So last night, I bit the bullet and attended the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. I put it this way because I had seen relatively recent Youtube videos where the audience clapped at the conclusion. I like to think I’m pretty tolerant about these things, letting people make what they will of such rituals, but that just won’t do. It like giving a standing ‘O’ to the preacher presiding at a funeral. Happily, the audience maintained its dignity. Even the kids behaved like little troopers. Find this all the more remarkable because so few of them were from the old empire, as it were. It struck me then that the last post has become a must see event for tourists holidaying in Ypres regardless of their origins. And many do come here for reasons unconnected to the Salient. This is a good thing. Anything that keeps the Great War from fading into the public unconsciousness is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.
After the crowds dissipated, which they do fairly quickly – mom and dad having to make good on the promise of ice cream that kept the kiddies at bay during the ceremony – I had a chance to examine the commemorative wreaths that have been laid over the last few weeks. There the old King and Empire connection is much in evidence, the origins of the wreaths mirroring those of the men whose names are graven on the gate. It brought to mind a trend I’ve noted in the visitor’s registers at many of the CWGC cemeteries I’ve visited. The vast majority of those who record their names are from the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (Interestingly, more locals seem to visit in Belgium than in France). Okay, that’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation. But it does suggest that at a relatively deep cultural level there are still meaningful ties among us. However our histories have diverged since those days of imperial patriotism, however much our cultures have evolved on their individual paths, put us under the vault of the Menin Gate or on the green sward of any cemetery administered by the CWGC and we get it in ways that others just can’t. As a citizen of the Commonweatlh country drawn furthest into the orbit of American culture, I feel a particularly profound sense of our historical distinctness from our neighbours and our historical ties to Brits, Kiwis, Aussies et al under such circumstances. But that could just be because I live in America now and don’t get free health care anymore.
A poem to contemplate on the theme of the Menin Gate:
On Passing the new Menin Gate, S. Sasson, 1927-8.
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.