“Last Post”

A series of posts taking you day-by-day through a proposed travel version of my course HIS230L World War I. Read the introduction to the series here, or the previous post here.

Sunday, January 13, 2013 – Ieper

No, not the last post in the series. (We’re not quite halfway through.) “Last Post” is a small but historic ritual observed in this Belgian town that was the epicenter for three terrible battles (1914, 1915, 1917) and the setting of our first two days touring the Western Front. We’ll likely start this 11th day of the trip joining others at St George’s Memorial Church, which offers

Christian Worship and prayer in the Anglican tradition; to “be still in the presence of the Lord” in a place filled with Memorials of stained glass, brass and stone to those who fought for peace and justice, who gave their lives for their country in Two World Wars and conflicts since.

Then after a few hours spent touring sites like Hill 60, the Yorkshire Trench, the German trenches at Bayernwald, and the German cemetery at Langemark, we’ll return to Ypres for supper.

Last Post Buglers
Four of the Belgian firemen who volunteer to play Last Post each night at 8pm - Creative Commons (Joe Anderson)

But our day isn’t done. We’ll make our way to the historic Menin Gate (through which British troops marched on their way to the battleground) to gather with other visitors for “Last Post,” sounded this night—as every night since 1928 not spent under German occupation—at 8pm. Here’s how the Last Post Association (one of the many voluntary organizations that proliferated after 1918 as Europeans threw themselves into the task of identifying, burying, and commemorating the dead) describes “Last Post”:

The Last Post was a bugle call played in the British Army (and in the armies of many other lands) to mark the end of the day’s labours and the onset of the night’s rest. In the context of the Last Post ceremony (and in the broader context of remembrance), it has come to represent a final farewell to the fallen at the end of their earthly labours and at the onset of their eternal rest.

Names of the Missing - Menin Gate
Names of the Missing, Menin Gate - Creative Commons (Amanda Slater)

The ceremony honors the dead and missing (thousands of whose names are inscribed into the gate), and includes a reading from Laurence Binyon‘s war poem, “For the Fallen,” the most famous (4th) stanza of which runs:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

If I’m counting correctly, we’ll be there for the 29,090th Last Post. (And if I’m not, please correct me in the Comments.) Here’s a film clip from the ceremony, from three or four years ago:

Unfortunately, this is a J-Term rather than an N-Term class, so we won’t be in Ypres on November 11, when the Last Post Association presents its annual Remembrance Day ceremony at 11am—in honor of the easy-to-remember timing of the Armistice (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”), an afternoon concert in Ypres’ cathedral, and Last Post at 8pm. If not always to this degree, 11am on November 11th remains a highly significant moment in several countries that fought the war: Britain, France, Belgium, and Canada being especially notable examples where Armistice is remembered with ceremonies, moments of silence, etc. (It is not a public holiday in the former Central Powers, or Russia, and Veterans’ Day in the US is far overshadowed by Memorial Day.)

I hope that students are struck by the oddity of participating in such acts of remembrance. After all, we’re remembering people we never knew, men who died generations before any of us first drew breath. We’re not linked to them by family ties, or even nationality. Only a shared humanity, and our hopefully-developing ability to empathize with them and imagine what they experienced.

But apart its significance to the cultural and social histories of this particular war, it’s worth considering that remembrance is a Christian spiritual practice commanded by Jesus himself. One that, to this day, is at the center of sacramental life. So, having now spent a couple of posts on this theme and more than spoken my piece, I’ll close with a question:

What is the importance of remembrance to you? How do you practice it?

Tomorrow we spend one more day on the Western Front, and I explain why that’ll be the extent of our battlefield time.

<<Day 10          Day 12>>

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