July 24, 2014

The Last Post at Menin Gate

Mark Yost reports from Ypres, Belgium how a longstanding ceremony honoring the fallen is losing its solemnity in Crowding Out the Memories

I first started coming to the Last Post ceremony in this tiny town on the French border in the mid-1990s. There were maybe 200 people who would gather each night beneath the Menin Gate, the Reginald Blomfield-designed monument reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, that was dedicated in July 1927 to forever remember the almost 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died near here between 1914 to 1918 but have no known grave.

The ceremonies were much more solemn back then. The local police would stop traffic.

 Meningate Lastpostceremony

I can remember Belgians—mostly elderly people—would come out of their narrow little houses along St. Jacobs Street, which runs perpendicular to the Menen Road, the main thoroughfare to the front during World War I. They'd stand on their front steps and quietly honor those they probably never knew who had gone off to defend their little town, which the British called "wipers," never to return.

It was truly a moving ceremony, made more remarkable by the fact that Belgians had been doing it uninterrupted since July 2, 1928 (except, of course, in the early 1940s, during the Nazi Occupation). On July 9, 2015, Ypres will host its 30,000th Last Post.

At precisely 8 p.m., a three-man honor guard from the volunteer fire department comes out in its dress uniforms and plays the trumpet fanfare known as "The Last Post," a bugle call in the British military that signals the end of the day. "The Last Post" is also often played at British military funerals and other commemorative ceremonies. Some nights, veterans groups laying wreaths at the Menin Gate will recite a stanza from Laurence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen":
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.

When I came back here with my son in 2010, momentum was already building for the 100th anniversary on July 28, 2014, but the ceremony had lost some of its solemnity. …when I returned again in early May this year, just a few months ahead of the 100th anniversary, the crowds had grown even bigger…..

But bigger isn't always better….

"The roads are getting too crowded," a waitress at Ypres's 't Klein Stadhuis, The Little Town Hall, told me.

"It's too much," said the bartender at the Ypra Inn, a faux British pub on the corner next to the Menin Gate. Most nights, in the hours leading up to the Last Post, the pub is overflowing with British tourists quaffing pints and snapping selfies.

Too much, indeed.

Youtube video of the ceremony filmed by a Dutch tourist 2009.  Band of Her Majesty's Royal Marines plays The Last Post here  on Remembrance Sunday ]

Posted by Jill Fallon at July 24, 2014 12:52 PM | Permalink