Standing under the great arch that is the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, I am surrounded by hundreds of people and yet it is silent. The roads have been closed on either side of this main route into and out of the town and everything seems eerily still.
At this most poignant memorial, those who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918 fighting along the Ypres Salient are remembered. 54,896 names are carved on to the white walls, an overwhelming sight and one that moves many to tears as they stand here and contemplate the crushing numbers of men who came to this flat corner of Europe and never left.
On the night I was there, a lone violinist played “Danny Boy” and I don’t think there was a dry eye amongst us as heads were bowed. Many people leave poppies or small wooden crosses – some with photographs or messages. I left a knitted poppy sent to me by a British lady called Di Burns in the UK, who co-ordinates a knitted poppy installation for the Road of Remembrance in Folkestone, Kent.
This moving and musical memorial has been taking place since 1927 at the behest of the citizens of Ypres; it was only halted during the Second World War when the town was once more occupied. Far from being a commemorative ceremony that diminishes over time this one has been steadily attracting more and more people. On the night I attended, there were various army and territorial groups in attendance including a veterans army unit from Ireland who marched solemnly in their dark suits along the road to the Menin Gate. British school children laid wreaths, local townspeople, tourists and visitors mingled, united in their shared sense of sadness for those whom age shall not weary, nor the years condemn.
Wandering back into the town when the ceremony is over, I am struck by how pretty it is, how normal with its chocolate shops and bakeries. In the centre the magnificent 13th Century Cloth Hall is lit up as dusk falls and it is hard to take in that there was almost nothing left of Ypres town and that the beautiful building before me was rebuilt stone by stone.
The Hall is now a museum called In Flanders Fields. Recent refurbishments have seen high tech exhibition updates and I found it to be one of the most moving and unusual war museums I have ever visited. 3D film of actors in the uniform of the day read from letters and documents left behind by the soldiers of WWI – they seem to look straight into our eyes. Many artefacts and a life-size horse and carriage mired in the mud bring home the horror. There are touch screens which give details of the people who lost their lives, wretched stories of boys too young to fight, men who left behind families, those who were wounded terribly. I spent much of my time wiping away tears and blowing my nose – I wasn’t alone. I came out feeling thankful that I did not have to live through such times and dejected that humans still possess a desire for war and fighting despite such a history as we have.
The town offers solace in the form of many excellent cafés and restaurants and has an air of prosperity and vibrancy these days. There are plenty of bars too, much enjoyed by the Irish army veterans who were staying at the same excellent Novotel in the centre as me! The Pacific Eiland restaurant, a hidden gem and well worth the short walk out of the main town has gorgeous gardens that lift the spirit, a wonderful terrace for eating al fresco – and the food is excellent. The young chef Robert van Eygen is a bit of a celebrity in these parts, famed for his creative dishes and stunning deserts – book in advance to guarantee a table!
On a Saturday morning the market takes place in front of the Hall as it has for centuries, busy and bustling with its colourful stalls and crowds of shoppers buying local cheeses and beers alongside fruit and vegetables. The town is an excellent base for visiting the many memorial and battlefield sites around and there is much to enjoy here as well as to remember.
Video of the Last Post at the Menin Gate:
Plan your trip with the excellent website: www.visitflanders.co.uk
Getting to Ypres from the UK: P&O Ferries have up to up to 46 sailings a day on the Dover Calais cross Channel route and the drive from Calais to Ypres takes approximately one hour.