War history: Menin Gate is powerful enough to move the most cynical of us
- Credit: contributed
The most sceptical visitor cannot fail to be moved by the Menin Gate and all those names of the men it honours, believes Mike Peters, resident historian at Galloway Travel.
Last week I mentioned the Menin Gate. Readers who have visited and attended the communal act of remembrance that most people refer to as the Last Post ceremony know it can be a moving experience. Since its unveiling by Field Marshal Lord Plumer on July 24, 1927, the gate has gained an almost iconic status. For many battlefield visitors it is their most abiding memory of a visit to the Western Front.
It is of course a beautiful design, but the reason the memory of a visit remains with people is the fact it bears the names of more than 54,406 officers and men of the British and Commonwealth Armies. Every man listed has no known grave. It is this inscription over the steps leading to the north and south halls of memory that encapsulates the purpose of the memorial:
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - 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
Before the war, Ypres was a long-standing trading centre, so prosperous that it had been fortified. For generations, its citizens had been protected by walls and gates. One of the four gates to the town was the Menenpoort, or Menin Gate, on the road leading to the nearby town of Menin.
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During the war the Menin road was one of the main arteries of the Ypres Salient. British and Commonwealth soldiers often passed through the rubble of what had been the gate on their way to the front lines. They referred to the site as “the gap” and for many the march into what was later described as the “Immortal Salient” would be a fateful journey.
Sadly, 300,000 men were destined to be killed in action during four years of fighting around the fiercely contested Belgian town. Even sadder still, at the end of the fighting, 90,000 of these soldiers had no known grave.
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The question of how to commemorate the missing was a complex and emotive one. In the case of the Ypres Salient it was decided that the site of the gap, the old Menin Gate, would be appropriate. Hundreds of thousands of men had passed through it on their way to the battlefields. The Imperial War Graves Commission awarded the contract to design and build a new Menin Gate to Sir Reginald Blomfield, who was assisted by sculptor Sir William Reid-Dick.
With a budget of £150,000, work got under way in 1921. It would take six years. The design was classical in concept, modelled on a Roman triumphal arch. The structure was covered in panels that listed the names of the missing of every commonwealth nation apart from those of New Zealand.
As design work progressed, it became obvious that not all names could be included. The difficult decision was taken to list only British casualties prior to August 16, 1917; the rest were recorded on memorials elsewhere in the area. In addition to more than 40,000 British names, the missing of Australia, Canada, India and South Africa are listed on the limestone panels.
Those commemorated on the Menin Gate and elsewhere around the world represent the spectrum of society from which the British and Commonwealth Armies recruited. There are professional soldiers, teachers, poets, doctors and even underage soldiers. Each has his own story to tell; each fought for his own individual reasons.
The highest-ranking casualty named on the panels of the gate is Brigadier General Charles Fitzclarence, VC – killed while commanding the 1st Guards Brigade during the First Battle of Ypres on November 14, 1914. Veterans nicknamed him “GOC (General Officer Commanding) Menin Gate”.
His story challenges the “Lions led by Donkeys” view of the officer class. And he is not alone. There were many senior officers killed on the frontline.
What never fails to strike me is the range of people from every strata of Edwardian society listed on the Menin Gate. I challenge anybody, even the most cynical or sceptical, to stand unmoved in the shadow of the gate, reading the names as the Last Post is played. It is impossible to remain unaffected.
To experience it for yourself, join the next Galloway battlefield tour.