Since this is my first post on almondtree, I’ll make it about the Last Post. (see what I did there?)

The Last Post. This iconic bugle call is used in Commonwealth ceremonies to commemorate those fallen in war. To my mind, hearing it recalls Remembrance Day and images of the Cenotaph, veterans and dignitaries pausing with the nation to recollect suffering and self-sacrifice, courage and service.

I remember as a young and unappreciative boy attending the unveiling of a plaque at the Cheltenham War Memorial to commemorate the sacrifice of the Polish community in the Second World War. A photographer snapped my little sister, then aged three, crying (more I think from having to wear a Polish folk dress than a sober contemplation of the sacrifice of a generation) and the local paper published the story with her captioned, ‘Tears from Elizabeth Maj’ (we knew it was more ‘bored to tears’ than ‘moved to tears’).

The Last Post was first used by the British Army in the 17th century to signal the end of the day. The sentry posts around the camp would be inspected, and a bugle call played at each of them. The ‘last post’ was the last inspection, and hence the end of the military day. It has come to be used at military funerals to mark the end of a soldier’s days.

The Last Post is played every evening at the war memorial in Ypres, Belgium to remember those of the British Empire who died at Ypres during the 1914-18 War. This ceremony has been observed at the Menin Gate every evening at 8:00 since 1928, except for the four years of the German occupation 1940-44, when it was held in Brookwood cemetery, Surrey.

It is oft-forgotten that the Great War was fought for the freedom of Belgium. We easily recall our worthy foe the imperial German, but overlook the battleground. Belgium! Land of beer, pralines and waffles, which has repayed the world with Magritte (The Human Condition), Lemaitre (Big Bang theory) and Peyo (the Smurfs).

I have to say, I find this daily remembrance of sacrifice on the part of the Belgians quite touching. In my more reflective moments, as I imagine (in images drawn largely from Paths of Glory and Blackadder and Birdsong) a lone Tommy Atkins scrambling towards Passchendaele, I am moved by the nobility of the present-day Belgian in guarding his ceremony of thankfulness.

Last week, the day before my sister turned twenty, the last surviving soldier to fight in the trenches of the Great War died. Born when Queen Victoria was on the throne, Harry Patch was a founding member of the Royal Air Force, and was the third-oldest man in the world at the age of eleventy-one. He once recalled the moment in Flanders that he came face to face with a German soldier. Remembering God’s commandment ‘You shall not kill’, he shot the man in the shoulder, knee and ankle. ‘I had about five seconds to make the decision. I brought him down, but I didn’t kill him.’

It is hard to think myself into the boots of those who saw the sky dark with earth and felt the ground shake with the strike of metal. It is sad to me that the very last men to have witnessed this are soon to be gone. But we will remember them.

Incidentally, at the end of the Menin Gate ceremony, after the piped lament and the laying of the wreath, a second bugle call is played. The Reveille [French: ‘wake up’] was originally used to wake soldiers at sunrise, marking the beginning of a new day.

At the Menin Gate, the Last Post has come to represent, as the Last Post Association put it on their website, ‘a final farewell to the fallen at the end of their earthly labours and at the onset of their eternal rest.’ Meanwhile, the Reveille symbolises ‘not only a return to daily life at the end of the act of homage, but also the ultimate resurrection of the fallen on the Day of Judgement.’

All this makes me think of that great act of self-sacrifice and courage, when a scourged Jesus dragged his crossbeam up Skull Hill, and looked down at his executioners with forgiveness in his eyes. The sky darkened that day and the ground shook, but that Rome-sealed tomb wasn’t the last the world saw of Jesus. His was an achieving death. Just after sunrise on the Sunday, a few women discovered folded grave-clothes where the body had lain.

When the bugle call echoes out over the November cemetery, I’m thinking of an unprecedented sacrifice, the nightmare field where victory was won for liberty. The plain cross stands out among the poppies and a flag-wrapped coffin on the shoulders of the uniformed. The rhythmn built into nature by its creator; dusk and dawn, sunset and sunrise, grief and hope, defeat and freedom, death and resurrection.

The very day Polish forces liberated Ypres in the Second World War, the ceremony was resumed, despite heavy fighting continuing in the area. I love that. Whatever battle I’m engaged in, I want to be mindful of the almighty sacrifice made so many years ago, to ponder over the bread and the cup, to see the Christ who redeems the senseless slaughters of the hand of man. Death could not contain him. It was the death to end all death, and the life to bring all life. He is risen with healing in his wings to right all wrongs, to win everything, to bring final justice to those who were denied it in this life.

I love Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem For The Fallen-

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

May the haunting notes of the Last Post play out in remembrance alone, and never again for the squandered lives of any nation’s men.

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