2769.2 miles , 6,197,401 steps
When all is said and done about this walk I am confident that this evening will be one of the memories which endures the longest. Through the good offices of Amanda Moss at the British Embassy in Brussels I had been put in contact with Ian Hussein of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Ian had invited me to join the Last Post Ceremony under the Menin Gate which is held each evening at 8PM come rain, shine or in this case -8 degrees.
The Menin Gate whilst bearing some similarities to the Arc de Triomphe was built by the British government not to celebrate a victory but to remember those British & Commonwealth Soldiers who were killed in the Battle of Ypres Salient in 1914 during the First World War and had no known grave. The Menin Gate carries the names of 54,896 servicemen (British 40,244; Canadian 6983; Australian 6198; Indian 4217; South African 564 and West Indian 564. The Gate was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield who was actually a specialist in the construction or renovation of English country homes, most notably Chequers.
Reaction to the gates was mixed with perhaps the strongest condemnation coming through the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon in his poem ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ in which he described it as “this sepulchre of crime“. It may have been a crime to some but to the Belgians these were heroes who had given their lives for the liberation of their country and the town’s inhabitants wanted to mark this and so bugler from the local Fire Brigade have maintained a tradition of sounding the Last Post every evening as a mark of their gratitude. This tradition was uninterrupted except of course for the period of German occupation in World War II when interestingly the ceremony was continued in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.
I factored in that it was freezing cold and a blizzard was whistling through the streets and therefore expected that there may be a few hardy souls who would show up, but when I arrived 15 minutes before there were already a couple of hundred, mostly young people, standing beneath the Gate. By the time the road was closed off the crowds were well over five hundred. I was approached by Ian Hussein of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who recognised me from the web-site and who then introduced me to Beniot Mottrie who is Chairman of the Last Post Association and John Sutherland of the Royal British Legion.
I had expected to be a respectful observer of the ceremony but such was the positive response to having a British Parliamentarian at their service that I was asked to give the exaltation being the lines from the poem Ode of Remembrance. Benoit was a distinguished looking man, tall and slim and immaculately dressed. By contrast I was bulging out of my walking gear, but he was gracious enough to invite me to take part. Just as the buglers marched into position I realised that I couldn’t remember the words of the exaltation and confessed this to Beniot who smiled and said “me neither” and then produced a helpful card with the words on. The bugles sounded and I was invited forward to stand in the centre of the road under the Gate and addressing the buglers I read:
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 whole service was over within ten minutes reminding us that it is not the length of the remembrance that matters but that act. As I was introduced to members of the committee who organised the event and the buglers from the fire brigade I was overwhelmed by their faithfulness in undertaking this act of remembrance, not for their own fallen of which there were 58,637, but to remember the sacrifice of others.
Remembrance, faithfulness and gratitude may not be primary virtues of the modern era often self-obsessed with desire for more, now and blame but the residents of the small town of Leper (Ypres) in Belgium provide us with a daily master class. For this reason I was heartened to hear from Ian Hussein and John Sutherland over a drink afterwards that Yrpes and the Menin Gate were part of the national curriculum for schools in England and Wales and that as such many of the young people who will have been present that evening would actually be British students. I don’t know who introduced this change to the curriculum but they should be applauded for it and I would like to see it extended to politicians too.
I returned to the Menin Gate ceremony the following evening where i stood at the back of the crowd and found the experience even more meaningful as my mind was perhaps less on remembering what to say and when and more on what was being said and why.