10,000 gather in Ypres for 100th Armistice Day


Thousands of Belgians, tourists and overseas diplomats attended events across the country this weekend in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War

‘It remains so meaningful’

Crowds gathered at memorial and battle sites yesterday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Local and international ambassadors, members of the military, veterans, politicians and royalty were also well represented at events marking the momentous Armistice Day.

The Armistice came into force at 11.00 on 11 November, 1918. Bells sounded across Belgium at that moment – reminding locals of how many bell towers had been destroyed during the ravage of Belgian cities during the war. Yesterday a carillon rang out at 11.00 in Leuven’s Park Abby for the first time in 100 years.

One of the most famous acts of destruction early in the war was the ravage of Leuven, when Germans destroyed the university library and murdered more than 200 civilians. They also destroyed the tower containing the carillon in Park Abbey.

Two years ago, a project to replace the carillon was started by the city of Leuven in partnership with the city of Neuss in Germany. The project began when a city archivist in Neuss discovered that it was troops from his city that were largely responsible for the devastation in Leuven. The carillon is part of the War Memorial and Peace Carillons project, a network of carillons created or reconstructed over the last century.

All eyes on Ypres

In Flanders, however, the biggest events of the day were of course in the Westhoek, home to much of the Western Front. VRT broadcast live from the Markt in Ypres for about 10 hours, with local events interspersed with war-related reports and archival footage. Some 10,000 visitors from Belgium and abroad were in the city, together with local residents.

A Last Post was performed at 11.00 under the Menin Gate, attended by hundreds of Flemish politicians, locals and tourists. “It was very powerful,” minister-president Geert Bourgeois told VRT. “One hundred years later, the suffering is being memorialised. This commemoration was carried out with so much serenity. People are here because they never want to forget. It remains so meaningful.”

The day continued with concerts, a special exhibition in Astrid Park, the Poppy Parade and a memorial at the city’s War Victims Monument. Finally, the regular nightly Last Post was performed, which included a rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” by Flemish musician Ozark Henry. The event closed out three days of activities in the city.

The greatest honour that you can give them is to be a hero yourself. To be true to yourself and to stand up for the rights of others

- King Filip

In Brussels, meanwhile, King Filip and Queen Mathilde were present at the ceremony at the Congress Column, home to the Grave of the Unknown Soldier. “There comes a day when we must face the absence of the soldiers who defended our land,” said Filip in his address. “I share with you the desire to breathe life into these memorials in honour of those who sacrificed themselves for us. The greatest honour that you can give them is to be a hero yourself. To be true to yourself and to your calling and to stand up for the rights of others. To choose to be thoughtful and not superficial or volatile. To remain radiant in this life.”

During a ceremony, four children spoke simple words of peace in Dutch, French, German and English, while another 10 children – one from every Belgian province – released doves. The event was attended by defence minister Steven Vandeput, his last official duty in the post. In preparation for becoming mayor of Hasselt, he is turning over the defence post to N-VA party colleague Sander Loones today.

The king and queen then attended a memorial concert at Bozar, the world premiere of War Requiem by Flemish composer Annelies Van Parys, performed by the Belgian National Orchestra. The couple then spent the evening in Ypres, attending the Last Post ceremony.

Prime minister in Paris

In Tervuren, just outside Brussels, the open-air art installation “Maaiveld” was brought to a close with a weekend of evening activities, including light and sound effects and fire performances.

Belgian prime minister Charles Michel spent part of Armistice Day in Paris with a number of other world leaders, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, for commemorations hosted by French president Emmanuel Macron.

“It is symbolically extremely important that, 100 years later, we learn the lessons of the past,” said Michel. “I am counting on a strong European engagement in more multilateralism.”

Michel traveled back to Belgium to attend the Last Post ceremony in Ypres on Sunday evening.

Photo above, from left: Flemish minister-president Geert Bourgeois, prime minister Charles Michel, Queen Mathilde, King Filip and chair of the chamber of representatives Sigfried Bracke at the final Last Post ceremony on 11 November

Photos by Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA