Menin Gate 30,000th Last Post Ceremony
It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for the broad brushstrokes of history.
It is easy from the safe distance of our comfortable 21st century lives to allow the past to be a distant stranger – to forget individual sacrifices made in our name.
In May 1928, the friend of an Australian mother, inconsolably grieving her missing, only son wrote to the Australian War Graves Commission asking for a photograph of the Menin Gate:
'…his mother is very old and feeble and it would give her great pleasure, or at least comfort, to know her son's name is inscribed among those heroes and is not forgotten as she now thinks. He was all she had and it was a terrible blow to her.'
Such was the meaning to my nation and its families of the Menin Gate, the names inscribed on it and, from 1928 - the nightly sounding of the Last Post.
Husbands, sons, fathers – missing, dead. No remains, no grave.
Of the 18,000 Australians killed in Flanders, more than 6,100 were missing - never to be heard from again.
William and Fanny Seabrook were raising their family in the Sydney suburb of Petersham, when Australia joined the Great War in 1914. Of their seven children, the three sons old enough to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) did so late in 1915. George, Theo and William served in France but then saw their first action in Belgium.
On the 20th of September 1917, the 17th battalion attacked the German position in front of the village of Westhoek, advancing more than a kilometre. Australia sustained 5,013 casualties in that battle of the Menin Road.
Lieutenant William Seabrook was hit by a phosphorous bomb that killed or wounded the full section of the platoon he was leading. He died the next day. In the breast pocket of William's tunic was found a photograph of his mother containing a single bullet hole.
While William was being stretchered from the battlefield in the early hours of that September day, George and Theo were both hit by the same artillery shell - killed instantly. George was 25 and Theo, just a year younger.
George and Theo's bodies were never found. Their names are on the Menin Gate.
William was buried in the Lijssenthoek Military cemetery next to the casualty clearing station where he died. He was 21 years old.
One family, three sons – all dead in a single day.
The devastating impact on the Seabrook family of the loss of their sons is beyond our comprehension.
Mrs Seabrook desperately wrote to the military authorities on the 27th of November 1917, in the knowledge of William's death but seeking information about Theo and George:
'….it is all very confusing to our minds and if you could explain to me we would be much obliged and thankful. The blow of losing our three sons in one battle is terrible. We are heartbroken.'
She later wrote to her member of parliament:
'Having given our three boys as a sacrifice to the country….their loss I will never recover and now my husband is a complete wreck…I have put my property up for sale as it seems there is no other way. Mr Seabrook has been raving about our three boys and has delusions of all kinds. Please pardon me for telling you all these things, but I have no one to confide in.'
She wrote again to the Defence Department in 1925 desperate still for any news:
'…after all these years, surely something should be known. It is heartbreaking for us.'
A chance encounter in Ypres (Ieper) two years later would inspire a focal point for such raw, inconsolable grief. It would also offer a sense of intimate closeness and meaning to the memory of those so loved and missed.
During an evening walk on the 23rd of July 1927, the Australian War artist Captain Will Longstaff encountered an Englishwoman, Mrs Mary Horsburgh at Hellfire Corner. She had run a British canteen during the war near the entry to the Ypres Salient. When Longstaff asked her if he could be of assistance, she replied:
'No. I just want to be with my dear boys. I can feel them all around me.'
The following day, Will Longstaff was among the 15,000 who had come for the official dedication of the Menin Gate Memorial. Within that throng of humanity were the forlorn families who had no grave to visit, no personal place to lay tokens of love and memory. The families of the missing from the Dominion countries such as Australia had neither hope of being there nor any reasonable prospect of ever being so.
Lord Plumer famously reached out to them across oceans and across time, 'He is not missing, he is here.'
The Somerset Light Infantry sounded the Last Post and pipers of the Scots Guards, standing on the ramparts, played a lament.
Longstaff was so profoundly moved, he could not sleep that night. He walked instead to the newly unveiled edifice and, standing under the Menin Gate felt the soldiers with him marching under it. He returned to London and painted Menin Gate at Midnight in a single sitting.
Lord Woolavington purchased the painting in 1928 and presented it to the Australian government as a gift. After its display in London and at Buckingham Palace for King George V, it toured Australia in 1928 and 1929.
Words cannot describe the impact of the battle of 'Passchendaele' nor the meaning of the Menin Gate to our young nation.
When Australia's population was 6 million, one million people went to see the painting as it toured the continent. A replica model of the Menin Gate, built as a part of the design and construction process of the actual memorial toured with the painting.
This hauntingly beautiful and evocative painting of the Menin Gate was the closest the Seabrooks and families 20,000 kilometres away, would ever get to their lost son, husband or father. Then there were the prints and reproductions sent to town halls, schools and the commemorative halls erected by veterans and their representative associations across the country.
The sounding of the Last Post at the Menin Gate - tonight for the 30,000th time, means more to Australia and Australians than you will ever know. The same can be said of the other dominion nations of the First World War.
This simple gesture, undertaken with such generous dignity by a small number of buglers and overseen by its volunteer association, resonates in the hearts and homes of all families whom you honour in this nightly ritual.
Yours is not a ceremony for the great, the noble and people of position. It is an expression of loss, suffering and love reaching into us all – across class, age, nationality and religion. With awkward humility, pilgrims bound by abiding reverence and a single emotion pause under the Gate as stillness descends. The cloak of remembrance wraps all who gather in mourning as a reminder that we are all equal in death.
The Last Post sounded at the Menin Gate arrests the soul.
The silence that surrounds it is the most powerful sound ever heard.
In that silence, I have always looked up to the names of young men whose lives are silent witnesses to the future they have given us. Those gathered from all parts of the world - including former foes, in their reverential reflection; quietly recommit themselves to one another and the ideals of mankind.
Each name reminds us of what was lost.
But as Reveille sounds, we are stirred to remember that the most fragile yet powerful of human emotions is - hope.
On 30,000 occasions, visitors to the Last Post ceremony have left inspired by twin fundamental ideals.
There are some truths by which we must live that are worth working to defend.
We honour them and their memory best - sustaining precious belief in a better future, by the way we live our lives and shape our world.
At her kitchen table, Mrs Seabrook was forced to find the words to give meaning to why so much that she loved had been given. She penned the epitaph for her son's headstone and the grave she would never see:
A WILLING SACRIFICE
FOR THE WORLD'S PEACE
Every night, The Ode is recited from Laurence Binyon's For the Fallen, written in 1914.
Also bequeathed to us in this poem is this:
Solemn the drums thrill
Death august and royal
sings sorrow up into mortal spheres
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
For the music in the desolation of our mournful grieving that speaks directly to the hearts of William and Fanny Seabrook, families and people everywhere - we honour and thank the Last Post Association for this simple, nightly ritual.
For in it, you have given meaning where there was none and enriched each one of us.
In doing so, you have made your willing sacrifice for that better world at peace for which William Seabrook, his brothers and millions of others gave their lives.