Remembering the dead
September 26, 2009 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Every evening since July 2nd 1928*, at precisely eight o'clock, the Last Post has been played under the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres, "Wipers" as it was known to British tommies), Belgium. The ritual - performed by buglers from the local fire brigade - honours British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the five battles at Ypres in the First World War. Today is the 27,888th day of the Last Post ceremony.

Completed in 1927, the Menin gate is a memorial to the 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died without graves - the missing in action. The town itself has over 100 military cemeteries.

Winston Churchill said of the town, "I should like to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres... a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world."

*In fact, during the Second World War the Germans banned the ceremony, and the bugles were hidden away. On the day the Polish entered the town and retook it in 1945, the ceremony started again.
posted by MuffinMan (16 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
posted by chavenet at 2:33 PM on September 26, 2009

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,—
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

On Passing the new Menin Gate, Siegfried Sassoon
posted by Sova at 2:41 PM on September 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I had the opportunity to witness the ceremony in person a couple of years ago. Very moving, especially after spending a few days overwhelmed by the sheer number of names on the numerous memorials in the area.
posted by smcniven at 2:43 PM on September 26, 2009

I had no idea. This is incredibly moving.

Europeans understand sacrifice and gratitude. When my wife and I visited Normandy at the height of the Dubya hating, the locals were always warm and welcoming to US citizens like us.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:02 PM on September 26, 2009

Thank you for posting this.
posted by marble at 4:16 PM on September 26, 2009

Very moving post, thank you.

For those interested in oral histories of the battles, this page has links to audio files and transcripts of interviews with Canadian veterans who fought at the Second Battle of Ypres (the interviews were part of a CBC Radio documentary called In Flanders Fields). The interviews are fascinating and well worth listening to for anyone interested in WWI history.

This account of the chlorine gas attacks is particularly harrowing:

I saw these Germans and I thought that they were, I wondered what they were doing, just one here and one a little further along. It looked like tin cans they had put over and the smoke from them boiled up and it didn't rise, you know, the atmosphere kept it down and the wind blew it towards us, you see. I thought it was smoke and they were going to come up behind so we started firing at them to prevent them from following up this smoke. Then when it came along towards us, it turned green, a greeny yellow colour, chlorine gas, it was. It came up and went over the trenches and it stayed, not as high as a person, all the way across. Two fellows, one on my right and one on my left dropped and eventually they got them to hospital but they both died. One was on each side of me....If you ever tried to put your head in a bowl of water and see if you could hold it for two minutes, it's a long time, but I was always a good swimmer and, as soon as I saw that gas coming, I tied a handkerchief over my nose and mouth. I thought it was smoke, you know. That saved my life but eventually I had to go to hospital....I went to the doctor and I said, "I don't know what's wrong with me, I can't breathe. I'm jittery as if I were a piece of haywire in the days when we used to tie bales of hay with wire....It's just as if someone was tying that tighter every morning."

...[T]o lay down was the worst thing. One of my chaps, he collapsed and I put him in a dugout. I said, "You lay down there". I thought he'd probably get better but one of the fellows came to me and said, "He's asking for water and nobody has any water". We hadn't had any food or water, I think for three days...I was the only one that had any water. They were asking others, you know. I said, "I've got a little tiny drop" so I went and gave him a little tiny drop of water and it killed him. I told the doctor about it afterwards. He said he would have died anyway but he said it was the worst thing, a drop of water.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:38 PM on September 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Completed in 1927, the Menin gate is a memorial to the 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died without graves

More like 90,000 (or "Menin gate is a memorial to 54,896 of the Commonwealth soldiers...").

They underestimated the numbers and ran out of room for the names. The rest had to be added to the nearby Tyne Cot Memorial.
posted by GeckoDundee at 5:26 PM on September 26, 2009

Great (last) post.
Somewhat related, there is an uproar over the Australian War Memorials need to seek sponsorship for its own daily Last Post ceremony, after budget cuts.
posted by Duke999R at 5:36 PM on September 26, 2009

Move him into the sun--
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds--
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,--still warm,--too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

-- Wilfred Owen
posted by rodgerd at 5:47 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Fascinating reading, thanks.
posted by HyperBlue at 6:05 PM on September 26, 2009

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen Dulce Et Decorum Est
posted by lalochezia at 7:04 PM on September 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Europeans understand sacrifice and gratitude.
Americans used to.

posted by kirkaracha at 7:20 PM on September 26, 2009

posted by orthogonality at 10:15 PM on September 26, 2009

We went to Ypres with my grandfather, about a decade ago, before the Alzheimers and awful decline kicked in. He'd been in the BEF in the second world war, but missed Dunkirk and instead came out of St Nazaire on the Oronsay. Good job he ended up on that ship, not its neighbour, the Lancastria.... I think he spent most of the rest of the war in Africa and Italy, but he had been in Belgium and France at the start, and he was clearly affected by the last post ceremony. We all were.

In Ypres there is also the fantastic In Flanders Fields museum, which gives much needed detail, and reminds you of the extent of the local devastation.
posted by handee at 9:09 AM on September 27, 2009

a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.

Ah Churchill you old-school Rule Britannia colonialist twit, you have to be given credit for staying consistent to the end. yah I might be a little bitter about Churchill being so hard-nosed about not giving India its freedom, how did you know

My great-grandfather went to Ypres with the Patiala state forces, one of the many non-"british races" there, and their story is a good read.
posted by vanar sena at 11:20 AM on October 1, 2009

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