What started out as a channel-hop for six friends to collect ‘supplies’ for a wedding, evolved in to a poignant weekend of remembrance for us all.
We decided to stretch our legs a little further than the Majestic wine depot in Calais so we opted to stay in Ypres for the night and take part in a battlefield tour of the Ypres Salient area. A little extra research led us to the Ypres branch of the Last Post Association. This remarkable group of people have dedicated themselves to the remembrance of the Great War. Save for a few days when intense fighting during the Second World War made it impossible, the buglers of the association have sounded the last post underneath the Menin Gate every single night since World War One.
We took a last minute decision to request an extended ceremony so that we could lay a wreath, and we were invited to complete this in uniform. And so it came to be that an Infantry Captain, an RAMC Major and myself found ourselves stood in the freezing wind and snow under a gate bearing the names of 56,000 men who were known to have lost their lives in the local area but had not been afforded a burial; their bodies claimed by the battlefields of Flanders. The numbers are incomprehensible.
The ceremony was made so much more pertinent after the events earlier in the day. A thick blanket of snow covered the region and as we stood in the snow-filled trenches and walked through the cemeteries, freezing hands and numb toes, we began to grab a glimpse of understanding of the incredible hardship that the troops must have faced. We visited the hospital, which was nothing more than a concrete bunker, in which Maj John McRae had worked and written the now immortal poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and again, the realities hit home.
We arrived at the gate expecting our group to be the only participants and were surprised to see the crowd swell to around 100 spectators; a great reassurance of the strength of support that still exists for the efforts of those no longer with us. Despite the very real risk of doing a back flip on the ice, some very cautious drill led to a successful laying of a wreath and our act of remembrance was completed. The crowd faded into the night and the snow began to cover the wreaths but the buglers will be back, night after night, to remember the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in the Great War, and all those who have given themselves since.
So, if you ever find yourself with a couple of days to spare then I can highly recommend a trip around the battlefields and a visit to the Menin gate, Ypres. If you want to lay a wreath then message the association via the website, who have also been kind enough to supply some of the photographs used here at no cost: www.lastpost.be/
Written by: Flt Lt Patrick Hearne, R&S Wg, RAF Benson