As an MEP, I am privileged to be invited to several Remembrance ceremonies on Remembrance Sunday. Sadly, I can only go to one, and this year, I decided to go again to the Leicester ceremony, in Victoria Park, under the magnificent War Memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (who also designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and is an architect I greatly admire).
It is a solemn experience to sing the old hymns, to hear the old readings, and to stand in silence for two minutes with other Leicestershire people and with representatives of veterans’ organisations — and indeed, with some of the veterans themselves, from the Second World War and later conflicts. As so often, I found myself wondering why some emergency vehicle’s siren always seems to go off within ear-shot during the two minutes’ silence.
This year, however, I was able to attend another Remembrance event — the ceremony on Remembrance Day itself, Tuesday November 11th — at the Menin Gate in the little Belgian town of Ypres. We set off by coach from Brussels with a number of MEPs and staffers, and joined the march through the town to the Gate. After the event we walked back through the town and were struck by how many people there we knew — MEPs, former MPs, and a party from Northampton North organised by David Mackintosh.
The magnificent Menin Gate was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield. It includes staircases on either side which give access to loggias, and to gardens of remembrance on a higher level. On this Remembrance Day, the lawns were covered with cut-out poppies, each sponsored by individuals wishing to contribute to the day and to veterans’ charities.
The first battle of Ypres took place in 1914, while the second, the only major German assault on Western positions in the war, covered April and May 1915. It was marked by the first major use of chlorine gas in warfare. The third, also known as Passchendale, ran from August to November 1917, and claimed a dreadful toll — well over 100,000 Allied lives. There was also a fourth battle of Ypres, or the advance through Flanders, which took place in late September and early October 1918, shortly before the end of the war.
We stood there by the Gate in steady rain for an hour as the ceremony unfolded, and we thought of those brave men ninety years ago who lived through the Flanders mud, facing daily privations and peril, not just for an hour but for months and years on end. And we thought of the thousands who never returned, the 90,000 whose graves are unknown, but who are remembered here. It was a privilege to be there, but a still greater privilege to enjoy the freedom bought for us by the suffering, the courage and the fortitude of our great-grandparents.
As my good friend the Czech MEP Ivo Strejcek likes to say, freedom is very difficult to achieve, and all too easy to lose.
I recently found a poem that seems to express what we owe to the soldier:
It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.
Charles M. Province
Or as it says on the Leicester War Memorial: “All that they hoped for, all they had, they gave in the service of mankind. Themselves they scorned to save”.