Our Belgium Tour - Day 3 in Ypres
Updated: Sep 27, 2019
This day was destined to be the most challenging for us, dedicated to learning more about the First World War in Flanders, and culminating in something so very special, the great privilege of singing during the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres.
After a good breakfast we set off in the coach to our first port of call, Harry Patch's memorial stone near Langemark. Harry was dubbed the 'last fighting Tommy' and fought with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry on the Western front at Passchendaele. Harry died in 2009 at the age of 111 years, 1 month, 1 week, and 1 day, the longest surviving combat soldier of the First World War. At the time of his death he was the third oldest man in the world, his medals are preserved in the DCLI museum at the Keep in Bodmin. The plaque was a gift by Harry in memory of fallen colleagues at the point they crossed the Steenbeck prior to their successful assault on Langemark. An information board adjacent had been severely clouted by a heavy vehicle and the most inconsiderate offender left it badly inclined. Some of the lads put their backs into returning it to a substantially more dignified position.
From here we travelled a short distance to 'Tyne Cot War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing' near Passchendaele, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war. There are 11,965 burials here, of which 8,369 are unnamed. The stone wall surrounding the cemetery makes up 'The Memorial to the Missing', and contains the names of almost 35,000 missing from the UK and New Zealand. Just walking around such a place in quiet contemplation leaves you so moved, the scale of it is just overwhelming. Row after row of headstones, beautifully maintained with manicured grass and flowering shrubs. We sang for them, 'The Blessing of Aaron'; looking across that sea of pristine white Portland headstones it was emotionally a very difficult thing to do.
We moved on to Zonnebeke, and the 'Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917'. Set in the historic chateau grounds of Zonnebeke, the museum is devoted to the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 where, in only 100 days, almost 500,000 men were killed for only eight kilometres gain in ground.
A few miles, and Ypres was our final destination for the day. At the corner of the magnificent Cloth Hall, we set up for an outdoor sing in bright sunshine. A wonderful place that is well worth a return visit, the Immense building was one of the largest commercial buildings in the world when it was completed in 1304, but lay in ruins due to artillery fire in the First World War. It was painstakingly reconstructed between 1933 and 1967 to its original splendour at the centre of the prosperous Flanders cloth industry.
After an enjoyable sing in the square amongst the hubbub and noise of a busy autumn day in this very popular tourist destination, we had a quick rehearsal for the most important event of our day at Menin Gate, before dispersing for some free time and refreshments.
We had the great privilege of participating in the Last Post Ceremony, which has taken place every night at 8.00 pm since the inauguration of the Last Post Association (a short time after construction of the memorial arch) with the exception of the four years of German occupation between 20th May 1940 and 6th September 1944. The ceremony is to express the gratitude of the Belgian nation towards those who died for its freedom and independence, but also provides a focal point for members of other nations to lay wreaths and conduct acts of remembrance. Although we were required to submit our choice of songs well in advance, the inadequacy of a battery powered keyboard (no power available) led us to request a change, and thankfully the steward was happy to exercise flexibility.
At 7.30 pm, the road was closed as usual, and we stood in preparation, nervous in anticipation of doing justice to ourselves and those to whom we were there to show respect. This was possibly the most important performance any of us had taken part in! Thankfully the acoustic of the arched roof is incredible, and with Marcus's expert ear adjusting our tempo as necessary, we were thrilled to have performed to a high standard, and with a great sense of occasion and sensitivity. The video clip below taken by Mel, gives us all great pride in what we have achieved.
You will doubtless have noticed in the video, the toing and froing across the centre of the arch, of wreath layers from all around the world showing their respect. Following our choral tribute, our own Mick Hamilton and Pat Townsend, both ex. Servicemen, delivered a wreath on behalf of Loveny MVC.
Buoyed up with the satisfaction and pleasure of a good evenings work, we boarded the coach for the trip back to Diksmuide, and an epic evening of afterglow in 'Der Brouwershuus' followed, the warmish continental air allowing us to celebrate outside...quite noisily as it turned out. The local baker living next door to the bar told our hotel that if we didn't permit him a decent nights sleep the following night...he may well not be inclined to provide our bread and croissant for breakfast!