Ieper is a town dedicated to the remembrance of those who have fought in the war. Every night at 8:00 pm, they have a last post ceremony to honour those who have fought, and those who have died, to defend out freedoms. For those not familiar, according to the website from the organization, “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.” The ceremony takes place underneath the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate is a war memorial that contains that names of all the soldiers who fought on behalf of the Commonwealth who died during the war, and yet have no grave (their bodies were missing or not recovered). The names line the inside of the gate, and around it on all sides. The gate was unveiled in 1927, and the ceremony had proceeded every single night since mid-1928. They are nearing 30,000 ceremonies. So when we were in Ieper, it was of great importance of us to attend, observe, and remember.
The first night we were in town, we wandered up around 7:30. It was a Sunday night, so busy still with weekend travellers, and the gate was packed. We couldn’t see much (nor did we know what we should be looking for). We were content to stand back and listen and pay our respects, and planned to return again the next time to do the same (maybe with a better view). However, we were disappointed by how many people didn’t seem to understand what a solemn and important ceremony this was. To my right was a veteran – not sure what war (though WWII would have been a fair guess given his age), and I watched him well up, raise his hand, and from time to time, wipe the tears away from the corners of his eye. This ceremony wasn’t designed for the tourists – but for all people. For honour and remembrance. It is Remembrance Day in this town – every day (and shouldn’t that be the way it is everywhere?) But throughout the ceremony we noticed many disappointing behaviours (even though people were told this was a time of silence and reverence).
- Tourists who showed up with yappy dogs, who proceeded to bark/yap at each other through the entire ceremony
- People who did not turn off their cell phones
- People standing in the middle of the crowd ‘enjoying’ a cigarette or beer
- People taking phone calls in the middle, and then having a conversation with their spouse
- People pushing and shoving to get the best possible photos
- People taking away the spots reserved for those with disabilities (they were removed by the site staff. And those with disabilities were all visiting war veterns)
- Babies running into the middle of the ceremony because the parents are too busy talking through the ceremony to watch them
By the end of the 15 minute ceremony (that’s right – only 15 minutes – what is wrong with people?) I was fuming mad at the behaviour of the masses AND equally proud of how much respect I see my students show every year during our remembrance day ceremony. I thought that if they were here instead of this group of (mostly) adults, their behaviours would have been way better.
We returned the following night (Monday) with the aim of enjoying the experience (if enjoying can be the right word?) and participating without distraction. We arrived 1 hour early this time, and still had to jockey for a decent position. This time we were in the “front” row, though were moved because the ceremony this evening was different, and the musicians would be in our spot. Sunday night had a full band with many different musical pieces, while Monday night had a simpler ceremony, with 3 buglers (no band). 5 minutes before it began a mom and her 4 kids pushed up to the front and she put them right in front of us (because they are kids…right…? not sure how I was suppose to respond to this). Thankfully the crowd (minus the kids) were much more respectful of the ceremony taking place, and we were able to honour (and take a few photos) as we had hoped the night before.
After the ceremony was over, the tourists and visitors dispersed, and we were able to to walk around the monument and look at the names, and the poppy wreathes from days and weeks past (one is presented, every night, on behalf of a different group, regiment, cadet core, country etc). This truly is a beautiful monument and place of remembrance.
In addition to the nightly Last Post, and the daily tours of the battlefields, the town of Ieper is also home to the In Flanders Field Museum. This museum goes through the history of World War I, with memorabilia, videos, stories and obviously, education. The museum was dark, so I don’t have many photos, but it was really well run. When you purchase your ticket, instead of a ticket you get a rubber bracelet with a poppy on it – containing an RFID tag. This tag lets you into the museum, activates a whole bunch of experiences, stories etc, and then saves all the stories you are connected to and emails them to you (if you want). You just tap your bracelet to any green wifi logo and access the learning experience. At the end you can return the bracelet for a €1,00 refund, or keep it as a souvenir (I’m pretty sure you can guess which option we preferred). While we felt 1 hour was adequate to tour the museum, it is still a must see if you are spending a few days in Ieper.
And of course the town itself is beautiful. The Cloth Hall, which was once the main “shopping plaza” of old Belgium how houses the aforementioned museum and city hall. The town church is right behind it, and normally it opens up to a big open square, lined with amazing eateries (all serving Mussels, as they are the local meal, and of course, were in season). Unfortunately there was a local carnival/fair in town, so bumper cars and roller coasters were lining the beautiful old square. But we tried to close our eyes and pretend they weren’t there. Overall, we loved our time in Ieper. It’s a must see town for anyone who is interested in history and, if I had my way, every Canadian high school student (pretty sure that isn’t in the education budget though…) So go, learn and never forget.