Every evening at 8 o’clock in Ypres in Belgium, four buglers from the town’s volunteer fire brigade assemble under the imposing Menin Gate. Passers by fall silent as the men sound the Last Post.
The local police chief, Pierre Vandenbraambussche, instituted the practice as an expression of thanks by Belgium for those who died to win back its freedom and independence. The Last Post has been played at the Menin Gate every night since then apart from during the Second World War.
The Menin Gate stands in the east of Ypres. As the sun sets, the buglers and tourists turn back into the town leaving behind them the arch that marks the passage of so many young men who passed that way to the fighting, many never to return.
Ypres, which British soldiers always pronounced Wipers – was almost destroyed by shelling during the First World War. The town has come to symbolise the struggle itself.
This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War in July and August 1914. Notable for its appalling loss of life – over one million men died during the Battle of the Somme alone – the war was the first to be fought on an industrial scale using the full might of factories and machines.
Railways, machine guns and mass– produced ordnance made it one of the most bloody and fatal land wars the world has ever seen. Battlefield railways meant men and munitions could be moved in greater numbers than ever before right up to the front line. Away from the front, whole armies could be moved by rail from one section of the front to another.
One hundred years on it is reasonable to ask what caused this terrible war. There are two explanations. First culprit was the growing tensions of an imperialist and unwieldy Europe. Secondly the assassination of a prince and his wife by a terrorist – two murders that gave rise to the death of millions.
Europe, on the eve of the Great War, was largely dominated by empires: The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia and Germany. France and Britain had huge overseas empires. Countries like Finland, Poland, Estonia and Ireland were provinces of large imperial combines that effectively dominated the world.
Poland, a nation since the early middle ages, effectively disappeared in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, not regaining statehood until 1919. The history of the 19th century is one of nations breaking free of old empires.
Greece fought free of the Ottoman Empire, south American republics kicked out Spain. Serbia fought a protracted struggle for independence from both the Turks and the Austrians. However nationalism also led to the emergence of larger homogenous states – a united Germany, forged by Otto von Bismarck.
Italy also achieved unification. Hitherto both countries had been a patchwork of semi independent states and principalities complete with fairytale castles and armies in red and blue. Functioning democracies like Switzerland and Holland were the exception rather than the rule.
Against this backdrop of story book hussars and empires the size of a time zone, the immediate origins of the Great War seem banal.
In June 1914 the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, with his wife, Sophia (Pictured below), insisted on travelling to the town of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina,
a Balkan province once occupied by Turkey but now part of Austria. Travelling through Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophia were shot dead by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb terrorist (Pictured bottom left).
Of itself the incident, which horrified Austria-Hungary, should have led to no more than diplomatic protest and the trial of the conspirators. Princip was captured and despatched to Austria where he was tried and later died in prison. Princip was incarcerated at a place that became infamous as the Thereisendstadt concentration camp 20 years later in Czechoslovakia.
However, the Serbian military was widely implicated in the plot. Austria- Hungary demanded action and a wide ranging enquiry. Years of rivalry between the powers burst open.
Dissatisfied by the Serbian response to the assassination, Austria-Hungary mobilised and declared war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. This in turn precipitated a Russian mobilisation – Russia was a guarantor of Serbian independence seeking to protect a fellow Orthodox and Slavic power.
As the summer boiled on, Russia’s action meant Germany mobilised, alarmed that an Austrian-Russian conflagration would catch it unprepared.
Germany’s Kaiser, Wilhelm II, had known the murdered Franz Ferdinand well and mourned the tragic death of the young couple. Russia was allied with France. Belgium was neutral and guaranteed by Britain.
Germany declared war on Russia and then France at the beginning of August. Victory for Germany in any European war depended on knocking out France and facing off Russia. The von Schlieffen plan was put into action. German forces under Moltke invaded Luxembourg and Belgium and swept into France. With Belgium neutrality violated, Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August.
The initial stages of the war seemed a continuation of the sabre rattling that had bedevilled European politics for the past 40 years. Young men going off to join up along with all their friends and brothers from a particular street or village gave small thought to this.
What soldiers they knew were dare devil men who had fought wars in mountain and desert in the far flung outposts of empire. It would be an end-of-summer adventure. They’d be home to get the harvest in, certainly by Christmas.
The conventional view – particularly in Belgium – is that the war was fought for freedom, for the right of a sovereign people to choose their own government and change it every once in a while through free elections. That was President Woodrow Wilson’s view when he finally brought the United States into the war.
The world should be made safe for democracy and sovereign peoples given their own states. The British and French didn’t like it but had to agree. Marxists still argue that conventional democracy merely perpetuates a sort of middle class capitalist hegemony and that both wars were more about class struggle than freedom.
That was not how it seemed in early September 1944 when units of the Polish 1st Armoured Division reached Ypres. All day Polish soldiers and local resistance fighters engaged German troops in house to house fighting. Towards evening scouts reported massive German withdrawals. Snipers left behind continued the killing.
The Last Post
As the gun fire continued, an old fireman, Fred Arfeuille, slipped across the deserted town, dodging from doorway to doorway. At 8.00 o’clock Mr Arfeuille stood once more beneath the Menin Gate (Pictured above). Alone and bare headed he took out his bugle and taking a deep breath put it to his lips. Despite the crack and zing of bullets he played the Last Post.
Then a strange thing happened. Townsfolk with admitted hesitancy came onto the streets. A café owner rolled up his shutters. People gathered for a drink with their liberators having overcome their suspicions of these strange men in British Army uniforms. How fitting, some said, that Polish soldiers should liberate this town whose name is synonymous with the struggles of the Great War.
Friends urged Fred Arfeuille to take cover but he wouldn’t. That night Mr Afreuille played the Last Post six times – one for every year of the war. Men of the Ypres Fire Brigade have honoured the dead in this way every evening ever since.
Written by Andy Milne