‘A little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness in little things is a great thing’ Hudson Taylor
In 1928 Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister; John Logie Baird demonstrated the first colour television broadcast and at 8PM on 2 July of that same year the first notes of the Last Post were sounded under the Menin Gate Memorial in the small Belgian town of Leper.
The object of this small ceremony was a large new war memorial the Menin Gate designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and carrying the names of 54,896 of the over 300,000 British & Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the 1914-18 War on the Ypres Salient and maintained today in pristine condition today by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The Gate was located because it was the road out of Leper which so many soldiers marched to the Battles of Ypres and Passchendaele never to return–a scene captured hauntingly in William Longstaff’s Menin Gate at Midnight.
No-one who visits these memorials can leave unmoved. It was King George V on his visit to a memorial (Tyne Cot) in Leper in 1922 who reflected: “In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon the Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”
The first time I was first invited to attend this daily act of commemoration in January 2012 when I was walking back to London from Greece to commemorate the Olympic Truce. I recall thinking as I made my way to the Gate in sub-zero temperatures and with a blizzard whistling through the narrow streets that I may be the only person there. I was wrong-there were a few hundred- albeit huddled together like emperor penguins.
As I stood in under the Menin Gate at 8PM last week it was with thousands for this was a very special occasion—the 30,000th time this daily act of remembrance had been carried out. As poppy leaves fell from the high vaulted roofs, one for each of the names commemorated on the memorial, I reflected on this remarkable act of faithfulness by the people of Leper over 87 years:
It is not unusual for any country to honour its own war dead. What makes this ceremony unusual is that the Menin Gate Memorial does not contain the names of any Belgians despite war losses of 38,170 but instead honours soldiers of the British & Commonwealth. It is an act of daily gratitude to others that we can learn from.
This ceremony is attended by young than the old together. So often in the West we lives out lives in generational silos. Here, as part of our curriculum for schools, you will find young people learning at first hand of the event a century which continue to shape our modern world next to a group of Chelsea Pensioners. Whatever the age or experience we were united that this was not a triumphalist celebration of war but a solemn act of remembrance of lives, hopes and dreams brutally cut short in their prime and fathers, friends, brothers, husbands, sons and lovers lost.
Acts of remembrance need not reopen old wounds but can offer the chance for new healing as for the first time the ceremony was connected by via video link the service simultaneously commemorated the losses suffered by German soldiers at the Neue Wache memorial in Berlin.
Ultimately the message of the Menin Gate is that the most appropriate way in which we can honour those who sacrificed their lives in the past is to give to strain every sinew of our efforts into ensuring that we add no more names to their number in the future. It is for this purpose that we return our gratitude to the faithfulness of the people of the Leper and the Last Post Association and remember the ‘great thing’ they have done.