The Menin Gate is located in the city of Ypres (Flemish: Ieper), West Flanders, Belgium. Although the city is in the predominantly Flemish part of Belgium, due to the British the French spelling and pronunciation are still prevalent today. During WW1 the city was the center of the Ypres Salient, that little corner of Belgium not occupied by Germany which was tenaciously defended, mostly by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Ypres became a special place to the British and today the city is clearly the most British place on the Continent. In future articles I’ll highlight some of the other important sites, monuments and markers in the area (I’ve already covered the Essex Farm Aid Station).
August 15th, 1917 is an important date in the story of the Menin Gate, although no auspicious events occurred on that day. Sir Douglas Haig’s big offensive, termed the Third Battle of Ypres but universally known as ‘Passchendaele’, had started on July 31st and by August 15th the British Fifth Army was bogged down, substantially behind the timetable, and over three inches of rain had already fallen.
The original intent of the planners was to commemorate all of the BEF missing in Belgium on the Menin Gate, but as the design progressed it became apparent that the site was too small to accommodate this requirement (even so, the names are listed in columns thirty feet high in places) so the list was arbitrarily cut off at August 15th, 1917 and the remainder are listed on the CWGC Memorial at Tyne Cot Cemetery near the village of Passchendaele, also the subject of a future article.
The Menin Gate is the only Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing on the Western Front that is located in an urban setting. Unlike the CWGC Delhi Memorial in India, the Menin Gate isn’t even in a park. From medieval times there had been a gate through the ramparts on this site, which was destroyed by German artillery along with most of the city.
The gate is the work of Sir Reginald Blomfield, a designer of country houses (including Chequers, the official country residence of the Prime Minister), university and school buildings, the Regent Street Piccadilly Quadrant in London, St. George’s Memorial Church (C of E) in Ypres, and the Cross of Sacrifice, a feature of all CWGC Cemeteries. In all, over 100 distinct constructions.
The basic design is a barrel-vaulted triumphal arch, with side ‘chapels’ added to accommodate more names. The arch is wide enough that traffic is still allowed to pass under it except during ceremonies. All of the inscriptions, including the Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, were written by Rudyard Kipling. Listed on these walls are 54,394 lost soldiers from Britain, Australia, Canada, South Africa, India and the West Indies. Occasionally, remains are still found that can be identified, and if so, the name is removed from the arch.
Although the Thiepval memorial in France is considerably larger and has many more names listed on its walls, the Menin Gate is far more iconic and stands as the undeniable symbol to the British of the sacrifice of the Great War. The Menin Gate was the first memorial to the missing completed by the CWGC, formally dedicated on July 24th, 1927. The famous war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who served in the Ypres Salient in 1917, in 1936 published the poem On Passing the New Menin Gate in which he says:
‘Their name liveth for evermore’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied.
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime.
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
Sassoon was a prominent spokesperson for the ‘Great Betrayal’ school of British thought about the war.
On the other hand, the noted Austrian author Stefan Zweig (who didn’t serve in the war) said that the gate was ‘more impressive than any triumphal arch or monument to victory that I have ever seen’.
Today the Menin Gate is clearly the main attraction for most British and Commonwealth visitors to the Salient, and the preferred site for ceremonies. It is well-known for the Last Post, which occurs every night at 8:00 PM.
This simple observance began in 1928 and is presented by the Last Post Association. A group of buglers play the Last Post, the British equivalent of our Taps, to remember the lost. Interrupted by WW2, the ceremony has continued nightly since 1945.
Frequently there are also pipe bands, lone pipers, choirs and school groups from the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand performing as well. Belgian military and veteran’s groups also participate. Hundreds of onlookers stand inside and around the gate.
There are no seats or reserved spots. Nearly every night wreathes are laid, especially in the warmer months.