YPRES BELGIUM – As a bugler played the “Last Post,” a cascade of red paper poppies floated down Monday from Menin Gate in Ypres as visitors from around the globe came to honor the dead of World War I.
The gate’s vaulted ceiling in the Belgian town lists the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives during World War I and have no known grave. The spot was chosen as nearly every Allied soldier marched over it or near it en route to the war’s muddy battlefields of Flanders.
On Monday, the 95th anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice that ended World War I, the haunting lines written by poet Robert Laurence Binyon for the Great War’s fallen were solemnly read aloud.
“They shall grow not 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.”
Emily Chamberlain from Gosport, England, was among the visitors searching the gate for the name of a distant relative who died in World War I.
“I’m so, so happy that I found it. I was sure I would never be able to find it among all the names on this wall,” she said Monday. “Now, I can go home happy.”
Later in the afternoon, Prince Philip, husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, joined Belgium’s Prince Laurent and other dignitaries at a handover ceremony of soil collected from Commonwealth war cemeteries throughout Belgium.
The 70 sandbags, gathered by Belgian and British children, were presented to British soldiers from the Household Division, who on Sunday took part in a ceremony of remembrance for Britain’s war dead at the Cenotaph in London.
A gun carriage carrying the bags of soil, covered with a ceremonial black cloth, was pulled by six powerful black Irish draft horses as a lone bagpiper played “Flowers of the Forest.” The sandbags will be taken to London, where they will be placed in the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden opening next year at the Wellington Barracks.
There were no longer any veterans left from World War I to attend the ceremonies. The last, Britain’s Florence Green, died in 2012 just a few days short of her 111th birthday.
In France, where more than 1.6 million soldiers and civilians died in the war, President Francois Hollande laid flowers Monday at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Despite the solemn occasion, Hollande faced outbursts of loud booing from small pockets in the crowd. His popularity has sunk to record lows amid growing dissatisfaction over France’s weak economic growth, high taxes and rising joblessness.
France has laid out plans for a year’s worth of events and ceremonies in 2014 timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.
Among the first is the so-called Great Collection, which was launched Saturday. The French national archives have set up collection points staffed by historians and other experts, and are encouraging people to scour their attics and garages for mementos of World War I.
The objects will be scanned and annotated in a digital archive that already contains tens of thousands of items from around Europe.
Belgium will begin its centenary commemorations in the city of Mons in August at the St. Symphorien Military Cemetery, which contains the graves of both German and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the first days of the conflict and the last.