you see of what the area looked like during the war, and the conditions the men endured … (A must watch is the movie by Paul Gross: Paschendael, if only for the stark realism he portrayed.)
with the view today …
The Canadians were a big part of this battlefield; being gassed and then trying to capture the church, losing more than 4,000 men …
A girl’s voice reads out a name that echoes through the building. Pictures, if available, of the man who died flash on the wall.
Walking out of the visitor centre, the girl’s voice mournfully accompanies you as you make the seemingly long walk to the cemetery.
The cemetery itself stuns one into silence.
Back to Ypres (after a few more adventures with Jeeps that shall be recounted in the travel blog proper), we had to unfortunately hurry through the marvelous In Flanders Field Museum, so as to be able to catch the Last Post ceremony …
You are greeted shortly in the entranceway by this incredible painting of the ghost soldiers streaming out the Menin Gate into the battlefields beyond moving through fields of poppies. Menin Gate at Midnight (also known as Ghosts of Menin Gate) is a 1927 painting by Australian artist Will Longstaff and I believe this was at the time we saw it on loan from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The museum is fascinating, full of movies and slide shows and all manner of artifacts from many countries.
Belt buckles ….
Outside, a commemoration on a nearby building honouring the many Belgian citizens who assisted downed allied airmen, many of whom secretly passed through the Hotel Regina.
We got back to the gate to find the crowds queuing up already…
Among them a thinly disguised John Cleese ?
Sorry, I could not resist. I noticed him in the crowd and to this day I wonder.
The buglers arrived …
They began the Last Post …
This night there was a girl’s choir and band who sang two hauntingly beautiful songs, one was View Me Lord, the name of the other unfortunately escapes me.
The buglers finished Last Post to a hushed crowd …
Wreaths were laid and a lad read the Exhortation, the famous excerpt from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen”.
Standing in the centre of the road under the arch of the Hall of Memory, the words echoed briefly off the walls as the crowd and city remained silent:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
The crowd, we all answer: “We will remember them”
Then it is Reveille, the soldier’s time to rest has come …
“We will remember them.”