Official Belgian National Commemorative Ceremony of the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Ypres – Menin Gate
Ypres, Belgium, Tuesday, October 28, 2014
When the first guns sounded 100 years ago, a pall settled over the world: we were at war.
Thousands upon thousands served, and many never went home. And those who did were forever transformed.
Many others became displaced, or lost their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives during the fighting. Even those not directly in the line of fire lost the normalcy that comes with peacetime. This was, and still is, the cost of war.
Nations and governments; civilians and soldiers; men, women and children—everyone feels the impact when war is waged, when aggression, hostility, instability and hatred are fuelled by guns and mortars and tanks.
For us—generations removed from the “war to end all wars”—the cost is remembrance, a paltry sum when compared with the sacrifices made by so many. We can never forget what valour and bravery those soldiers showed. That is our duty.
I admit, I cannot imagine the horrors of war. So few who haven’t experienced it truly can. I will never find myself in the mire and muck of the trenches. I will never find myself avoiding shrapnel, shells and enemy fire. I will never know the feeling of watching friends and comrades cut down beside me, but needing to press on. I will never know.
But there are things that I do understand. Sadness and loss, and service to one’s country. And the responsibility to remember and to honour.
Canadian and other Commonwealth divisions passed through this very spot on the way to battle. It is humbling to stand at Menin Gate, to imagine the camaraderie of those soldiers, their precision and resolve. Did they march in silence? Was there nervous conversation? Were some prescient enough to foretell what was to come?
Each person whose name is inscribed on these walls had a life waiting for them back home, a life that would remain unfulfilled.
There are 54 896 names here—some who were still so young—representing people without graves, those who went missing, those whose end we may never know.
What would they have achieved in their lives, had they, like countless people before and after them, not died in war? How would this world be different? What value, beauty and uniqueness were lost with their deaths? There are no answers to these questions, of course. And there never will be.
This monument is a reminder that death is never anonymous. The soldiers memorialized here may have been from different countries, but they fought side by side and met the same, tragic end.
We have gathered here today, united in common cause, to commemorate and honour those who fought and died in First World War battles, some of which took place only kilometres from here. In memory of them—and in memory of all those who have died serving our nations, throughout history—we must strive to do better, to work harder, to make this a more just and fairer world, to build smarter, more caring nations.
Today, there are those still struggling to find a way to live in harmony. We must find a way to end conflicts, for the sake of our children and of all those who fought and died for their country.
We need only be brave enough to embrace peace.
In a moment, we will hear the “Last Post,” which has sounded at Menin Gate nearly 30 000 times since its construction. Yet its strains are still poignant, the very sounds representing reverence and remembrance. As the last echo fades, I will be thinking of Canadians throughout our history who have served alongside friends and allies, and of those who continue to serve with pride.
The respect and appreciation of Canadians for those who serve have come into sharp focus in recent days. In unprovoked attacks, three of our servicemen were violently assaulted in two of our cities. Two of them perished; one was wounded.
These soldiers—like all young men and women who volunteer for military service—held the safety of their fellow citizens and the security of their nation to be of greater consequence than their own lives.
As much as we work together to create a better world, as much as we recognize that good exists, we know that, for some, hatred—and from it the urge to destroy—is a driving force.
Knowing that, we ask the best among us to step forward, to devote their lives to military training, and to ready themselves on our behalf for the unexpected. Ultimately, we ask them to act swiftly in terrible times, risking injury and death so that others may stay safe.
As commander-in-chief, I am always humbled by all those who answer this call to service. The Canadian military—as it has been in times of peace and in times of conflict—is among the best trained and most highly-motivated forces in the world.
Even as a number of our soldiers were targeted in our own communities, many more—military, police and security services—went into action, forming the collaborative web of defence that allows us all to live confidently in peace.
Today, the family of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, all his comrades in the Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, and every Canadian citizen celebrate the life and mourn the death of a brave young Canadian. At the same time, we all bow in remembrance to Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, and pray for the full recovery of his colleague, Warrant Officer Landon Perry.
As we do so, let all of us resolutely declare our universal admiration and gratitude for our military—our constant shield against those who wish us harm, the enduring proof of the courage and goodness of human nature.
This majestic structure is proof of the enduring admiration and gratitude that Canada and all Commonwealth countries have for our militaries and for the men who fought the battles of the Ypres Salient. We encourage our peoples to visit this place, as it is a fitting tribute to, and a symbolic resting place for, all those who sacrificed their lives in war. It is in their name that we must strive to end war, suffering and injustice.
Let us never forget our responsibility to them and to our world.