THE German soldier snaps to a halt. For a moment, his booted feet tread air as he and his feldgrau-clad comrades pause on the cobbled streets of this Belgian town.

He turns to view the crowds lining his route and something catches his eye. There is an elderly man standing in the throng of people now pressing forward and straining to catch a glimpse of the unfolding spectacle.

The old man is festooned with medals. They gleam in the thin autumn sunlight, testimony of events that took place long ago, when the world lost its senses and went to war, not once but twice, during the bloodiest of centuries.

The German soldier reaches out and shakes the old man’s hand. And in this single, simple act of reconciliation, 100 years of strife between nations seems to vanish in an instant.

We’re in Ypres, marking the centenary of the Armistice that brought the First World War to an end. Many of the nations of northern Europe are represented in this saddest of towns, gathering at the fabled Menin Gate.

This imposing edifice has a special significance in this season of Remembrance. For during four long years, it was here that the British Army and their allies withstood an enemy determined to capture this strategically situated town that held the key to the Channel ports.

Ypres was never captured, instead becoming a symbol of defiance, courage and sheer endurance. And that is why we are paying homage here today.

Thousand of British soldiers passed through the Menin Gate on their way up to the front lines during 1914-18. And thousands are here now, a century later in 2018, pilgrims all.

It seems as if all of humanity is represented. There are Sikhs dressed in their vibrant colours, north Africans, people from Britain’s former colonial possessions, Scotsmen in kilts, the Yprian Fire Brigade marching bands… and this time, soldiers of the present-day German army.

It is a slowly moving tide of colour, lapping the shores of the place that once knew only suffering and sacrifice. It is impossible not to be moved.

I’ve been roaming the former killing fields of the Western Front for more than 20 years. Initially retracing the route taken by a great-uncle in the summer of 1914, from the battlefield of Mons right down to the river Marne, just east of Paris, over this time I must have visited every site of significance.

I readily recall the verdant valley of the Aisne, the shell-pocked cathedral at Soissons, the rolling fields of the Somme, and the billiard table flatness of Belgian Flanders.

Along the way, I’ve spent many quieter moments of reflection in the other great cathedrals of Picardy… those of Arras, Amiens and Rheims. Time and again, the thought returns. How could Europe with its centuries of relative civilisation reduce itself to the waste and destruction of those war-scarred years?

Cities, towns and villages reduced to rubble, the landscape battered and broken, Nature itself murdered in a hellish line of destruction that reached from the North Sea to the borders of Switzerland.

Why, we keep asking ourselves. But there is no definitive answer. No doubt the historians will argue about this for years to come.

But today, here in Ypres, on the centenary of the Armistice in 1918, such is the spirit of brotherly and sisterly love that it really makes you think that there just might be hope for our divided world, after all…

The old man bids farewell to our German soldier. I take his arm and help him join this veritable river of Mankind, flowing inexorably to the Menin Gate, where we remember the past and fervently pray for the future.

The German soldier has now disappeared into the gathering host. But for  a brief moment, that anonymous man’s gloved hand reaching out to the old man was just as much a symbol of hope as any of the speeches soon to be made by the great and the good now assembled beneath the cold, grey stone portals of the Menin Gate.

And then the thought occurs. Perhaps one day, who knows, maybe Mankind will finally cease to go to war with his fellow man… and peace will ultimately come to our troubled planet.

*John Phillpott travelled to France and Flanders with Midlands-based Battlefield Memorial Tours. For information, contact tour organisers Brian Long on 01629 650780, Malcolm Payne on 07850 775723, or visit