The Menin Gate, by way of a short preface to give readers context is a memorial constructed in 1927 at Ypres to honour the 54,896 missing Commonwealth soldiers of WWI battles that took place in the Ypres Salient region.
It was once again my pleasure to climb out of bed relatively early to make the trip into southern Belgium from Lille. Given it was November 11th I knew I couldn’t be late to find a place along the route to the monument. Today was Canada’s day to march from the city square south to the Menin Gate. Many interested history buffs are already aware of the very old ceremony where the Menin Gate society and their buglers play the last post inside the gate. On many occasions it is performed to recognize a visiting commonwealth army. It is a tradition for the visiting force to march four or five abreast though the medieval streets of Ypres to be received at the monument.
I arrived 90 minutes before schedule and it was already busy with people on the parade route. As I should have known the police where there in force and had already erected barriers to stop foot traffic from gaining access to the gate. Because Ypres is a medieval city it is walled and a somewhat circular river surrounds it. I had a quick chat with a Belgian policeman and he sent me Northwest to the next bridge into the city.
The streets and paths were busy with joggers and cyclists going about their morning. The swans and ducks were floating below the footbridge that I eventually crossed to enter the city through small archway in the ramparts. Once inside I had time to stop into a typical yet excellent patisserie to pick up a couple of pain au chocolate (of course I had time). With one in my gob and one in reserve I hustled off towards the parade route.
A spit of rain met me about 25 meters from Menin and it was there where I found a gap in the crowd to take a tactical position on the barricades. To my left was an elderly couple from Northern Ireland. The good lady was very chatty so she was. To my right was a young mom and her 10 year old daughter. We hit it off quickly and soon after I knew a lot more about the city, region and the ceremony. Her 15 year old son was drumming in the local pipe and drum band. She explained that they had the honour of leading the parade to greet the Canadian Soldiers when they arrived. Although this lady’s son had been a practicing member of the band for two years, this was his first time being allowed to perform in front of dignitaries.
As we chatted I failed to realize that now both sides of the street had filled with onlookers and they now appeared to be 6 deep. We hung over the railing in anticipation. In the very far off distance we could hear the drone of the pipes.
This gave Mary and George to my left time tell me all about their Alaskan cruise and the stop they made in Victoria to meet friends they hadn’t seen in donkeys years so they did. They were actually lovely and very honoured to be there to support the Canadians.
Around us were Veterans of all ages, smartly turned out in suits or blazers along with their regimental berets with gleaming cap badges. Most were British by my estimation. Nevertheless, whether they got there by plane, train, cain, walking sticks or wheel chair they got there. Their banter indicated that they were proud to have made it and as time moved on, conversations morphed to where they were going after and who was buying the first round!
The local band was nearing us now and they sounded very good. I watched intently at my new friend and her daughter as her son marched passed playing his drum. She filmed it on her phone as they both cried pridefully. The Belgians do remember. They feel it a privilege to show their appreciation for others who placed their life on the line to help free them. They clearly feel that they must honour the Commonwealth Soldiers efforts to help them during the Great War.
I don’t know what it is lately, but there again and not for the last time today came that rush of emotion and I battled to hide my tears watching them. Once the pipes and drums passed us by and took up their receiving position through the gate, we then watched as a couple of hundred dignitaries walked, hobbled or marched past. Once again, vets being pushed in wheel chairs or being supported under each arm by younger family members.
Then came the Canadian Army band. In definite tune and playing with gusto. Remember now the tens of thousands lining the route and I am sure the captain in charge realized it as he conducted them on the approach to Menin. Next it was my time to try to keep it together as I could see Mackenzie in the offing and nearing our position.
I snapped a few pictures for retrospect but then quickly let my camera dangle around my neck so I could enjoy the moment. I hate to sound overbearing but this was a day that I will never forget. A true father son moment. I have watched him over the years do some awesome things in awesome venues as an athlete but I must admit this took the cake.
As the Canadians took their place at the Menin Gate the remainder of the parade filled in behind them. There were representatives from a Punjabi regiment, firemen, policemen, and many other groups of organized veteran groups. A true spectacle!
The ceremony began and at the time of the last post being played, thousands of red poppy petals fell from the roof of the Menin gate over the soldiers standing inside. The acoustics were incredible and there was not a sound from the crowd.
Several speeches and a wreath laying closed out the proceeding and soon after the Canadian Soldiers stepped off in formation to march back to the town square.
Try as I might I was unable to catch up with Mac to shake his hand but a short while later he called to ask if I would meet them at Hill 62 for the afternoon’s ceremony.
I walked back to my car but this time getting to walk under the Menin Gate myself. I read a few of the inscriptions and paused for thought. The enormity and gravity of this place is breathtaking. I eventually made it back to the car and typed Hill 62 into Google Maps. Low and behold it knew how to get there so off I went. Another moving ceremony that I have already captured in brief on a facebook post.
Tomorrow I am off to take in Vimy Ridge. This has been a special day!