Location Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium
Memorial to Commonwealth soldiers who died on Ypres Salient who have no known grave
Date Opened 1927
The position known as Menin Gate has a much older history than most people are aware. In medieval times, the original narrow gateway on the eastern side of Ypres was known as the Hangoartpoort, “poort” being the Flemish word for “gate”. The walls were original fortifications that kept out invaders. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, under French and Habsburgs occupation, the city was increasingly well fortified. At the start of World War One, in 1914, the eastern exit cut through the ramparts and crossed a moat. This spot was known as Menenpoort, because the road leading through the gateway led to the small town of Menen.
Ypres occupied a vital position, as it stood in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across Belgium. It was essential for the Germans to capture Ypres if they wanted to take the Channel ports through which British supplies came into France. For the allies, it was important because it was the last major Belgian town that was not under German control.
During the first battle (there were five in total) of Ypres, the allies halted the German to the east of the city. The German army surrounded the city of three sides and bombarded it through much of the war. The second battle was in April, 1915. The third battle, in 1917, is commonly referred to as Passchendaele, which went for five months. The fourth and fifth battles were in 1918.
British and Commonwealth soldiers passed through the Menenpoort on their way to the Front with some three hundred thousand killed on the Ypres Salient, and at least ninety thousand of those having no known graves.
A design for a memorial to these soldiers was constructed in 1921 by Reginald Blomfield, less than three years after the last battle. Construction was completed in 1927. The spot was chosen to become a memorial because it was the closest gate to where the battles were fought, when in fact most soldiers passed through the other gates of Ypres, as Menin Gate was too dangerous due to shell fire.
Upon completion of the Memorial, it was discovered that it was too small to contain all the names, as was originally planned. So a cut-off date of August 15, 1917, was chosen and the names of thirty four thousand, nine hundred and eighty four UK soldiers missing after this date were inscribed on a different memorial at Tyne Cot. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing does not list the names of New Zealand or Newfoundland soldiers, as they are honoured on separate memorials.
Reaction to the Menin Gate Memorial was mixed. Some praised it for its simplicity and lack of overt triumphalism. It was also condemned by famous war poet Siegfried Sassoon (as seen on handout), who labelled it to be a “sepulchre of crime”. Since 1927, each evening buglers from the fire brigade close the road and sound the “Last Post”. This tradition has been upheld every single day since the memorial opened with no exceptions, even in the Second World War, when it was relocated to Britain, and then resumed at Menin Gate the same day the Germans withdrew.
Left photo: A photograph of the Menin Gate site in December, 1918.
Right photo: Menin Gate at Midnight, by artist and former soldier William Longstaff.
It is said that Longstaff painted the piece in one sitting, after attending the opening of Menin Gate and claims to have witnessed a "vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit cornfields around him".