As the day after the final ride of BBR22 dawns and a mad panic to find the right bus or train to get home begins. I was lucky that I had other plans – my panic to get to the airport would have to wait. I was on my way to Ypres (Ieper if you are Flemish) to start my own commemoration of the soldiers who had paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. So I made my way down to the Mons train station for my next adventure.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial in Ypres, Belgium, dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in what became known as the Ypres Salient of WW1 and whose final resting places are unknown. The memorial is located at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line. The Menin Gate Memorial was unveiled on 24 July 1927.
The large Hall of Memory contains names on stone panels of 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who died during the various battles in the Ypres Salient, but whose bodies have never been identified or found. However, it was discovered to be too small to contain all the names as originally planned. The names of 34,984 more UK missing were inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing instead. Also, the Menin Gate Memorial does not list the names of the missing of New Zealand and Newfoundland soldiers, who are instead honoured on separate memorials.
The real power of the Menin Gate Memorial and what sets it apart from every other memorial in the world is the evening performance of The Last Post Ceremony. Following the opening of the Menin Gate Memorial in 1927, the citizens of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom. Every evening at 20:00, uninterrupted since 2 July 1928, buglers from the Last Post Association close the road which passes through the memorial and sound the “Last Post“. The only break that has happened in this pattern since its start was due to the occupation of Ypres by the Nazis. During this period, the ceremony was conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery, in Surrey, England. When Ypres was liberated on 6 September 1944, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate Memorial I spite of the fact that heavy fighting was still taking place in other parts of the town.
My Experiences at the Menin Gate
Today, the Last Post Ceremony draws spectators as well as bands from around the world. This place is not about honouring the heroics of war or the greatness of the victorious side. In my opinion, this place and this ceremony represents remembrance and contemplation.
On this trip, I attended two Last Post Ceremonies. The first, on Saturday night, was extremely busy. This was a day when veterans of airborne units from several nations had gathered to honour their fallen comrades, many of them to lay wreaths in the Hall of Memory. There were also a number of bands. Sunday, by contrast, was a much smaller ceremony with just three buglers and a lone piper. The crowd was much thinner. In both cases, as it occurs everyday, the bars and the pubs close to the gate close for the ceremony out of respect. Those attending the ceremony are reminded that no alcohol was allowed near the gate and all were asked to refrain from talking and applauding.
On Saturday, because of the large number of participants, the ceremony began early so that the Last Post could be played at precisely 8:00PM. I was joined here by several of the BBR22 riders who had also made the trip to Ypres. The crowds meant that it was a struggle to get a good viewing spot, but (leaving our glasses of beer at a respectful distance from the gate) we were lucky to get close. As the parade of bands and veterans began, several of us noticed an elderly gentleman wearing a burgundy beret and a blue blazer with medals covering his chest. On his shoulder was a badge, “Légion Étrangère” emblazoned on it. I can only imagine what had brought him to this place and how many times over his life he had returned to honour his fellow legionnaires.
On Sunday there was less of a crowd. The ceremony began just before 8:00 so that the buglers and piper could be in position on time.
While the larger ceremony is powerful because of the crowd, the bands and the large number of wreaths laid, I much prefer the quieter, less crowded ceremony like the one I attended on Sunday. This evokes, for me, a greater sense of why the citizens of Ypres initially began the ceremony. It’s about gratitude, remembrance and deep respect. This is why it the the Last Post Ceremony has survived and grown for almost 100 years.
Freedom is not FREE!