During First World War, nearly 900,000 soldiers and more than 100,000 civilians lost their lives. That’s a staggering and horrific 2.19 per cent of the British population at that time. Many more were wounded, often severely.
In Ypres, one third of the total military losses occurred. In 1927, a memorial was opened at the Menin gate as an expression of gratitude from the Belgium population for the sacrifices that were made for their freedom.
The Last Post was played as a sign of respect and honour for those men on the evening of its unveiling. Since then, something remarkable has happened. Something worth seeing – regardless of your views on war. Every night at 8pm, a small group of men from the local fire brigade close the road and sound the same bugle call. They haven’t missed a night since 28 July 1928.
When Belgium was occupied by Nazi forces, the Last Post ceremony was held in Surrey instead. As soon as Polish forces liberated Ypres, the ceremony resumed, despite the heavy fighting continuing in other parts of the city.
For the population of Ypres, it was important to remember the huge price that the soldiers paid to bring them freedom.
On the Menin gate itself, there are 54,389 names inscribed. These are the names of Commonwealth forces soldiers who died before 16 August 1917, who have no known grave. The aim was to provide a place for every fallen soldier’s family and friends to be able grieve and remember.
The Ypres Salient, the area around Ypres where some of the biggest battles in the First World War took place, is famous not just for the brutality of the fighting, but also for an unassuming Anglican clergyman called Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy.
You might know him better as Woodbine Willy – so-called for his habit of dishing out woodbine cigarettes to the wounded and dying on the battlefield, as well as prayer and spiritual guidance.
The seventh of nine children and hailing from Leeds, he was a vicar in Worcester when the war broke out. Quickly volunteering, he found himself on the Western Front. Not shying away from danger, he would fearlessly minister to the soldiers, often in no man’s land, armed only with his Bible and cigarettes.
One celebrated story tells of him crawling out to a working party putting up wire in front of their trench. A nervous soldier challenged him, asking who he was, and he said: “The Church.” When the soldier asked what the Church was doing out there, he replied: “Its job.”
He was awarded the Military Cross at the battle of Messines Ridge for running repeatedly into no man’s land to help the wounded.
The citation said this:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.”
After the war he became closely involved in the Christian socialist and the pacifist movements, touring the country giving public lectures. It was during a tour of Liverpool in 1929 that he fell ill and died. A crowd of more than 2,000 turned out for his funeral procession, lining from Worcester cathedral to his old parish church of St Paul’s. They tossed packets of Woodbines onto the passing cortege – a gesture the Rev Studdert Kennedy would probably have thoroughly approved of, being a heavy smoker himself.
Woodbine Willy was a man who was prepared to put his own life on the line. Motivated by God’s love and the message of Jesus, he was prepared to lose his life to bring life to others.
But 2,000 years ago, Jesus did give up his life for humanity. It was the ultimate sacrifice. The Bible says: “No greater love is there than this, that a man gives up his life for his friends.”
The Bible also gives us a future hope, that one day there will be no more war and no more brutality. As we remember those who paid the price 100 years ago and in more recent conflicts around the world on Remembrance Day, let’s also remember this promise from Isaiah 9:5-7:
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.