The Last Post Ceremony and remembering former bugler Antoon Verschoot

WW1 Battlefield ToursOn Wednesday, 1 February 2017 we received the sad news that Antoon Verschoot had passed away in Ieper at the grand old age of 91 years. Antoon was a bugler of the Last Post Association from 1954 until December 2015 and, together with his fellow buglers, he had played the Last Post some 15,000 times under the Menin Gate to honour the memory of the soldiers who died in Flanders during the First World War.

Always faithfully at his post at 8 o’clock each evening, from Monday to Sunday, he would even come to support his fellow buglers when he himself was not on duty and pay his respects to those who had died for our freedom. Honorary Chairman Guy Gruwez and Chairman Benoit Mottrie have both testified to his great dedication: “With his many years of commitment to the Last Post Association, Antoon was an unparalleled example of devotion to duty. He was always good-humoured and ready for a laugh and a joke, but when the clock on the Cloth Hall struck eight he was equally ready to perform his duty with the dignity and seriousness he always demanded of himself and the others in his team. With the passing of Antoon Verschoot, the Last Post Association has lost one of its leading figures. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Antoon and to his past and present colleagues. Our thoughts are in the first  instance with his widow, Suzanne, his children, his grandchildren and his family. They have always supported Antoon throughout his many years of devoted service to the Last Post Association.”

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This outstanding record was recognised with the award of various national and international decorations, including the British MBE and the Order of Australia. He was also a Knight in the Order of the Crown (Belgium).

But what of the Last Post Ceremony that takes place under the Menin Gate at precisely 8 o’clock every evening come rain or shine, a must see for anyone who visits Ypres and the Menin Gate on a battlefield tour.

The Last Post was formally played under the Menin Gate for the first time during its inauguration ceremony on the 24th July 1927 and was performed by buglers of the Sommerset Light Infantry. Prior to the ceremony on the 9th July the local police chief, Commandant Pierre Vandenbraambussche had read an article in a local weekly newspaper which said:

“This Gate erected by the people of the British Empire in honour of their dead, is donated to the citizens of Ypres to be an adornment to their city and a memorial to the days when the British Army defended it against the invader”. The paper then asked “How can we show our high regard and respect for the fallen, our gatitude to the great and noble British race?”.

Remembrance Day ToursWhen he saw the performance of the Last Post at the opening ceremony the answer was apparent to him; a daily ceremony under the gate. He quickly gathered some like-minded friends to supply the logistical and financial support for this idea. Among them was Aimé Gruwez, Chairman of the Ypriana Brass Band and notable businessmen from Ypres. The Last Post Committee, as they became known, was officially formed in 1930 with Pierre Vandenbraambussche as Chairman. They were later renamed the Last Post Association.

A supporter of this idea was Maurice Vergracht, commander of the local fire brigade, and he placed the brigade’s buglers at the disposal of Pierre Vandenbraambussche and a local Englishman, Richard “Dick” Collick (an employee of the War Graves Commission) who taught the firemen how to play the Last Post “in the English style”.

World War 1 Group toursThe original buglers were referred to as the buglers of the local fire brigade and occassionaly they were called members of the Ypriana Brass Band. The fact is, they were and still are – buglers of the Last Post Committee. It is true that all buglers are members of the local volunteer fire brigade. However, there are no formal links between the brigade and Last Post Committee. In the early days the Ypriana Brass Band lent its buglers who servered in the fire brigade to the committee but over the years this informal tie has faded away.

Armistice Day Group ToursThe Last Post was played sparodically in Ypres and under the Menin Gate throughout 1927 but only on important occasions. In the summer of 1928 the time had come to launch this nightly event and the first Last Post Ceremony was officially held under the Menin Gate on the 2nd July at 8:30pm and was viewed by approximately 70 spectators.

The buglers originally played in their work clothes to give the effect that this was a spontaneous tribute from the ordinary people of Ypres who believed they owed so much to the fallen of the Great War. However there were soon many requests, some from the people of Ypres itself, that they should be issued with some kind of uniform, even if only an overcoat or cap.

At the time of writing this blog, the Last Post has been played under the Menin Gate Memorial 30,578 times. There has only been one break in this nightly ritual and that was during the Second World War when it was suspended on the 20th May 1940 but was still played at the Military Cemetery Brookwood in England by the Brookwood Last Post Committee (a sister organisation). However, as soon as the 1st Polish Brigade liberated the town on the 6th September 1944, Joseph “Fred” Arfeuille, one of the old Last Post Buglers, played the Last Post under the Menin Gate at 6:00pm. The retreating Germans could hear this being played two kilometres away.

I wonder if Pierre Vandenbraambussche ever thought that his idea would be so popular and last this long and be so well acclaimed throughout the world.

WW1 Battlefield ToursOver the years I have taken part in the Last Post Ceremony on many occasions. I have been proud to take part on my own and with my battlefield tour parties and especially with our Armistice Day Remembrance Tour Group.

I have a reason for standing under the gate and feeling so proud; my Grandfather, Rifleman William James Eden, died defending this town and his name is recorded on this imposing and proud structure. But anyone who wants to remember the fallen and lay a wreath is made welcome by the Last Post Association, you don’t have to have relatives that fought.

This ceremony of remembrance will keep attracting crowds because it is so special and I defy anyone to watch this respectful and proud ceremony and not feel moved.WW1 Battlefield Tour

Pictured above left is Allison and Olivia with Antoon and the buglers. Olivia was three when she first took part in the Last Post Ceremony and laid a poppy posy for her Great Grandfather. Pictured right is the last time Olivia took part with me during one of our Somme and Ypres Battlefield Tours that was on the anniversary of my Grandfather’s death – 31 October 1914.

God bless Antoon.

Lest we Forget