World War I
Menin Gate Memorial - Ypres Salient - WWI
The Menin Gate stands on the site of the Hangoartpoort in Ypres.
The imposing gate was part of the medieval fortifications that were reinforced by Marshal of France Vauban in the 17th-18th century.
By the beginning of WWI, the gate had fallen into ruins.
It was then known as Menenpoort - Menin Gate because it led to the village of Menen.
Ypres became the chore of the fights that opposed Allied forces to the Germans.
It indeed stood right in the path of the sweep planned by Germany across Belgium.
It was therefore a significant strategic point for the Germans, which if captured, would have allowed them direct access to the English Channel ports, where they would stop the British from disembarking.
On October 1914. the Belgian Army managed to block off the German troops.
They also isolated the western flank of the country by breaking the dykes on the river Yser on the northern side of town.
Ypres became the last town that had not fallen to the Germans and was a stone's throw from the front line.
The Ypres sector was known as Ypres Salient, as the Germans encompassed on three sides.
This extraordinary situation obviously made the Allies more vulnerable to their attacks.
This also explains the astronomical loss in human lives during the various offensives that took place there!
The Five Battles of Ypres
Five successive battles were indeed fought in the Ypres Salient.
The First Battle of Ypres is also known as the First Battle of the Flanders and took place between October and November 1914.
The Allies succeeded in stopping the Germans from taking the eastern side of the city.
However, the Germans succeeded in surrounding the city on three sides (thus creating the salient!) and bombarded it throughout the war.
As a result, by the end of WWI, Ypres was just a pile of rubble!
The Second Battle of Ypres took place in spring 1915, when the Germans made a new attempt to seize Ypres.
The Third Battle of Ypres is known as the Battle of Paschendale.
The purpose of these offensives, which took place between July and November 1917, was to gain control of the ridge and village of Passchendaele - Passendale in the north-east of Ypres.
The Fourth and Fifth Battles took place in the last year of the conflict.
Menin Gate Memorial
The site where the medieval gate stood was chosen for the erection of the monumental Memorial Arch.
It indeed was the point where the British and Commonwealth soldiers exited Ypres to follow the Menin Road that led to the front line.
300,000 of the men who walked past the old gate were on their way to death.
The bodies of 90,000 of them were never recovered and still lie in the earth of Flanders.
Sir Reginal Blomfield designed the impressive Memorial, which was built by the British government.
The Menin Gate is a gigantic arched mausoleum; it was unveiled on July 24, 1927.
It pays tribute to the 54, 389 Missing, officers and men of the British and Commonwealth Forces (except New Zealand and Newfoundland who have their own memorials) who died while defending the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917 and whose bodies were never recovered.
The internal walls are engraved with the names of those who have no known grave.
The list seems endless…
Despite its size, the Menin Gate Memorial tragically proved to be too "small" in order to bear the names of all the Missing.
This reflects too well the atrocity of the fights.
October 15, 1917 was therefore arbitrary chosen as a cut-off date.
The remaining 34,984 names (of those of died afterwards) were engraved on the walls of the Tyne Cot Cemetery Memorial to the Missing.
The names of the Missing from New Zealand and Newfoundland were not engraved on the walls of the Menin Gate Memorial, but on separate memorials.
The statue of a lion, which symbolizes Britain and Flanders, tops the Memorial.
The monument bears many inscriptions.
The interior dedication reads:
"Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (To the greater glory of God) - Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death".
This text, along with the main overhead inscriptions situated on the eastern and western facades, were written by Rudyard Kipling.
The monument is engraved with other inscriptions in English:
"They shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away",
in Latin: "Pro Patria" and "Pro Rege" ('For Country' and 'For King'),
and in French and English and dedicated by the citizens of Ypres:
"Erigé par les nations de l'Empire Britannique en l'honneur de leurs morts ce monument est offert aux citoyens d'Ypres pour l'ornement de leur cité et en commémoration des jours où l'Armée Britannique l'a défendue contre l'envahisseur"
"Erected by the nations of the British Empire in honour of their dead this monument is offered to the citizens of Ypres for the ornament of their city and in commemoration of the days where the British Army defended it against the invader."
Remains of 'Missing' soldiers are still regularly found.
They are automatically reburied in war cemeteries with full Honours (unless the descendants want to repatriate their ancestors' ashes, which happens occasionally).
Sometimes the soldier's remains can be identified; his name is then removed from the Menin Gate or Tyne Cot Memorial.
This is obviously very rare, though, especially after a century!
Last Post Ceremony
The Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony was put in place by the city of Ypres in order to honour the 54, 389 Missing from the British and Commonwealth Forces who died while defending the Ypres Salient and free Belgium.
It takes place every day at 8pm sharp under the Memorial Arch.
This ceremony has been carried on in Ypres since July 2, 1928, except during the German occupation.
Instead, it was conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey - England.
The road in Ypres is closed a couple of minutes prior to the ceremony.
Barriers are installed under the memorial in order to restrain visitors from blocking the road and to insure their safety.
There is quite a humming coming from the interior of the memorial because the voices of the people attending the ceremony bounces back against the stone.
However, all becomes suddenly silent and still as the members of the regular buglers from the local volunteer Fire Brigade arrive.
They play the Last Post, followed by a Minute of Silence.
Various organizations lay wreaths in two alcoves situated under the memorial.
The buglers then play Reveille.
The organization is perfect.
The inhabitants of Ypres are fully aware they should avoid driving in this sector around 8pm.
Everything goes very smoothly and at the end of the ceremony spectators disperse as soon as the buglers have left; the road re-opened within minutes.
Many people hang around to have a better look at the endless list of names that cover the monument's walls.
Some search for the name of a relative.
The Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony is very emotional; it is a Must Do when visiting Ypres!
The advice I would give is to arrive around 7.50pm after most people have arrived.
As soon as the road is blocked you can indeed move onto its centre, right opposite the buglers.
You'll have prime views and will really feel part of it!
The second advice is to book your restaurant before attending the ceremony during the holiday season.
They are not that many restaurants in the centre of Ypres.
Fighting for a table with hundreds of others tourists might be a bit of a challenge!
Belgium - Flanders - Ypres
Coordinates: Lat 50.851994 - Long 2.891089
Photos via Wikimedia Commons: Gate and river by Johan Bakker is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 - Belgian soldiers at the beginning of WWI is in Public Domain
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