By Right Rev. Roland Lakey
November 11 of this year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.
At five am on that damp Monday morning, after four years, three months and two weeks of seemingly endless bloodshed, an armistice was signed with Germany in a railway carriage at Compiègne.
On “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” that ceasefire came into effect and the guns would fall silent. It meant that for six hours after the signing, longer for some, men continued to lay down their lives uselessly.
It was called The Great War by those who lived through it because, at that time, no one could conceive of anything more terrible. The bloodshed, slaughter and terror seemed unsurpassable and its repetition unimaginable to any ‘civilized’ mind.
Only twenty-one years later would they find how wrong they were. Indeed, there are a growing number of historians who now have come to an agreement that there was no WW1 and WW2; only “chapter one and chapter two.’’
Both of this writer’s grandfathers fought and were wounded at the first Battle of the Somme, July 1 through November, 18, 1916.
Both were temporarily blinded by gas and more than three million men fought in this battle with one million men wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.
The first day on the Somme was, in terms of casualties, the worst day in the history of the British Army, which suffered 57,470 casualties, more than 20,000 in the first hour.
Although fighting had ceased, a formal state of war between the Allies and Germany persisted for another seven months, until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919.
The United States Senate did not ratify the treaty, despite public support for it, and did not formally end its involvement in the war until the Knox–Porter Resolution was signed on July 2, 1921.
During those four years of struggle, four dynasties, together with their ancillary aristocracies, fell as a result of the war: the Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs and the Ottomans.
Four empires ceased to exist and the fifth, the British Empire, was broken and would last but a quarter of a century longer.
Historian Samuel Hynes wrote: “A generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy.
“They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them.
“They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance.”
A year after the inauguration of the Menin Gate Memorial in 1927 (pictured on cover), a number of prominent citizens in Ypres decided that a way should be found to express the gratitude of the Belgian nation towards those who had died for its freedom and independence.
The idea of the daily sounding of the Last Post –the traditional salute to the fallen warrior – came from the superintendent of the Ypres Police.
The Menin Gate Memorial on the east side of Ypres was thought to be the most appropriate location for the ceremony.
Originally this was the location of the old city gate leading to the Ypres Salient battlefields and the Menin Road, through which so many British and Commonwealth, and Allied troops had passed on their way to Flanders. Many did not return.
The privilege of playing Last Post was given to buglers of the local volunteer Fire Brigade and the first sounding of Last Post took place on July 1, 1928 and a daily ceremony was carried on for about four months. The ceremony was reinstated in the spring of 1929.
From November 11, 1929 the Last Post has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Belgium from May 1940 to September 1944.
The hauntingly clear sound of the Last Post and Reveille are called by the Belgian police buglers after which a minute of silence is observed. Then a single firm and clear voice reverently announces:
“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.”
(From For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon)
“When you go home, tell
them of us and say
For your tomorrow, we gave
(From Epitaph by John