Belgium 1917: Third Battle of Ypres
Ieper, The Menin Gate
The piercing lament from the ramparts
The best view of the Menin Gate is from the road – the N8, the Menin Road – leading into Ypres which passes through the memorial and on down the Meensestraat and into the Grote Markt. Standing facing the Gate on the morning of 24 July 1927 were thousands of people and draped over the inscription beneath the carving of the lion on top of the memorial were the flags of Britain, France and Belgium. On a wooden podium facing the crowd stood Field Marshal Lord Plumer of Messines, the so–called ‘Soldiers General’ and one of the best known British commanders during the British ‘Flanders Offensive’ east of Ypres in 1917. Australians had fought under Plumer’s overall direction at that time in the battles of Messines, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle and Passchendaele. It was Plumer’s role that July day in 1927 to unveil the Menin Gate, the first of the many British Empire memorials to the ‘missing’ along the old Western Front to be so dedicated between 1927 and 1938.
Plumer would have known that listening to him at the Gate, or through the direct radio broadcast from the ceremony to Great Britain and around the world, were hundreds of thousands of men and women who had lost loved ones in the Ypres Salient during the ‘Great War’. More than most he would have been conscious that of the 204,000 British and British Empire soldiers who had died in Belgium between 1914 and 1918 more than 102,000 (50 percent) had ‘no known grave’. For these ‘missing’ there would be no headstone in a cemetery, no grave where flowers could be laid or on which a family epitaph could be inscribed. Sensing all this Plumer stressed the sadness for families of the ‘missing’ and the lack, until now, of somewhere to go where the presence of the dead might be felt:
It was resolved that here at Ypres, where so many of the ‘Missing’ are known to have fallen, there should be erected a memorial worthy of them which should give expression to the nation’s gratitude for their sacrifice and its sympathy with those who mourned them. A memorial has been erected which, in its simple grandeur, fulfils this object, and now it can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today: ‘He is not missing; he is here’.
Extract from Lord Plumer’s speech, 24 July 1927,
At the conclusion of Plumer’s speech he pulled a rope, the flags fell away, and the words beneath the lion were revealed:
To the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914–1918 and
to those of their dead who have no known grave.
It might have seemed to those who saw the flags fall that the lion, sitting with head erect and eyes watchful, looked out towards those terrible battlefields where the ‘missing’ lay in the clay of the now peaceful Salient. The words too suggested the firmness with which the men of those armies had defended Ypres, had refused to let this last town in Belgium fall into German hands. In that sense the new monument was a ‘battle memorial’ built to honour all who had fought, as well as those who had died at Ypres.
If Plumer’s words had touched the heart then what followed must have brought tears to the eyes:
… [a] bugler sounded the ‘Last Post’. There was heartache enough in that, particularly in the lingering bars that recall ‘Lights Out’. But who that heard it and knew the Salient of old and the ghosts that haunt it now – how is he ever to forget how the Scots Guards pipers played the piecing lament from the ramparts – ‘the flowers of the forest are all wede away’. It searched our hearts unendurably. The ‘Reveille’, though it possessed all the cheerfulness of bright dawn, could not smooth away the memory.
The Manchester Guardian, 28 July 1927
The ‘flowers of the forest’ recalled those 10,000 Scotsmen, their king among them, who had been killed at the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. It was said that no household in Scotland escaped the sorrow and despair of Flodden; likewise no part of the old British Empire was spared the loss inflicted by the struggle against the German Empire at Ypres between 1914 and 1918.
- to Flowers of the Forest on the bagpipes
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010