Battle of Passchendaele
At 53, Raf Decombel is way too young to have heard the call to battle in his native Belgium. But he's answered another call: to honour the memory of the soldiers from the British Empire who fought and died on Belgian soil during World War I.
Decombel is one of eight buglers who play the Last Post, the haunting salute to the fallen, each day at 8pm under the arches of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in his hometown of Ieper [formerly Ypres]. The names of 54,869 men who have no known grave are listed on the memorial.
Belgium was invaded by Germany in August 1914 and Ieper lies close to the infamous battlefields of Passchendaele and surrounding sites known as the Ypres Salient, where hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth troops were killed or injured.
Decombel, his fellow buglers, and many others from Ieper ensure they are never forgotten. The solemn daily ceremony has been strongly woven into the fabric of Ieper, which was decimated during World War I, rose from the carnage and now calls itself the City of Peace.
Decombel, an architect, has been playing at the Menin Gate for 11 years. "It's part of my life," he says simply, "if [for some reason] we can't do it, we're not happy.
"If you haven't been there, you can't understand. You have to be there to feel the atmosphere. Until eight o'clock, life goes on, then at that moment, life stops. Just as it stopped for all those listed on the Menin Gate. It is a moment of remembrance for all those who came here from the other side of the world."
The ceremony takes about five minutes.
"It's these five minutes that make the day; then the traffic starts and life goes."
Decombel's missing from the Ieper bugling line-up at the moment. He's in New Zealand for an Anzac Day assignment on Wednesday, where he'll play the Last Post in ceremonies in Hamilton rather than Belgium, due to a special link with Ieper started by Hamilton city councillor Peter Bos, a former military man.
Decombel's spent some time in the South Island before heading for the Waikato; on the phone from Queenstown last week, he talks about the tradition started in his hometown in 1928, following the inauguration of the Menin Gate memorial.
Decombel and his fellow buglers are members of The Last Post Association, and also the Ieper volunteer fire brigade which has supplied the buglers since the ceremonies began.
Decombel had joined the fire brigade, and he put his name forward when there was a call for more bugling candidates. He spent nearly a year in training, then took his place at the Menin Gate.
The buglers - in fire brigade uniform - play four at a time, week on, week off, in all elements. Decombel explains the strong commitment, pointing out there have only been 18 buglers since the ceremonies started and the chief bugler, now 86, has been playing for 57 years.
"Recently he [the chief bugler] was ill and couldn't play for nearly a month. You could see the smile on his face when he came back."
Decombel's reason for being there is simple: "For me, it is an honour to do so. How could we live in peace and freedom today without all the volunteers who came so far? If that hadn't happened, we should have been talking German as our mother tongue. Without them, we could not have been free."
He says the nightly ceremony honours the dead and those who fought for freedom, and it also sends a message to the next generation "that war never gives a solution".
The tentacles of the Great War reached wide. Decombel mentions that during his visit to Queenstown, he went to the small settlement of Glenorchy at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. He found a World War I memorial with more than 20 names listed and he is moved by the cost of these lives in a sparsely populated area. He noted that some surnames were the same, indicating the loss of brothers and an unimaginable impact on families.
"There were so many lost soldiers, really a whole generation disappeared."
Decombel says the numbers of people attending the Menin Gate ceremony has grown over the years. In the beginning it may have just been the buglers and the policemen who stopped and started the traffic. Now there are 300-400 people on many days, with numbers building to over 1000 on Fridays and Saturdays.
People come from all over the world, some with connections to the dead. Decombel's heard many stories from visitors; sometimes they'll point to a name and say, "that's my grandfather".
Decombel hopes to play for another 30 years, and he says the tradition will never die out. Even for the buglers, the ceremony is exceptional. "If you're not on duty you want to be there. A day without the Last Post is a day you did not live."
He's looking forward to Anzac Day in the Waikato, even if it means being absent from Ieper.
This is the second time Decombel will blow the Last Post at the Hamilton Cenotaph. The first time was on Anzac Day 2007, due to a link fostered between Ieper and Hamilton by local city councillor Peter Bos.
Bos' fascination with the Battle of Passchendaele and the Belgians' commitment to honouring those who died on their lands began on Anzac Day 2006.
Bos says he'd done his regular thing that year of attending the dawn parade and the later civic service in the city. Afterwards he called into the RSA for a few drinks, went home and watched New Zealand actor Robyn Malcolm's television documentary called Our Lost War.
Malcolm had visited the towns of Passchendaele and Ieper in Belgium for her film, both near the cemetery where her great-uncle Private George Salmond is buried with hundreds of other New Zealand Division soldiers who were part of the slaughter in 1917.
Passchendaele has never been marked in the same way as the New Zealand effort at Gallipoli has, and yet far more Kiwis were killed and injured there than at Gallipoli. Malcolm's documentary highlighted the deaths and the suffering in this area.
Bos says he was feeling a bit emotional and the lesser-known story pricked his conscience. "As horrible as Gallipoli was, the horror of this was far greater."
He was particularly moved by the generosity of spirit of the people of Ieper, and the simple commemorative ceremony of the Last Post at the Menin Gate.
The Menin memorial - built by the British government and unveiled on July 24, 1927 - is at the eastern exit of the town, the starting point for one of the main roads that led Allied soldiers to the front line.
Bos reels off the numbers of the dead, those who never walked back this way: more than 250,000 British and Commonwealth troops, more than 100,000 of them have no known graves.
Bos was fired up by what he'd seen and went to Hamilton mayor Michael Redman and said, "I want to recreate the Menin Gate at the Cenotaph in Hamilton." Bos says Redman replied along the lines of, Wonderful idea, but there's no money in the budget for it.
"When my passion gets pricked, I don't give up," Bos says. "I made three phone calls, told them my dream, and it was done."
His phone calls had pulled together business sponsorship and design expertise and in 2007 the Menin Gate was recreated in 3D in time for the city's Anzac Day ceremony marking the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. A delegation from Ieper attended, including mayor Luc Dehaene, bugler Raf Decombel and others.
The following year, Bos travelled to Ieper for Anzac Day, he took part in ceremonies and, among other things, laid a wreath on the grave of All Blacks captain Dave Gallagher, who died in 1917 from battle injuries.
Friendships have flourished between the civic hierarchies of Hamilton and Ieper. Luc Dehaene was made an honorary citizen of Hamilton in 2009 in recognition of Ieper's ongoing generosity in caring for and remembering the large number of New Zealanders who died in battles around the city in World War I.
Bos says Belgians have asked him, why Kiwi soldiers came from the utmost ends of the Earth to fight there.
Bos's reply is along the lines of "maybe for King and country, maybe they were bored with milking cows, maybe it was an adventure."
He's asked them why they play the Last Post for the dead every day.
They've replied in similar vein to Raf Decombel, describing how moved they've been that people from so many countries, from so far away, would fight for Belgian freedom on their land.
Bos's first grandchild, Ethan, was born when he and wife Jan were in Belgium in 2008. He said to his hosts at the time: "When my grandson is old enough, I'm going to tell him the story of this place."
Ethan turned four yesterday; next year, Bos's dream for Anzac Day is for his grandson to join him in laying a wreath at the Cenotaph.
- © Fairfax NZ News