The Last Post Association (LPA) organised the most wonderful event to commemorate the 30,000th playing of the Last Post. I was delighted to be invited by the LPA and given a VIP ticket that allowed me to attend all the events.
The evening began with an ‘Academic Session’
that was a excellent programme of speeches and music. The event was held in ‘Het Perron’
Cultural Centre next to Ypres Station. Benoit Mottrie, Chairman of the Last Post Association, gave an excellent speech: he welcomed everyone then gave a short history of the LPA and spoke movingly of the daily act of remembrance at the Menin Gate. He also thanked everyone, both past and present for all they had done to establish the daily ritual and keep it alive. He reminded us all that nobody had done more to keep the ceremony alive than Guy Gruwez who had served as Chairman for 40 years and during a period of time when few people were interested in visiting the WWI battlefields or attending the Menin Gate ceremony.
Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial, gave the speech of the night. He spoke of the importance of the Last Post ceremony to so many families over the years, particularly those who could never visit a grave or memorial. He interspersed his deliberations with anecdotes about the Seabrook family who lost three sons in one action and how their mother, Fanny, wrote on numerous occasions to ask for information about George and Theo whose bodies were lost. She knew that William had been killed as he had been mortally wounded and died in ‘Remy Sidings’ a few hours after he brothers. Brendan’s illuminating, beautifully delivered speech brought together all the (then) Dominion countries, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India, as well the home countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. He reminded us of the story for Captain Will Longstaff who, the night before the inauguration of the Menin Gate, on 23rd July 1927 met Mrs Mary Horsburgh at midnight whilst walking. She was at ‘Hell Fire Corner’
and asked her if he could be of any assistance; she replied “No. I just want to be with my dear boys. I can feel them all around me.” That encounter, together with the emotions the next day and Lord Plumer’s final comment “They are not missing — they are here”
inspired him to paint ‘Menin Gate At Midnight’. The beautiful painting was completed in one sitting and Brendan had brought it with him and it was displayed during the reception in the Cloth Hall. Brendan’s speech touched everyone and gave us all food for thought.
Other speeches were made by the Mayor of Ypres, Jan Durnez; Vice-Chairman of the CWGC, Sir Joe French; and Minister-President of Flanders, Geert Bougeois. The speeches were interspersed by music played by the Royal Ypriana Concert Band who were in fine form. They also accompanied Trui Chielens who sang so beautifully ‘John Condon’s Song’, a song that I had not heard before. The session was closed by Mattie Archie who played The Last Post on a guitar — it was expertly played but not to my taste.
We were taken by bus to the Menin Gate and to our allocated spot. The streets of Ypres were packed as was the market square where bands had been playing and a huge tv screen allowed everyone to follow proceedings. Wim Opbrouck was the Master of Ceremonies who performed it excellently speaking in Flemish and perfect English. HM Queen Matilde of the Belgians arrived and a few minutes later the buglers marched into position and played the ‘Call To Attention’. Benoit then addressed the gathering with words of welcome and led tributes to his colleagues both past and present. He explained how the evening (in Belgium) was being shared with all parts of the world and that live feeds would allow them to be part of the ceremony.
The band of the Royal Engineers, splendidly attired, played as a local choir sang lustily the first hymn. This was followed by the first live feed to the Royal Chelsea Hospital, London. Here one of the Chelsea Pensioners, Stan Pepper, read the story of Private Sidney Barrow — wonderfully delivered and so beautifully written! It certainly brought a lump to my throat and was very special for me knowing I had made a contribution to the ceremony by finding, researching and writing the story of Sidney. (The cameo was reproduced in full in the programme that we all had been given.)