Evening photo of Menin Gate, site of Last Post Ceremony, Ypres, Belgium.
By permission of the Last Post Association
The Buglers of Menin Gate
By P. Bradley Ulrich
WWI Ypres Salient Overview
World War I, or the “Great War,” lasted from August 1914 until November 11, 1918 and at the time was the most horrific and costly war on record. At least nine million soldiers died from among the 60-65 million fighting for 36 countries. The British Commonwealth alone fielded nearly 9 million soldiers and of those, nearly 1 million died, including nearly 275,000 who died on the battlefields around Ypres, Belgium.
Menin Gate Memorial
At the end of the war the vast number of soldiers missing in the Ypres salient had to be accounted for and in 1919 plans began to commemorate them. The Menin Gate entrance to the town of Ypres was chosen for the memorial because hundreds of thousands of British troops passed through this east facing gate on their way to battle in the salient. In 1923, Sir Reginald Blomfield’s memorial design was underway and on July 24, 1927, Field Marshal Lord Plumer officially inaugurated the Menin Gate (Figure 2). Etched in the walls of the Menin Gate Memorial are nearly 55,000 names commemorating Commonwealth soldiers lost on the battlefield and have no known grave prior August 16, 1917. After this date, nearly 35,000 names of additional unknown, or lost soldiers, were carved on the walls at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Zonnebeke.
Early photos of the first buglers to perform the Last Post Ceremony, c. 1928.
By permission of the Last Post Association
In 1928, local officials and citizens were searching for a way to express their feelings of gratitude and sorrow for the deaths of the British soldiers. Police Superintendent, Pierre Vandenbraambussche, and others suggested playing the British “Last Post” bugle call every day because it had made a lasting impression on the local population at the inauguration of Menin Gate a year earlier. This group of people had originally intended to have it played every day during the “pilgrimage” season, the summer months lasting until September 30th each year. During these months thousands of families would visit the war graves and memorials commemorating their loved ones. It was at this time that the Last Post Association was formed as a voluntary non-profit organization consisting of residents from Ypres (Ieper), Belgium. This association founded the Last Post Ceremony in 1928 and is, to this day, responsible for every aspect of running the daily ceremony.
View of Menin Gate, Oct. 2021
The Last Post Call
The “Last Post” call originated in the British army and was originally published in a collection of 12 British bugle calls in 1790 (Example 1). At that time, a bugler would accompany the commanding officer on an inspection of the sentry posts surrounding the camp. The Last Post was played as a signal that the last sentry post inspection had occurred and the camp was safe for the night. This call would last approximately 45 seconds. It began to be used in memorial services in Commonwealth countries in the mid-19th century. When played in a memorial setting, the bugler, or group of buglers, typically take more time on the longer notes and rests and the call is played in a more solemn, expressive manner, typically lasting approximately 75 seconds.
The Beginning of the Last Post Ceremony
While the structures of Ypres were increasingly being rebuilt after the war, the social and cultural life of Ypres had not largely returned. This posed the question of where the buglers would come from to commit to this daily ceremony. The only organization that had “real” buglers in its ranks was the local fire brigade, which sounded bugles as fire alarms. Because of the fire brigade’s discipline, the committee thought they would be better suited for the serious nature of a daily ceremony. The Last Post Association committee agreed that the fire brigade buglers would be trained for this purpose and the tradition of using buglers from the fire brigade continues to this day. Bugles had to be found for the players and they would have to be instructed on how to play the instruments and also learn the British Last Post call. Musical instruction was given by Richard “Dick” Collick, a former British naval officer who returned to Ypres after the war to work for the Imperial War Graves Commission. Collick had occasionally performed the Last Post at solemn ceremonies during the 1920’s, as relatives of the dead and missing came to Ypres in large numbers. At 8:30 PM, on July 2, 1928, “The Last Post Ceremony” inauguration occurred and the first buglers played the Belgian, “Ter Velde” call, instead of the British “Last Post.” They also played the Belgian, “Retraite,” the equivalent of the British “Reveille” (Figure 1 and 1A). A local newspaper, “Het Ypersche,” mentioned on July 7, 1928, that the buglers would soon be playing the British calls once they were mastered. The high point of the annual pilgrimage season occurred on August 8, 1928 with the Great British Legion Pilgrimage. On this occasion, the Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VIII) was in attendance, along with 11,000 veterans and their families. Equally touching to the local residents of Ypres was a pilgrimage of British disabled veterans, which took place in September of the same year. Because of the enormous success of visits such as these, plans were made to continue the ceremony year-round beginning May 1, 1929. It continued in Ypres until the German occupation in World War II (which began May 20, 1940). During that time the playing of the Last Post was forbidden by the Germans at the Menin Gate, however, it continued in England at the Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. The Last Post Ceremony returned to Ypres when it was liberated from the Germans on September 6, 1944. Since May 1, 1929 to the completion of this article, the ceremony and playing of the Last Post has taken place every night for 32,332 consecutive nights. Even during the recent COVID-19 epidemic, the ceremony continued, with the buglers receiving special permission for them to continue to play each night, even though the public were not allowed to attend.
The Last Post Ceremony of Today
The Last Post Ceremony continues to be attended by people from around the world as the buglers lead the attendees in honoring a moment of silence for the fallen. The ceremony begins at Menin Gate promptly at 8:00 PM every evening after the local police have stopped traffic moving through the site. The buglers of the past wore street clothes and blazers, but today they wear the dress uniform of the local fire brigade and white gloves. During the winter months they add the uniform’s long winter coat. The buglers gather casually on the bridge leading to the memorial as the crowd gathers. When the time nears, they line up to march to their playing positions under the center of the entrance to the memorial. Soft spoken commands are given by one of the buglers so they march to position and turn in unison. The slow march begins with the left foot forward, the left arm back. The bugles are held near the bell of the instrument, by the right hand and when at attention or marching, the bell rests on the right thigh. On command they raise the bugles in front of them with the bell down, parallel to the player’s body, and then to the mouth. They begin by playing the short call, “Garde à vous” (French for “Attention”), which silences the crowd (Example 2). Once silence is gained, they play the Last Post call (Example 1) and return their instruments out front and then down to the leg. The “exhortation” follows a moment of silence after the Last Post. At this time a single person recites the fourth stanza of Laurence Binyon’s 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.”
Those attending the ceremony respond by repeating, “We will remember them.” On occasion, if a bagpiper is part of the ceremony, this recitation is followed by “The Lament.” The most popular piece performed for the Lament is the Scottish folk melody, “The Flowers of the Forest.” After the haunting notes of the bagpipe fade, the next portion of the ceremony, the “laying of the wreaths,” begins. Here, relatives, or friends of the fallen, step forward to place wreaths of poppies on a memorial for the dead. When this touching event concludes, the buglers perform a “Reveille,” or “Rouse.” The buglers have three calls from which they choose for this portion of the ceremony. They call them the “long Reveille” (Example 3), the “Rouse,” which is mostly known by people from the Commonwealth (Example 4), and the “Charlie” Reveille (Example 5). These calls, through the years, have gained near religious significance because, while they were intended to “wake” the troops in the morning, they now signify, to some, the waking of the dead to eternal life. Following this call, the buglers turn and march from their position, which concludes the ceremony and the crowd disperses.
The Buglers of Today
The Current Volunteer Fire Brigade Buglers of the Last Post Association
L-R Jan Callemein, Tonny Desodt, Filip Deramoudt, Raf Decombel, Christophe Wils,
Rik Vandekerckhove (Chief Bugler and Full-time Fire Fighter)
There are currently six buglers in the company, Rik Vandekerckhove (Chief Bugler), Raf Decombel, Christophe Wils, Jan Callemein, Tonny Desodt, and Filip Deramoudt. Buglers who enter into this volunteer service typically serve for long periods of time (Figure 3 and Figure 3A). There have only been 20 buglers who have performed this nightly service since 1927, the newest member being Filip Deramoudt who began in 2018.
Eugene Angellis 1927-1940
Henri Lacante 1927-1940
Cyriel Demeulenaere 1927-1950
Jozef Arfeuille 1928-1955
Albert Catteeuw 1935-1960
Maurice Baratto 1944-1980
Daniel Demey 1945-1995
Antoine Verschoot 1954-2015
Jan Roose 1960-1968
Albert Verkouter 1966-2010
Martial Verschoot 1980-1987
Rik Vandekerckhove 1981-
Michel Ghesquiere 1983-2003
Dirk Vandekerckhove 1986-2019
Tonny Desodt 1995-
Raf Decombel 2000-
Filip Top 2007-2016
Jan Callemein 2008-
Christophe Wils 2010-
Filip Deramoudt 2018-
In 2021, Rik Vandekerchove, celebrated his 40th anniversary of service and Tonny Desodt, his 26th. The longest serving bugler was Antoine Verschoot, who played for 61 years and passed away in 2015 at the age of 91 (Figure 4).
Longest serving bugler, Antoine Verschoot, who played for 61 years and passed away in 2015 at age 91. By permission of the Last Post Association
Buglers of the Last Post Association must, to this day, be members of the Ypres fire brigade (5 are volunteer and 1 is full-time). The fire fighters may volunteer with the Last Post Association if they have school music experience, or if they are willing to learn to play. Once they are trained and fluent on the bugle they can begin participation in the ceremony. Most of them do not read music. The six buglers perform in groups of three, alternating weeks. On special occasions, all six will perform together. Special occasions, to name a few, include Remembrance Day (Armistice Day), November 11, ANZAC Day (Australian New Zealand Army Corps) April 25th, and the anniversary of the end of the battle of Passchendaele (November 6). On many special occasions, presidents, royalty, political leaders, religious leaders, veterans, and military leaders attend the ceremony at Menin Gate, which has become the primary point of remembrance for British soldiers who died in Belgium. Crowds at Menin Gate vary in size from dozens to thousands, depending on the season and the occasion. Many special ceremonies also include military and civilian bands, choirs, and soloists (Figure 5).
Dignitaries, Bands, Banners, and large crowds are a frequent sight during special occasions.
By permission of the Last Post Association
However, only the Buglers of the Last Post Association are allowed to perform the Last Post call at the Menin Gate Memorial. While in Ypres researching this article, I was asked by the buglers to perform the Rouse at the ceremony. I was among very few civilians since 1927 to have been asked to play at the ceremony and I consider it one of the greatest honors of my life (Figure 6 and 7).
P. Bradley Ulrich performed the “Rouse” at Menin Gate on October 22, 2021 and posed with Last Post Association Buglers at Menin Gate October 22, 2021. By permission of Steve Douglas
Because the groups of buglers play in alternating weeks, it is important for all of them to get together once per month in order to maintain a consistent style and presentation of the pieces. These rehearsals take place at the local fire brigade, typically at night, after a Last Post Ceremony. The group is instructed by Roland Neyrinck, a retired member of The Royal Band of the Belgian Guides, which includes a trumpet and bugle platoon of 19 musicians. Roland Neyrinck teaches the buglers new calls by rote and solfege because they do not read music. After working on several new calls, the buglers rehearse all the music they need for the upcoming ceremonies.
The buglers of the past performed on a variety of instruments, depending on what was made available to them at the time. In 1959, two silver bugles were given by Colonel W.M. Whitaker and the Royal Artillery Band to the Last Post Association. One of these bugles can be viewed in the “In Flanders Fields” museum located in the center of Ypres (Figure 8 and 9).
One of two bugles given on November 11, 1959 to the Last Post Association in Honor of British and Allied Artillerymen Killed during WWI and WWII. In Flanders Fields Museum. Ypres, Belgium
Currently, the buglers are performing on a matched set of silver B-flat bugles by McQueens of Manchester, England, which were given to the Last Post Association on June 8, 2007 by the British Legion (Figure 10).
One of six McQueens of Manchester bugles given to the Last Post Association
by the Royal British Legion on June 8, 2007
Players chooses their own mouthpieces, which have included Schilke, Besson, Wick, Bach, and Kelly. Several prefer the acrylic Kelly mouthpieces because the acrylic rim is more comfortable in the often cold, rainy weather at the time of performance. In 2022, Pickett Brass and Blackburn Trumpets donated six trumpet mouthpieces (three 1.5C and three 3C) with clear acrylic rims to the Last Post Association to help unify the sound of the group and help the volunteer buglers in the often inclement weather.
The level of commitment of the Volunteers of the Last Post Association, is truly remarkable. Every night the bugle players, Ceremonial Assistants, the Board of Directors, photographers, and many volunteers provide one of the most meaningful ceremonies of remembrance in Europe. The group of buglers remain extremely humble with regards to their very important service. It is extraordinary that these buglers hold full-time jobs, are volunteer fire fighters, have families, and yet hold steadfast in their commitment of continuing the traditions of the Last Post Ceremony. As busy as their lives are, they have a profound respect for the history and suffering of the soldiers and continue to play the bugle calls honoring the hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the British Commonwealth who died defending Belgium during the Great War. The local population are quick to recognize these extraordinary men and because of their dedication and performances at the Menin Gate, they have been asked to perform in England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, for major WWI anniversary ceremonies. While some travel, others must remain behind to continue the incredible streak of nightly soundings of the Last Post in Ypres, Belgium. In October 2021, The International Trumpet Guild presented each bugler of the Last Post Association a certificate stating,
“In Appreciation for Your Dedication and Bugle Performances at The Menin Gate Ceremony Honoring The memory of Soldiers Who Died in Ypres, Belgium in World War I (Figure 11).
Last Post Association Buglers receiving certificates from the International Trumpet Guild honoring their dedication to performing at the Menin Gate Ceremony.
L-R Jan Callemein, Tonny Desodt, Filip Deramoudt, P. Bradley Ulrich (ITG Representative),
Raf Decombel, Christophe Wils, Rik Vandekerckhove
I wish to express my gratitude to the Last Post Association, the Buglers (especially Tonnyt Desodt), and Jan Matsaert, photographer for the association. For more information visit https://lastpost.be
About the Author
Dr. P. Bradley Ulrich has been the Professor of Trumpet at Western Carolina University since 1989. He maintains an active career as a soloist, orchestral player, and brass quintet musician, in addition to teaching studio trumpet lessons and master classes. Dr. Ulrich has performed and taught around the world and has also been active as a collaborative music, including bringing 50 American musicians to Russia over the last decade. While passionate about the trumpet, he is also passionate about WWI history and has visited the battlefields in France and Belgium four times.