I have always wanted to see the Last Post at the Menin Gate.
No, strike that.
Four years ago, I'd barely even heard of the Menin Gate and certainly didn't know that EVERY. SINGLE. EVENING at 8pm sharp, hundreds of people gather to watch smartly turned out buglers pay their respects to the men of WW1 who died in Belgium and were never found. This is an incredible Ceremony called the Last Post.
When I started homeschooling Jade in 2017, one of the subjects she enjoyed was History. I was always more of a Geography girl myself, but as her teacher I learnt with her- and I loved it! One of the periods I especially enjoyed learning about was WW1 and WW2- and it was during these lessons that I discovered the amazing ceremony of the Last Post at the Menin Gate- and the fact that it is STILL happening every night over 90 years later!!
So, when we delayed our return to the UK, (so we could climb the highest mountain in Germany!) we realised we could stop in Ypres for the night and see the ceremony for ourselves. Here's everything you need to know to do the same!
Last Post at the Menin Gate- What is the Menin Gate?
There has been a gate (of some description) on the Eastern Entrance into the city of Ypres (or Ieper- same place, different spelling!) since Medieval times. During WW1, Ypres was defended for 4 years by soldiers from the British Commonwealth, against attack from the Germans. Tens of THOUSANDS of men passed through here on their way to the front. After the war, the entrance became the site for the largest British War Memorial in Belgium, inaugurated in 1927. This is the Menin Gate as we know it today.
It's a huge arch, spanning a street in an otherwise pretty but not particularly notable city. It carries on it the names of 54,896 men who died in the Ieper Salient and have no known grave. That's 54,896 men who were not found in THIS AREA alone.
It was the first ‘memorial to the missing' anywhere in the world and its walls are COVERED with the names of the dead. Seeing them there, in so many rows and so high, was staggering. Every single one of those names had a story, had someone to miss them and mourn them. The sheer scale of the death in WW1 is just heartbreaking. Honestly, I didn't expect it to be so moving- but it brought a lump to my throat as we walked around. Apparently, after the unveiling, it was realised that the Menin Gate was actually going to be TOO SMALL to hold all the names, so all of the missing who died after August 1917 (another 35,000!) are remembered at Tyne Cot, which is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
It came as a huge surprise to me that the Menin Gate was in the middle of the city, and cars drive through it every day. For some reason, I thought it would be closed off and unapproachable, like a cemetery. But people drive through it, drink their coffee through it, talk on the phone through it and, having watched this for a while, I agree with the idea. After all, these men died so that people could go on living their lives. It seems fitting for them to be right in the middle of everything, not pushed to a quiet corner and forgotten about. Even with the hustle, there's a quiet aura to the place as you walk around. It feels very respectful.
The Menin Gate is also called the Menenpoort or the Porte de Menin- in case you see those signs anywhere.
What is the Last Post?
In the British Army, the start and end of the day were signalled on a bugle (or by piper). The Réveille (from the French word reveiller- to wake up) was sounded at the start of each day and the Last Post was played at the end. This tradition can be traced all the way back to the 17th Century. Drums were used to signal rounds and to call off-duty soldiers out of the pub and back to their billets. By the time the Last Post was played, everyone had to be back or face the wrath of their superior officers.
The Last Post has long been used in Military funerals and ceremonies, to signal the end of the soldiers day. It is still traditionally played on a Bugle.
Last Post at the Menin Gate- names
As I mentioned before, there are 54,896 names on this monument. All of them died somewhere in this area, but their bodies were never found. A lot of them were British, but there are also many names from the Allied Countries as well- Australians, Africans, New Zealanders and many more (I won't try to list them all in case I forget someone and cause offence!!) The names are organised by their platoons or troops and rank, and are then alphabetised. The names go around most of the surfaces of the Menin Gate, including the outside. It's incredibly humbling to walk around it.
Last Post at the Menin Gate- how the Ceremony started
In 1928, a year after the Menin Gate had been opened (not sure how you ‘open' an arch standing across a street, but you know what I mean!) a number of influential citizens of Belgium gathered in Ypres, with a wish to find some way to remember and honour the people who had died for the freedom of the Belgian nation. The privilege of playing the Last Post was given to members of the local volunteer Fire Brigade. The first Ceremony took place on 01 July 1928 and continued every night for about four months. It started up again in 1929 and from 11 November 1929 it has taken place EVERY SINGLE NIGHT in all weathers, with the exception of during German Occupation of Belgium between 1940-1944. During this time, the ceremony was carried out in England at the Brookwood Military Cemetary, Surrey. On the very evening that the Menin Gate was liberated, the ceremony started up again, despite heavy fighting going on all around it.
Last Post at the Menin Gate- the Ceremony
The Ceremony happens every day at 8pm sharp. To get the best view, people start arriving about an hour before- and by 7.30pm it's impossible to get a space near the front.
TOP TIP: For the best view, stand on the ‘river' side of the arch (on the bridge) looking at the arch and through it to the main part of Ypres. Go the the LEFT side as the majority of the ceremony takes place on the right. Ideally, you want to be in the middle somewhere. The Buglers will stand at the entrance to the arch (where you're stood right now!) and will march from there down to the steps up on the right-hand side. Look at the pictures- they might be easier to understand!!
We arrived about an hour before the Last Post started and got a great position. I'll be honest, I didn't expect there to be so MANY people. It was a random Tuesday in the middle of April – I thought it would be pretty quiet.
The mix of ages, nationalities and genders who had come to pay their respects was astounding. It wasn't just British, which honestly is what I expected. It was a melting pot of everyone who felt that the sacrifice these young men had made was worth remembering. I honestly didn't expect it to be emotional- but oh my goodness it was.
Last Post at the Menin Gate- Timeline
- 7pm- Crowds start to gather
- 7.30pm- Road is closed to vehicles
- 7.50pm- Buglers arrive
- 8pm- Sounding of the Last Post
- One Minute silence
- Lament (if there is a piper present)
- Laying of Wreaths (time taken depends on how many people are there to lay a wreath)
- The Exhortation (see below)
- Réveille bugle call
- End of Ceremony
Last Post at the Menin Gate- the Exhortation
After the wreath laying, if there are any, a dignitary or visitor will be asked to read the Exhortation. This is a portion from the poem “For the Fallen' by Lawrence Binyon. The words that are read aloud are:
“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.”
Ypres and Flanders Fields.
Ypres is a pretty city but unfortunately, we didn't get to explore it fully. Halfway through the Last Post Ceremony it started to rain very heavily- and of course we hadn't bought our coats! Some tourist shops were still open after the ceremony had finished- they know their trade well as they were all busy. We wandered around in the rain for a while, bought an umbrella (despite the two we have in the van!!) and then decided to buy ice creams- as you do in April in the pouring rain!! So, sadly, I can't tell you much about Ypres at all, other than the Cloth Hall (which is a museum) is beautiful and the ice cream is delicious!! Ypres is under two hours from Brussels, which is somewhere I'd love to visit (here's a fun guide to Brussels). I hope to be able to plan a return to Belgium very soon to explore more of this gorgeous country- although the roads are SHOCKINGLY bad to drive in a Motorhome! You have been warned!
Last Post at the Menin Gate- where we stayed
We tried to find an aire with our Motorhome, but honestly we struggled a bit, which is a first! I admit, we were being cautious as Ypres is only about an hour from Calais and we were a little worried about parking somewhere remote. We decided to stay at the main campsite for Ypres: Camping Jeugdstadion Ieper. They have a camping car (motorhome) parking area at the front, and then further camping areas around the sides and back. Unfortunately, the camping car area was full, but they found space for us on another camping-car area in the back which was more expensive but very pleasant. From the site, it was only a 15-minute walk into Ypres- probably 10 if you're not walking with Jade!!
When you arrive, you will not be able to get through the barrier. You need to park up, go to reception and check in, as well as pay a 4€ deposit for the key card for the barrier. I believe the camping-car price in 2018 is 15€/night which includes electric hookup and water- not bad at all for the location! There are also camping cabins which can sleep up to 4 for 40€/ night and a tent field, which is 11€/night for two adults and a tent. We paid 24€/ night for our spot- I think they charged us extra for our trailer but we didn't argue as there weren't many other options and we wanted to get sorted in time for the ceremony.
Although the campsite was expensive, it was clean and has great access to the town. When we return to the area, we will most likely stay there again. I would recommend booking (if you know your dates!) as they are the most popular choice for the area. The motorhome area is open all year, but the campsite (and shower/ toilet block) closes between 12th November and 01 March, so bear that in mind when you book.
Last Post at the Menin Gate- final thoughts
This. If you can only do one thing on your holidays, do this. It is IMPOSSIBLE to describe the emotions, respect and atmosphere of the ceremony. You absolutely need to experience it for yourself. In this world we live in, where most people seem to be only out for whatever they can take, it's so refreshing to find a place where people only come to give back and say thank you. It restores your faith in mankind a little bit. 🙂 I was especially amazed by how many young people were there and how respectful they were. I hope this ceremony continues for many, many years to come to remind us all of the heartbreak of war and the things we can achieve if we work together.
How about you?? Have you ever experience the Last Post at the Menin Gate? What did you think of it?
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