Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"The Last Post" for Nanjing

Eight o'clock in the evening on an average Saturday. Two bataljons of soldiers march onto the street of either side of the Menin Gate, blocking in effect any traffic that would like to pass underneath the gate. Though the weather is cold, the sidewalks lining the street that passes under the gate are crowded with people, mostly British students, three rows thick, standing still, legs apart and hands on their back, like soldiers in rest. At eight sharp, there comes an eerie silence over the place, effectively squeezing out the background noise of the city, as four men in long blue coats and with blue hats march onto the street, bugle in their hand, and position themselves in the middle under the arch of the gate.

Seconds later, resounding from the walls that are covered with thousands and thousands of names, the music of the "Last Post" fills up the space under the gate, like it has, each and every day*, for the last 79 years. Not a sound is heard except the music and young girls at my side of the street are seen crying and hugging. When the music stops, five groups of soldiers, students and commoners, in military drill step forward and depose a wreath of red poppies at the monument. At the end of the fifteen minute ceremony, the sound of the four bugles send their last farewell to the deceased again and the crowd disperses, only knowing that there will be others taking their place the next day and the same solemn ceremony will be performed again ... as if into eternity.

I was in that corner of the world last weekend, trapped between the river Yser and the North Sea, that inspired Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on May 3, 1915 to write the following poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It can hardly be captured in words the devastation that area has seen in 3 major battles during World War I, so I'll let this picture do the talking.

Almost half a million men have died there in the mud, trapped like sitting ducks in rainsoaked trenches, at worst separated not more than fifty meters from the enemy. The racial mix in the Ypres Salient (or Wipers, as the British used to call it) was phenomenal: Belgians, Brits, Scotsmen, New Zealanders, Canadians, French, Pakistani, Indians, an occasional Chinese worker, and of course the attacking German troops. It was a kaleidoscope of the world, bitterly entangled in a fierce struggle over dominance. When the war was over and all bodies had been counted, someone uttered the hope that such a disaster would never have to happen again. How cruelly mistaken he has proven to be.

Yet, as from 1928 onwards, under that memorial erected in remembrance of the soldiers of the British Commonwealth that had fallen before 1917 and had no known grave, a group of people took it upon themselves to keep the memory of those that had fallen alive and still do so till this day. At the Menin Gate, though the symbol at certain times may has been abused and misrepresented, there is no place for hatred. Go there yourself when you pass by and have the chance: you will know what I mean.

So when I read Richards' article on Saturday's TPD on the documentary video on the Rape of Nanjing, all I could was wonder when the Chinese will be able to let go of their hatred and mold it into remembrance, for those that should never have died under the circumstances they did, into a beacon for generations to come that history's lessons should be learnt and not forgotten ? When will Nanjing be allowed to have it's own "Last Post" ?

* The ceremony was forbidden by the Germans and thus effectively interruped during the years of World War II, but was taken up again on the evening of Liberation itself and has been continued ever since.


Sam said...

..."let go of their hatre and mold it into remembrance..."
A beautiful sentiment, which I share.

Lao Lu said...

Thanks, Sam.

ChinaLawBlog said...

Yes, but ....

Is it not easier when the other side at least does not deny it happened?

Lao Lu said...

CLB, now that is what I call a generalisation of sorts. Of course there will always be those trying to deny anything happened, but to make it representative for the japanese in general is one bridge too far for me. And I will not again point out how many times and at what occasions the Japanese have apologized, it has been done numerous times on numerous blogs, but, to paraphrase your words, would it not be easier when the one side at least would care to listen ?

Keir said...

I'd cycle through France and Benelux passing through miles of countryside, every so often coming across a small, emaculate cemetery with a couple dozen Canadians or Australians forgotten by their countries and in the warm summer breeze far from anyone, couldn't help but feel more desolation for a brief period of time than even the photos of Verdun, Ypres, Cambrai, Arras et al.

Lao Lu said...


Thanks for sharing your personal perspective on this; I second your opinion that those little cemetery's scattered around the area, are as poignant as any picture of a flattened city. I however would not assume that they are entirely forgotten by their country. Distance makes it difficult for any relatives to visit the graves on a regular basis, but I know that the graves of a lot of those who died in Flanders Fields, still get visits from their children, and their children's children. And for those that may have no relatives anymore to visit their graves, there are those people over here that tend to their grave and make sure that they will never be entirely forgotten.