Two or three minutes walk from the central Market Place in Ypres, stands the magnificent Menin Gate, Memorial to the Missing. It honours all the British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found or remained unidentified in and around Ypres after the First World War.
My first glimpse of the Menin Gate was a black-and-white postcard brought back by my great uncle who went there before I was born to remember his older brother, Cyril. Cyril is one of the 54,896 men – from the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the West Indies – whose names are engraved on the Portland Stone panels. I now have that postcard, along with some photos and one of the death notices my great grandparents sent out to family and friends.
In April 1914, as the centenary of the Great War approached, I spent a few days in Ypres, learning about the final days not only of Cyril but of another great uncle too: Joseph. Like Cyril, Joseph lost his life in the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele. His remains lie in Poelcapelle Cemetery.
The Menin Gate, or in Flemish Menenpoort, was historically the eastern gate opening from the walled town of Ypres (Flemish: Ieper) in the direction of the town of Menin (Flemish: Menen). The grand archway now marking the road to Menen bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original gate – as the pre-1914 contemporary photograph below shows. In fact, the whole of Ypres had to be completely rebuilt after the war.
The two stone lions guarding the entrance to the town were removed during the war to prevent damage. They were presented to the Australian nation in 1936, in honour of the more than 36,000 Australian soldiers killed or wounded on the battlefields of the Ypres Salient. They stand now at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial museum in Canberra.
The new gate and memorial was unveiled on 24th July 1927. It was designed in classical style by Sir Reginald Blomfield, and features a central Hall of Memory (which is also the road), loggias on the north and south sides of the building, and staircases linking the two levels.
And yet the Menin Gate is not a sad, dusty old memorial. It remains very much a part of daily life in Ypres. Since 2nd July 1928 The Last Post Association has overseen a daily act of homage to those who fell in defence of the town. Between 7.30pm and 8.30pm every evening, the road through the archway is closed, and as many as several hundred people gather.
At 8pm promptly, wearing the uniform of the local voluntary Fire Brigade, the buglers of The Last Post Association sound the Last Post – the tune used to commemorate the war dead in Britain and in Commonwealth countries.
Marching bands, visiting dignitaries and delegations from organisations throughout the world come to Ypres to take part, and to lay wreaths. But even if not one single visitor attends, the ceremony still goes ahead.
Its significance to the people of Ypres is illustrated by the fact that this daily act of hommage was interrupted only during the years of German occupation during World War II, and was resumed on the very evening the town was liberated in 1944. Today, on 11th November 2021, the 31,317th ceremony will take place.
These last two photos are from the 29,545th ceremony on 11th April 2014.
If only the world could reflect upon such bloodshed, loss of life and destruction; and resolve henceforth that hatred, violence and war will never be the answer.