Sunday, November 9, 2014

Remembrance Sunday: Life and Death 100 Years After the Great War Started

Tyne Cot Commonwealth Cemetary, Ypres Salient. 11,954, of which 8,367 are unnamed. Cross is built on site of a German pillbox.

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,
We will remember them.

Trench photo in the Flanders Field Museum, Ghent, Belgium

* * * * * *

I recently returned from Belgium, visiting Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres as part of a singing holiday run by some very talented Brits.  The company arranges for a music director to meet up with singers in a European city, with a preselected repertoire that will be performed in a concert or service after a series of rehearsals, and then everyone goes their own way.

On 7th October 1914, some 8,000 soldiers of the Imperial German Army proudly marched into Ypres, Belgium. They represented the vanguard of a nation hell-bent on claiming its share of empire, and although the Great War was still in its infancy, the notorious Schlieffen Plan appeared to be working as intended. The following day, they promptly left the city’s walled enclave to continue on their great march westwards. It was to be the last time that the German army would set foot in Ypres during the war, something that would ultimately lead to the deaths of almost 600,000 people and the annihilation of the city [as they tried for 4 bloody years to re-take the city]. [Text from an open educational resource website on the Great War.]

This outing was built around participating in the beginning of Europe's "ritual act of remembrance" for the World War One centenary: singing at a Mass in Ghent; the Faure Requiem in a church in Bruges; and at the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony in Ypres, along with a visit to the Flanders Field Museum and the Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient (my photo above). It is the largest cemetery in the area, but as you drive along the Zonnebeke road, you see signs for dozens upon dozens of others. 160 cemeteries in total, in the Ypres Salient alone.

I learned about Ypres from Paul Fussell, studying his highly acclaimed The Great War in Modern Memory with him back in the day, and so it was very special to be on the very ground I studied so many years ago.

It was also very moving to be with the grandchildren of the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.) that entered on the side of France & Belgium to stop the German aggression.

But there is still the fact of Ypres. From a wall card in the Ypres Flanders Field Museum:

From October 1914 onwards, the German artillery began to shell Ypres and the Cathedral went up in flames. In May 1915 the last inhabitants had to leave their town and Ypres was completely delivered up to military violence. By the end of 1917 not a single house or tree was left standing.

The Menin Gate
The Menin Road was the main road to the front for the Commonwealth troops. It bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from the UK and Commonwealth (except New Zealand & Newfoundland) who died on the Salient and whose remains were never found for a proper burial.

From 11th November, 1929, the Last Post [the British version of Taps] has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial every night and in all weathers. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20th May 1940 to 6th September 1944. The daily ceremony was instead continued in England at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey. On the very evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, in spite of the heavy fighting still going on in other parts of the town. Bullet marks can still be seen on the memorial from that time. [Text from a UK Great War website.]

The town that you see today is a complete reconstruction, following the war. They chose to rebuild the great medieval Cloth Hall--built in the 15th Century--exactly as it had looked. Our charming local guide kept saying, "everything you see is a copycat of the original."  It is an astonishing story.

I witnessed and participated in the "ritual act of remembrance" at the Menin Gate on September 22, 2014. Traffic is stopped, the Belgian buglers arrive to sound the Last Post. Sometimes there are extra elements, like our choir, and that day also a Scottish bagpipe contingent. Sometimes there are ceremonial wreath layings.

On this day there were English children from a public school, and a highly decorated, active duty English soldier.  We sang the very haunting Douglas Guest setting of For the Fallen. It is remarkable that this ceremony has continued daily for almost 100 years.  It's hard to sustain anything, but this small, ritual remembrance connects the living through the decades to all those lives slaughtered.

[top and third Menin Gate photo by Nick Couchman]