A couple of weeks ago I went for a fast blast across Belgium and France on my motorbike with a mate. The agenda consisted of clear European roads and enjoying the bikes and each other’s company. I wasn’t expecting it to include some of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life.
Let me explain.
During the First World War, nearly 900,000 British soldiers and more than 100,000 civilians lost their lives. That’s a staggering and horrific 2.19 per cent of the British population at that time. Many more were wounded.
In Ypres (now known as Leper) a third of the total military losses occurred. It turns out that 90,000 of them have no known graves and so in 1927 a memorial was opened at the Menin gate as an expression of gratitude by the Belgian population for the sacrifices that were made for their freedom.
On the first night that the memorial was opened, three buglers played the Last Post. Something remarkable then happened. Every night at 8pm a small group of men from the local fire brigade would close the road and sound the Last Post.
Remarkably, they haven’t missed a night since 28 July 1928. In fact, during the Second World War when Belgium was occupied, the Last Post ceremony was conducted instead in Surrey.
However, as soon as Polish forces liberated Ypres during the Second World War, the ceremony resumed, even though there was heavy fighting taking place in other parts of the city.
Think about it. They close the road every night at precisely 8pm and have done so for the last 85 years!
As we stood there at 8pm on a warm summer’s evening, I watched young and old bow their heads in respect as the buglers played. I saw blokes with tattoos and kids with their jeans hanging round their ankles lay wreaths and brush a tear away. Black, white, Asian, they were all there. In fact it was packed with all ages, genders and representatives from the Commonwealth.
I’m told it’s like this every night. I also saw what I presume were elderly relatives of those who died. I watched them as they stood with quiet dignity, carrying the responsibility for remembering a relative they may never have met. Yes, I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.
A general who was present when the gate was opened in 1927 was reported to have said to grieving family members of the lost and missing: “He is NOT missing, he is here…”
It struck me that it was important to have ‘a place’…
A few days later I stood in the American cemetery overlooking Omaha beach in Normandy, one of the locations of the D-Day invasion in the Second World War. Thousands of marble crosses and Jewish stars all lined up almost as far as you could see. One was to an unknown solider. “Known to God” was the inscription. A visitor had left fresh flowers next to the cross. People were still remembering and honouring sacrifice. Something about sacrifice touches the human heart.
The honour and the dignity I experienced really moved me. The horror and brutality of war also bruised me. I’m glad I know Jesus and I’m glad I have a future hope as well as a hope for today.
“Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5-7).