I recall Remembrance Day services as a young Boy Scout in Digby, N.S., bursting with pride as I carried a Red Ensign along the waterfront. I remember visiting my parents in Yarmouth County as a young adult, attending small services in South Ohio, a couple dozen people gathered in the rain at a cenotaph outside the now-demolished Baptist church. When I went to my first Remembrance Day service at Grand Parade in Halifax, I was shocked to see hundreds in the tiny square, shivering through speeches and songs.
But I’ve never experienced a Remembrance Day like today’s ceremony at Menin Gate in Ieper, Belgium. The Gate, really an outsized memorial, includes the Hall of Memory, featuring the names of some 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the area without their bodies being found or identified.
Visitors, particularly British descendants of war veterans, make pilgrimages here year-round. Today was the biggest group the site ever hosted, or likely ever will.
Thousands jammed the small town for the commemoration. The crush of people near the Gate was almost impassable. Most couldn’t get near the event; they had to watch on large monitors or listen carefully for distant snatches of sound. Media from around the world covered the event. In the press area, I threw elbows as an Indian TV crew tried to “share” my space. Delegates from around the world laid wreaths. Tunes like “Abide with me” and “Danny boy” echoed off the mausoleum walls. Poppy petals rained from the roof at the service’s conclusion.
Such services date back to the construction of the memorial in 1927. Today’s was the biggest the site ever hosted, or likely ever will.
But here, it happens every day.
Every night, there’s a Last Post ceremony here. It’s the most fitting place I can imagine to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War’s conclusion. It’s tempting on occasions like this centenary to seek closure. We spend four years marking the war’s key dates, and then we dust off our hands and say “That’s done! On to the next war’s anniversaries!”
But at Menin Gate, you can’t do that. On a day like this, when thousands throng the site or, on a frosty day in winter, when a few hardy souls come to visit, the commemoration never ends. It’s a poignant reminder that the work isn’t done. If we just tick off this year’s Remembrance Day as a centenary successfully celebrated, what have we really accomplished?
On Nov. 12, there will be another ceremony here. And again on Nov. 13. And again and again as long as Menin Gate stands. And it should continue. For me, that’s today’s lesson.
Peace eludes us. Democracy remains in peril. The innocent still suffer. The work is undone. The “Last Post” echoes endlessly at Menin Gate, a reminder of our work undone and closure unfound.