The Menin Gate in Ypres is not the aloof, isolated memorial I expected. A road runs through it, leading to a street of shops and restaurants. Cars, buses and lorries drive along this road at a fair speed, people walk through, some shelter under it in the rain, waiting for their lift to arrive - it is part of everyday life. And every day at 8pm, since 2 July 1928*, a short and simple ceremony has been conducted under the arch - initiated and continued by the people of Ypres, to show their gratitude for those that gave their lives.
Today's ceremony went like this ....
At 7.50pm, three men in immaculate uniform including cap and white gloves and each carrying a highly-polished bugle, linger on the side of the bridge that crosses the river Yser, just short outside the Menin Gate. They chat quietly amongst themselves and two or three official looking folk greet them and shake their hands in welcome. There is a surprisingly large crowd gathered, given that is an unimportant Thursday evening in August - all ages including small children, young adults, middle-aged and the elderly, mobile and wheelchair bound, nearly filling the pavements underneath the arch. Just before 8pm the buglers move from the bridge to a discreet position inside the arch, on the pavement. The traffic is stopped on either side of the arch at 8pm and the crowd falls silent. The three buglers move in formation to the centre of the east entrance to the arch and without looking at each other they play in perfect unison - the familiar notes ring out, the acoustics of the arch amplifying the sound and giving it an unexpected richness of tone. At the end a two minute silence and then the Ode of Remembrance is recited. Two groups then lay wreaths - the first a number of men and women in every day clothes and the second a school party in uniform. The wreaths join 20 or 30 others left by organisations and individuals, all with handwritten messages.
The buglers play once more and then march back to their earlier waiting position under the arch. Although one feels like clapping to honour their skill it does not feel appropriate. The ceremony is finished and the burble of the crowd starts up again. As it dissipates, some are dabbing eyes, others are smiling and talking, by particular names poppies are pushed into the crack between each slab, and photographs are taken. The buglers talk to the officials and those that wish to offer thanks. After the crowd has wandered off, the buglers are still there and only when one or two stragglers remain do they leave.
Could witter on for ages but will finish on the walk back from our evening meal to the campsite - some 900m down a cobbled street before turning off on to a footpath through fields. Pitch dark and pouring rain that some of us are ill-equipped for. The footpath is full of ankle-deep puddles and pale mud, with the occasional stretch of duck boards to traverse the more boggy bits of the field. At one point we were single file through a small wood, with Chris and the torch at the front and me at the rear ..... the gap between the last child and I grew larger .... the dark and the rain and the mud and the location was more than a little unsettling and I hurried to catch up with the others.
One is never too sure how much the children have taken on board but no-one complained about being soggy when we got back to Velma.
* during the German occupation in WWII, the ceremony was conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey.
For a good bit of background info read the Wikipedia entry on the Menin Gate.