Ypres and The Menin Gate
Reminders of the bloody history of Flanders are all around us in Diksmuide, a small town in which we spent some time. It is a peaceful, prosperous area now but residents and visitors alike are not allowed to forget the past, indeed are encouraged to remember it. We are no exception and recently we visited one of the most poignant memorials of them all.
Ypres, 6.45 pm, Tuesday 16th December 2014.
The town's main square is dominated by the imposing, impressive Cloth Hall. Set in the south-western corner of the square, it is 125 metres wide and sits, massive, below a 70 metre bell tower. Originally medieval, it was, and still is, a testament to the wealth of Flemish cloth merchants. The original building (as much of the town) was utterly destroyed during the First World War but between 1933 and 1967 it was rebuilt as close to the original design as possible using money paid by Germany in reparations. It is subtly floodlit and this evening looks festive amid surrounding Christmas lights and decorations.
The square is bordered by many other wonderful buildings, three and four storeys high, with steeply-pitched, grey tile roofs. Many are now cafes, restaurants and shops. In front of the Cloth Hall, as in Diksmuide, semi-permanent wooden market stalls have been erected for the Christmas period and youngsters noisily cavort on and around a temporary ice rink. The restaurants and cafes are busy but many visitors are drawn to Ypres for one reason only.
Five hundred metres from the Cloth Hall, up Menenstraat off the south eastern corner of the square, is the Menin Gate.
Its location is symbolic. During the war, Meenestraat led many soldiers out of town to the battlefields from where many would never return. The memorial is white, built from reinforced concrete faced with Euville stone and red brick. The interior, known as the Hall of Memory, is barrel-vaulted and single-spanned to allow cars and pedestrians to pass in and out of the town on the cobbled street.
The Menen Gate was unveiled on 24th July 1927 by Field Marshal Plumer, Preisdent of the Ypres League. Portland Stone panels adorn the lower level, the staircases, upper level and loggias and here the names of 54,896 soldiers are engraved. They are British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies have never been found or were unable to be identified, so have no known grave – The Missing.
At the opening ceremony, Plumer said of these soldiers, “They are not missing – they are here.”
This evening, as have millions before us, it is our turn to pay our respects.
We walk towards the monument in the company of people of all ages who chat quietly. As we approach, our eyes are drawn inevitably to the floodlit gate which straddles the road down which we pass.
The Menin Gate is one of the most famous memorials in the world but is not triumphalist. It is without doubt impressive, but it serves mightily, yet modestly, as a fitting memorial to some of the many thousands who lost their lives in the most brutal of wars. I am not a military man (nor I suspect are the vast proportion of visitors) but I pause to think what this place really represents. Nearly 55,000 soldiers – incredible. I've seen first hand the muddy, clinging earth these soldiers endured and the thought of living and fighting and dying there is appalling. I've read many times about the price these soldiers paid and the debt we owe, but for me, it's only by coming here that I really begin to feel it.
The most senior soldier commemorated here is Brigadier General Charles Fitzclarence VC who died on 12th November 1914. To World War One veterans he became known as 'GOC (General Officer Commanding) Menin Gate.' He had won his Victoria Cross fifteen years previously for three actions of gallantry during the Boer War. He was 49 when he died fighting alongside his men, the vast majority of whom were far younger. As with all the other soldiers here his body was never found but he is immortalised and will forever keep watch over his comrades.
By strange coincidence the Brigadier died within two weeks of my wife's uncle, Percy Kershaw, being injured fighting near Diksmuide, 20 kilometres away. I'll tell Percy's remarkable story another time.
High on the eastern end of the gate is a single engraved panel dedicated collectively to those without a known grave. Above this is the sculpture of a lion, lying down with his head raised. He is looking away from the town towards the battlefields.
Each evening the traffic is halted by the local police for the Last Post. The ceremony has been conducted here every night at 8.00 pm since 2nd July 1928 except during World War Two when Belgium was under German occupation. During that period, the ceremony was held at Brockwood Military Cemetery, Surrey, England. On the evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres during the Second World War, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate despite the fact that heavy fighting was still taking place in other parts of the town.
There are perhaps three hundred of us taking it in, some talking quietly – English, Dutch (or Flemish) and French I recognize, but there are others languages that I can't pick up.
Beneath the arch an unseen announcer asks for quiet and requests that we refrain from applauding at the conclusion of the ceremony. Each evening, during this period that commemorates the hundred-year anniversary of World War One, personal homage is paid to two soldiers who died on that particular date. Listening to the stories of two individuals somehow re-enforces the personal aspect of why we are here.
Following this five-minute eulogy the Last Post is played.
Volunteer buglers from the local fire brigade play this haunting refrain beautifully.
The melody echoes within the memorial arch, tenderly touching each name engraved on the walls.
The sound dies away and a young female soldier marches to centre stage, stands in the absolute silence and says:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
The words are one verse of a longer poem called 'For the Fallen' written by Laurence Robert Binyon and anyone not moved by them must be made from the stone of the memorial itself.
A wreath is laid by two young soldiers and there are a few moments silence before we all drift away, much subdued.
I read recently that the only good to come from war is friendship. Perhaps. But my, what a price to pay.
© Jo May 2016