9 July 2015 marks the 30,000th Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate – a ritual which has come to symbolise not only a remembrance of those who died in the Great War, but also the ongoing connection between Belgium and the former Allied nations.
At 8 p.m. each night, volunteer firefighters from the small Belgian town of Ieper (better known by its French name Ypres) sound the Last Post at the Menin Gate memorial. The ceremony started in 1928, shortly after the memorial’s construction, as an expression of the town’s gratitude for the sacrifice of Commonwealth soldiers who died in the nearby countryside during the First World War. It has continued almost uninterrupted on the site each night since; during the German occupation of Belgium in the Second World War, the tradition was continued at Brookwood Cemetery in the United Kingdom.
On 9 July 2015, the Last Post was sounded under the Menin Gate for the 30,000th time. To mark this milestone, a special edition of the ceremony took place at the memorial, which the public followed on a large screen in the market square of Ieper. Others around the world watched via live stream. Last Post ceremonies were be held in dozens of other locations simultaneously, including at the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing in Messines, Belgium.
This occasion was also a chance to pay respect to the Last Post Association, which organises Ieper's daily act of remembrance, and to the buglers who have performed the ceremony since 1928. In recognition of the Association's role in this significant commemorative tradition, its chairman, Mr Benoit Mottrie, was made an Honorary Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2015 Queens Birthday Honours List.
The Menin Gate is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission monument, built above the road on which Allied troops marched from Ieper towards the battlefields of the Ypres Salient. On its walls are inscribed the names of over 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient during the war but whose bodies were never found or identified. The memorial commemorates casualties from the forces of United Kingdom (who died prior to 16 August 1917), Australia, Canada, India and South Africa.
Inside the memorial, the New Zealanders are commemorated with a simple plaque. After the war, the New Zealand government decided to construct its Memorials to the Missing on sites nearer to where New Zealanders fell in battle. The casualties of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who died in the Ypres Salient are commemorated on memorials at Buttes New British Cemetery, near Polygon Wood, the Messines Ridge British Cemetery, and on the walls of the memorial at Tyne Cot, close to where the disastrous attacks on Passchendaele Ridge took place. Along the Western Front in France there are a further four memorials to New Zealand’s missing war dead.
Although the vast majority of New Zealand names are not included on the Menin Gate – you will find approximately 80 names belonging to New Zealanders who served with other forces – the memorial has become a focal point for New Zealand tourists and dignitaries visiting the Western Front. Ieper serves as a base for travellers interested in exploring the former First World War battlefields of Belgium. Many visit the recently refurbished In Flanders Fields Museum, and most will time their trip so they can attend a Last Post ceremony.
From 7 p.m. each night, large crowds start to gather for the ceremonies under the Menin Gate, which are organised by the Last Post Association. The buglers – all of whom are members of the local volunteer fire brigade – arrive shortly before 8 p.m., at which time the Last Post is sounded. This is followed by a minute’s silence before the buglers play the Réveille. During extended ceremonies wreaths are laid, a choir or band might perform and The Ode of Remembrance is read out. New Zealand dignitaries, school groups and sports teams often have the honour of taking part in these official proceedings, even though the memorial does not include the New Zealanders’ names.
For contemporary New Zealanders, the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate continues to resonate. In part, this is because it forms an emotive expression of Belgium’s gratitude for the contribution that New Zealand servicemen and women made to its defence during the First World War. More importantly though, it offers visitors a tangible link to a significant moment in history for both nations.