Every day at 7:55 p.m. police in the small Belgian city of Ypres stop traffic on the Menin Road, one of the main thoroughfares into the ancient town. At exactly 8 o’clock a team of buglers from the Ypres volunteer fire brigade, in full dress uniform, march to the center of the road beneath the Menin Gate and start blowing the “Last Post,” the British bugle call equivalent to American “Taps.” Then, after a minute of silence, they follow up with the “Rouse,” a call similar to “Reveille” that here symbolizes resurrection. The buglers have conducted this moving ceremony every day in Ypres—with a brief hiatus during the 1940–44 German occupation— for the past 85 years.
The Flemish town of Ypres (Ieper in Dutch)—65 miles due west of Brussels—is to the British what Verdun is to the French, or Gettysburg to Americans. This strategic point in the British line was among the most contested pieces of ground in World War I. Between 1914 and 1918 the Allies and Germany fought five Battles of Ypres. The horrific third battle is better known as Passchendaele, named for a little village on a small rise of ground (euphemistically called a “ridge”) about seven miles northeast of Ypres. For more than three months in 1917 the opposing armies thrust thousands of troops into a meat-grinder battle across a hellish lunar landscape. Total Allied and German casualties from the Ypres battles exceeded 800,000—perhaps half of those at Passchendaele alone.
In 1914 Ypres was a beautiful medieval walled town. By the time World War I had ended, nothing higher than a pile of rubble remained standing. A man on horseback at one edge of town could see clear across to the far side with little in between to obstruct his field of vision. The place is such an emotional center of gravity for the British that they largely rebuilt and restored the town, including its magnificent medieval Cloth Hall, which today houses one of Europe’s finest World War I museums [www.inflandersfields.be/en].
In place of the original gate at the Menin Road entrance through the city ramparts the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission [www .cwgc.org] erected the marbleand-brick Menin Gate memorial, dedicated in 1927. Atop the gate a marble lion in repose gazes east toward the old battlefields of the Ypres Salient. Engraved on the marble surfaces of the monument are the names of the 54,896 Commonwealth war dead with no known graves from the Ypres battles before Aug. 15, 1917. Officials chose that arbitrary cutoff date because there was no more space for inscriptions on the gate. The names of the 34,959 soldiers who went missing after that date are inscribed on the walls enclosing the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Passchendaele itself. Tyne Cot also holds 11,954 actual burials.
The fire brigade conducted its first Last Post Ceremony at Ypres on July 2, 1928. During the years of the German occupation, buglers held the ceremony at Brookwood Military Cemetery southwest of London. They resumed Last Post in Ypres on Sept. 6, 1944, the very day Polish forces under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group entered the city, even though fighting was still in progress.
Many of the buglers who perform the ceremony have been doing it for years. Some wear the Member of the Order of the British Empire medal on their uniforms, granted in recognition of their long service. The ceremony can last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the crowd and the number of visiting delegations. On those few occasions when the weather is extremely bad and the crowd is small, the ceremony ends when the buglers finish. More often, however, the commemoration continues with various military, veterans’ and private groups laying wreaths at the memorial. On some occasions visiting military bands play after the wreath layings, and military groups in uniform render formal honors. At the conclusion of the extended ceremony, a member of the Last Post Association [www.lastpost.be/en] or a visiting dignitary reads the first three lines from the exhortation, taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen”:
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
To which members of the crowd respond in unison with the fourth line of the stanza:
We will remember them.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.