THE MEMORIAL RITUAL
Rituals encasing the commemoration of World War I blend communities impacted by war. The series of actions similarly performed throughout Commonwealth countries and Europe create a shared language. The vocabulary is based on a sequence of activities performed often in or around a monument.
Formal ceremonies, full of official procedures, have been refined over time to become well-rehearsed sacraments. Annually, crowds converge for April 25 Anzac Day ceremonies and again, later in the year, for Remembrance Day. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month has attained a special significance in the post-war years, signifying when the guns of the Western Front fell silent after more than four years of continuous warfare.
These main events intermingle with intimate moments played out daily in and around monuments and cemeteries across the Western Front and Australia. In this age of the mobile phone, a photograph has traded its role of cherished artefact of a loved one in army uniform sitting above a lounge room mantlepiece, for another, rather habitual practice. Arms reach high to eagerly capture a self-photograph of a visiting Digger descendant, netted as evidence of being on site.
These all add to private story-telling rituals of family searches being quietly undertaken in the discretion of family homes. Personal ancestry quests are the domain of those with a passion for their family’s history and a desire to understand their roots.
These rituals, at times, substitute for the previous anti-commemoration attitudes of earlier generations – the memories of war too close to consider remembrance. One hundred years on, and with the distance of that time, a humanistic desire has been resurrected across communities to stop the erosion of memories. They have come together again to commemorate and pay their respects.
I had arrived early at the Menin Gate for The Last Post ceremony.
Afternoon light ricocheted off the 14-metre-high walls, casting eerie shadows. They appeared like silhouettes of those listed on the walls with no known grave. A slight sense of being followed by them hovered as I joined a smattering of others solemnly eyeing the rows and rows of names in disbelief. Personal rites were being unobtrusively executed all around me. A man with his teenage companion placed a small Australian flag beside a name on the wall and then sat together, leaning against the gate and staring back at their small token in silence. A man leaning heavily on his walker brushed tears away as his younger companion quietly stepped forward to place a wreath at the bottom of another row of names further along. He returned and placed his arm gently around the shoulders of the older man, and they too stood staring at their tribute in silence. A tattooed man outfitted in full biker leathers stood up from where he had been squatting down reading messages written on the crowd of flowers and wreaths sitting in a collection at the bottom of the stairs. The noise of him blowing his nose on a slight sob sounded loud in the peaceful silence otherwise encasing us.
As the shadows lengthened, I joined the serious-faced few milling about and taking up their positions where the ceremony was to be performed. Traditionally, the military used The Last Post as the bugle call signifying the end of the day’s activities, and at military funerals to indicate a soldier had gone to his final rest. Now it was common at commemorative services such as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, and nightly here in Ypres. It had been sounded under the arch every night at 8.00 p.m. almost every day since the end of World War I, except during World War II when Belgium had again been occupied.
I had heard the ceremony could be attended by hundreds who came to pay their respects. So far, there was a serene ambience that embraced the significance of this place and the reason we were gathered. As the European sky sank even closer to the level of the Menin Gate, the traffic was stopped to make way for the ritual to take place under the arches.
Then, they arrived.
A wave of voices washed down the streets, preceding the crowds as they started to arrive. They spilled out of nearby pubs and cafés. I was caught by surprise when my journalistic training, gained from years of joining media scrums at events, was required to retain my spot. I planted my feet firmly, bent my knees slightly, and refused to budge in the swirling, swelling crowd. A few elbows made contact, causing a grunt, but I stood firm.
At one point a media photographer started pushing his way through, but the crowd closed ranks. He brandished media credentials above his head, but to no avail; he was pushed back to the outskirts of the crowd.
The ceremony began and, like a flock of birds rising to the sky in unison, up came the phones, tablets and cameras in one motion. The sounds of tonight’s visiting band and speakers were joined by the whirling of fingers pressed to buttons. I joined in the mass image capture.
Then, the buglers appeared. I abruptly dropped my camera, turned it off and pressed it firmly against my leg. Straightening my back, I adopted the stillness that I always felt enter me as those first notes of The Last Post brought goose bumps onto my skin. I tried to shut out the continuing whirl of shutters and the clicks of various image-capturing devices that continued past the notes into the minute of silence. I barely stayed on my feet as the crowd swirled around me once again during the exodus.
I eventually found myself standing in the middle of the monument, rather alone. There were a handful of others there with me. I lingered with those who had not rushed back down the street. They walked slowly, heads down, reading the wreaths closely. They were silent, meandering with their thoughts. The feeling of earlier that afternoon, when it felt the shadows of war were falling over us, enveloped me again.