Bugles Across Flanders: A personal mission of remembrance and honor

Published: 15 March 2024

By Dr. P. Bradley Ulrich
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

Dr. P. Bradley Ulrich plays Last Post at a WWI Commonwealth cemetery in Flanders, Belgium

Dr. P. Bradley Ulrich plays Last Post at a WWI Commonwealth cemetery in Flanders, Belgium.

As an American professional trumpet player and educator, I have been employed for 35 years by the School of Music at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. My journey into the World War I history began one week when my wife was out of town.  Watching TV, I stumbled upon a captivating 10-part documentary series on the history of WWI, which ignited my interest for an era of history I realized I knew little about, despite my general interest in historical events. This newfound fascination propelled me into the world of WWI militaria collecting, voracious reading on the topic, and regular pilgrimages to the battlefields of France and Belgium.

My inaugural visit to the Western Front took place in October 2018, a journey made even more memorable by the company of my 88-year-old English father-in-law, Bernard. Having spent 55 years living and working in the United States, Bernard met me at the Brussels airport in Belgium, eager to explore our shared interest in genealogy and WWI history together. Our expedition was particularly meaningful as we set out to visit the final resting places of four of Bernard’s distant relatives who had served in the war. Our mission led us to the solemn grounds of Tyne Cot in Zonnebeke, Belgium, and Arras in France, where two of these soldiers with unknown graves are commemorated. The other two relatives, also fallen in battle, lay in cemeteries at La Kreule Military Cemetery in Hazebrouck and the Manchester Cemetery in Reincourt-Les-Bapaume, France.

Witnessing Bernard’s profound emotional connection as he gently laid his hand upon the gravestones or traced the etched names of his relatives on the memorial walls was a deeply moving experience. Inspired by this, upon our return, I crafted a heartfelt tribute for him. This framed homage included photographs of the cemeteries and memorials, detailed narratives of each soldier’s service, and an authentic cap badge from their respective regiments.  To me, this was a tangible link to their bravery and sacrifice. This journey not only deepened my understanding of WWI, but also strengthened the bonds of family and remembrance across generations.

It wasn’t until after this unforgettable journey that I discovered the British Commonwealth’s policy during WWI was to bury soldiers where they fell rather than repatriating them. The government’s reasoning included logistical challenges, such as the immense flow of war supplies heading to the battlefields making it nearly impossible to transport bodies back home. There were also concerns about the potential negative impact on morale if the public witnessed a large number of caskets returning. Additionally, the high cost of repatriation was a significant factor, as many families could not afford to bring their loved ones back.

While the government could have proposed that families cover the expenses of repatriation, this would have created a divide where only the wealthy could afford to bring their relatives home, leaving the lower classes at a disadvantage. The government feared that this disparity would greatly affect national morale. The idea of families not knowing the burial location of their soldiers or being unable to visit the site has weighed heavily on me over the years.

My deep sense of sorrow, combined with witnessing the remarkable volunteerism of the people of Ypres who vowed to never forget these soldiers, inspired me to launch my Bugles Across Flanders project (https://buglesacrossflanders.wcu.edu/). This platform allows families worldwide to experience my renditions of the Last Post and Rouse on an authentic WWI bugle at their relative’s cemetery. It has become a personal mission for me to volunteer and uphold the belief that these soldiers are remembered and honored.

“Bugles Across Flanders” delves into the heart of the Ypres Salient, nestled within the West-Flanders region of Belgium. The term “Salient” describes a pronounced bulge in the battlefront, misleadingly suggesting a strategic advantage. However, this configuration placed the occupying forces at a tactical disadvantage, exposing them to enemy fire from multiple directions. The situation was further exacerbated by the Imperial German army’s control of the surrounding high ground, affording them unparalleled artillery vantage points over the British defenses encircling the town of Ypres.

Over four grueling years, British, French, German, and American forces contested this territory fiercely. By the conflict’s end, the British Commonwealth mourned the loss of 185,000 soldiers, with an additional 410,000 wounded. The medieval town of Ypres, now spelled Ieper, was left in ruins, only to be painstakingly reconstructed to its pre-war glory. Today, the rejuvenated fields around Ypres thrive once more, yet the town itself harbors enduring memorials to the horrors of 1914-1918.

Among these memorials, the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate stands out for its solemn tribute, conducted nightly at 8:00 PM since July 1928. The Menin Gate, a monumental edifice unveiled by the British Commonwealth in July 1927, marks the eastern gateway to Ypres. It was through this passage that countless Commonwealth soldiers marched towards the front lines. The walls of the Menin Gate bear the names of nearly 55,000 soldiers whose final resting places remain unknown.

My 2022 article on the dedicated buglers of the Menin Gate offers a glimpse into this poignant tradition. The unwavering commitment of the Last Post Association’s volunteers, including the buglers who perform without remuneration, is a testament to the enduring gratitude for the sacrifices made by the Commonwealth forces. Their collective dedication, spanning over 33,000 consecutive nights, is a powerful homage to the soldiers of WWI and has inspired me to contribute in my own way.

Traditionally, the privilege of performing the Last Post at the Menin Gate is reserved for members of the local fire brigade. Motivated by this tradition and the profound sense of duty exhibited by the volunteers, I have embarked on a personal mission to perform at all Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries within the Ypres Salient, as my tribute to those who laid down their lives in the Great War.

I embarked on my bugle performance journey in October 2023, with plans to revisit and complete the final 70 cemeteries by October 2024. My engagement with numerous World War I Facebook groups has connected me with members who dedicate themselves to detailed research on deceased Commonwealth soldiers. Whenever a post reveals the resting place of a soldier, I honor their memory by sharing a link to my website, showcasing my performance at that specific cemetery. The feedback on this project has been overwhelmingly positive, and I take great pride in contributing to the commemoration of these brave soldiers.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission meticulously maintains each cemetery, with every site offering a unique atmosphere. Many of the cemeteries where I have performed are rarely visited, overshadowed by the more frequented sites like Tyne Cot Cemetery and Hooge Crater Cemetery. However, it’s the smaller, secluded ones that often leave a lasting impression. For instance, reaching Dragoon Camp Cemetery required navigating a long, beautifully manicured path through a tall cornfield, with the cemetery remaining hidden until the very last moment. Accompanied by my guide and friend, Johan De Jonghe, we discovered a peaceful resting place for 59 soldiers, a site seldom touched by visitors. Despite their size or isolation, each cemetery provides a cubicle at the entrance, housing a book that lists the names of the interred and the history of the site. The number of burials varies significantly, from a handful to thousands, with Tyne Cot Cemetery being among the largest.

Dr. P. Bradley Ulrich performs as part of “The Great War Remembered Concert” presented by the Last Post Association in Ypres, Flanders on November 11, 2022.

What strikes me most profoundly is the sheer number of unknown soldiers across these cemeteries. Tyne Cot, for example, has 12,000 headstones, yet only a third of those interred are identified by name. The memorial wall at Tyne Cot bears the names of 35,000 soldiers whose final resting places are unknown. This is a somber reminder of the brutal reality of war, where relentless artillery bombardment for four years obliterated the landscape, destroying centuries-old drainage systems and turning the terrain into an impassable quagmire. The high-water table meant any depression quickly became a death trap, claiming the lives of many soldiers who drowned in the flooded craters and mud, their bodies never recovered. Furthermore, the use of high explosive artillery meant that many men were lost to the force of the blasts, leaving no trace behind.

This project is not just about performing; it’s a deeply personal journey of remembrance and respect for those who gave their lives in the Great War, ensuring their sacrifices are never forgotten.

Playing the Last Post and Rouse has become an incredibly poignant experience for me. As I stand before the headstones, honoring each fallen soldier, the moments of silence that follow the Last Post, just before the Rouse begins, are deeply reflective. It is during these intervals that I closely observe the engravings on the stones, which detail the individual’s name, rank, honors, religious symbol, and often, a personal message. No matter how many times I’ve had the privilege to perform, it is in these moments that the soldiers’ stories resonate with me the most profoundly. It feels as though the spirits of these brave souls are watching over me, making the experience indescribably moving. The honor and gratitude I feel for being part of this project are beyond words. After spending 3-4 hours each day driving and performing, I find myself emotionally spent.

Among those laid to rest in the CWGC cemeteries in the Ypres Salient are Americans who served under Commonwealth forces before the United States entered the war in April 1917. These soldiers, known as “American Tommies,” have their gravesites lovingly maintained by local citizens. These caretakers regularly visit the sites and some have even forged connections with the soldiers’ families. I had the honor of performing Taps for an “American Tommy” at Tyne Cot Cemetery, a request made by the individual who adopted his grave.

Upon completing my Bugles Across Flanders project in October 2024, I plan to embark on a similar mission, documenting my performances of “Taps” at all WWI American cemeteries in Belgium and France through a dedicated website. While not everyone has the opportunity to visit these historic battlefields and cemeteries, it is crucial that we all, out of respect for those who sacrificed their lives, seek to understand and remember this tragic chapter in history.

Dr. P. Bradley Ulrich plays Last Post at the Dragoon Camp Cemetery, with 59 graves hidden in a tall cornfield.

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