On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the year 1918 the guns fell silent, marking the end of WW1.
Each year our Nation commemorates this historic event by holding a minutes silence on Remembrance Sunday. This year I commemorated by attending two ceremonies held at the Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium. The first event was laying a wreath on behalf of Col. Richard Maybery, Chief Executive and West Midlands RFCA during the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. The second was to attend the Armistice Day Poppy Parade on 11th November 2018.
Pride, honour, awe and humble. Just a few of the range of emotions I felt as I stood at the Menin Gate, preparing to lay my wreath on Friday 9th November 2018.
People spoke in hushed tones and an air of reverence encircled us as we stood to honour the fallen. I was surrounded by Military personnel and civilian representatives, young people, old people and all those in between. There were youth organisations and Military units, individuals and civilian groups all there with one purpose, to remember those who had fallen and those fallen who were never identified.
At exactly 8 o’clock local time, silence engulfed the assembled crowd as the bugler played the ‘Last Post’, I’ll be honest I shed a tear at that point, it was very moving. I slowly made my way across the road under the Menin Gate to where I carefully mounted the steps, reflecting on why I was there, and the significance of the event. As I laid my wreath I gave thanks to those who gave their life for my future and the young Officer Cadet beside me stood proud and saluted.
Two days later was the main event. 11th November 2018, one hundred years since the end of WW1.
The evening Last Post ceremony was to be a closed affair as it was to be attended by the Belgium Royal family. But, together with my family and friends, some of whom are Veterans and some are currently serving, we gathered for the Poppy Parade. At 10 o’clock the Poppy Parade marched off from the Vandenpeereboomplein square. The crowd was made up of thousands of people from all walks of life, from all areas of the Commonwealth. There was an amazing array of banners and standards, vibrant colours of traditional costume, plus uniforms from a wide range of organisations including the British Police, Explorer Scouts and even a re-enactment group wearing bearskin hats and kilts.
We collected paper poppy petals from the Royal British Legion to carry on the way to the Menin Gate Memorial for the Special 11 o’clock Last Post Ceremony. The poppy petals were to be collected in special baskets to be released during the ceremony.
Our route was lined with thousands and thousands of people waving and smiling, they didn’t seem to mind the bitterly cold wind or the light but icy rain. Large screens in the main square televised the parade for those who could not see. Pipers played their bagpipes and drums beat our journey up to and through the Menin Gate, the sound reverberating off the walls with such majesty it added another element to the event.
As the service began, a companionable hush fell across the crowd, even the young children and babies were quiet, such was the atmosphere. The service included the Belgium and British National anthems, which were sung with gusto. Speeches, readings and choir songs. The pipers played ‘Amazing Grace’ and the Male voice choir sang ‘Abide with Me’. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as, unprompted, the crowd slowly joined in humming the tune to Abide with Me, it was extremely powerful.
During the ceremony the poppy petals carried by The Poppy Parade were released from the roof of the Menin Gate, gently fluttering the ground or drifting on the winter breeze, a very special moment.
As the service finished, and the crowd began to disperse, I had the opportunity to look again at the wreath I had laid, and marvel at the number of other wreaths also laid in an act of remembrance. Large and small, ornate and simple adorned the steps and walkways around the Menin Gate.
I cannot fully articulate how I felt being at the Menin Gate on the 100th anniversary of Armistice, it was hugely powerful, very humbling and an altogether amazing experience. One which I shared with my family and friends, and one which will remain with me for a very long time.