At 20.00 every night, the local police of Ypres, Belgium (not far from the French border), stop traffic from passing over the cobbled streets in the centre of town. As the sound of traffic echoes and and grows fainter, there is an air of stillness and the crowds that are gathered are hushed as buglers from the local fire station play the haunting notes of the Last Post. As the notes fade, there is a minute’s silence.
This is the Menin Gate Memorial, dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the battles in and around Ypres Salient in World War I and whose graves are unknown. There are 54,900 names inscribed around the memorial – the “missing”, those whose bodies have never been identified or found.
The Last Post has been played each night in this way since the 1920s – the only interruption came during German occupation of the area in World War II resuming on the night the German forces were expelled from Ypres in 1944. During the German occupation the ceremony took place at Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey, England.
Moving and poignant, the ceremony continues to draw many visitors and there are large crowds at times of special commemoration (aim to arrive 20 minutes before the start of the ceremony at these times).
The Menin Gate was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and built with a grant of £150,000 from the British Government. The French limestone monument dominates Ypres. Work began in April 1923 and it was unveiled on 24th July 1927. This site was chosen because of its close proximity to the town and the fact that so many Allied troops would have marched past it.
It is built on the site of an ancient gateway which was the entrance to the fortified town of Ypres which by the time of the First World War was known as Menenpoort or Menin Gate in English as the road through the ruins of the original gate led to the town of Menen.
Menenpoort was a much used route for British and Commonwealth solders on their way to the front lines. 300,000 soldiers perished in the battles around Ypres – 90,000 of them have no known graves. Although it was intended that the Menin Gate contain all names of the missing, it was found to be too small (the cut off being 16 August 1917) and the names of 34,888 further missing men were carved at Tyne Cot Memorial. The missing soldiers of New Zealand and Newfoundland are also not inscribed at The Menin Gate but instead at separate memorials.
Ypres was a strategic position in the War – it was in the path of the invading German forces and was on the route to the Channel Ports where British soldiers arrived. Five major battles took place during the War in 1914, 1915, 1917 and 1918, the cause of terrible loss and destruction.
The inscription inside the archway 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” – composed by Rudyard Kipling who lost his son John in 1915 at the Battle of Loos.
A French inscription read: “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”, which translated into English means: “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.”
Allow 30-40 minutes to explore the whole site.