Wednesday, November 23, 2016

World War Wednesdays: The Menin Gate and Remembrance in Belgium

The Menin Gate, 1927
     Confession time: this is the first week in my two whole years of blogging that I ever seriously considered having to take a week's hiatus. Things are pretty crazy up here on the schoolwork front, with a twenty-five page paper for one seminar (among other things) due on Friday that is so insanely long even my other seminar's classmates gasped at the thought! But, I thought about it a bit more and decided that if I have made it this long without having to resort to such a thing then I can certainly come up with something for you now. I'd like to give an anonymous shoutout to one of my colleagues who presented on this topic as part of her research project, which was fascinating enough to jolt me out of this funk I've been in and actually be excited to learn new things! Hopefully you find this story as amazing as I did and I appreciate your taking the time to read it this week more than ever.

     Here's some backstory: Ypres is an ancient town in Belgium which became renowned for its linen trade with England during the Middle Ages. Since it played such an important role in the textile industry and was a major hub of trade, it was decided to fortify the village with stone ramparts which were gradually expanded over the centuries.
The Menin Gate before the outbreak of war, Summer 1914

     During the First World War, the town of Ypres occupied a strategic position because it stood directly in the path of Germany's planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France from the north (the Schlieffen plan). The German army surrounded the area on three sides, bombarding it through most of the war. As a result, British, French, and other Allied forces made costly advances in counterattack from what became known as the Ypres salient into the German lines on the surrounding hills.

Another prewar shot of the Menin Gate- note the two lions on either side which were removed during the war for preservation
     By that time, the majority of the wall around the town had fallen into disrepair due to both the prolonged shelling and lack of upkeep in the years preceding the war. The Allied soldiers who marched to the front in the First and Second Battles of Ypres would have all passed through a gap in the old ramparts in order to cross a small stretch of water. Many thousands of men passed over that spot and marched to their deaths, with the stone walls on either side of the gap being among the last things they saw before doing so. As the war raged on, with some of the most horrific elements of the entire conflict happening at Ypres (including gas attacks), the nature of the conditions meant that thousands of bodies were lost in the muddy earth which essentially swallowed up the fallen. Overall, over 50,000 Allied soldiers lay missing at Ypres by the end of the war, with around 40,000 makeshift headstones dotting the area which read either "Known Only Unto God" or "A Soldier of the Great War."
The Menin Gate area at the end of the war
     In 1921, the British Imperial War Graves Commission felt it would be appropriate to build a splendid monument at the Menin Gate to commemorate the men who had died in battle but had no final resting place. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the memorial was finished in July 1927.
The unveiling ceremony
     In 1928, a year after the memorial was opened, a number of prominent Ypres residents decided that some way should be developed for the Belgian people to express their gratitude for the men who had passed through their town and were killed in their efforts to protect it. The Superintendent of Ypres Police presented the idea of a daily sounding of the Last Post-the traditional salute to a fallen warrior- at the Menin Gate. The privilege of playing the homage was given to members of the local volunteer Fire Brigade. They played their first tribute on July 1, 1928 and continued the tradition every day for the next four months of the summer. When fall arrived, the Brigade decided to suspend playing, but there was such a public outcry from the people of Ypres that they decided to continue. Amazingly, the Last Post ceremony has taken place EVERY DAY since July 1, 1928, and was only not held at the Menin Gate during the years that Belgium was occupied by the Germans during WWII (it was instead held in Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, England by the Belgian government-in-exile).
     To this very day, the ceremony still happens, with crowds gathering every night at the memorial to witness this spectacular tradition. At 7:30pm the police arrive, and traffic is stopped from passing through the Menin Gate for a full hour. The crowd is hushed, the echoing sound of traffic ceases, and I'm sure it is an incredibly powerful experience.

     I just thought this was an amazing story and something that I hope we all get to experience someday as part of the history people bucket list. Information courtesy of and historylearningsite as well as the presentation in my European History seminar.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

No comments: