Belgium 1917: Third Battle of Ypres
Ieper, The Menin Gate
At the entrance to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, visitors are reminded of the Australian connection with Ypres – the Menin Gate lions. The lions stood originally on either side of the Gate before World War I at a time when it was simply an opening in the ramparts through which the road ran to Menin. Damaged and removed during the war the lions lay for years among the rubble and ruins of the town. In 1936, Australia’s High Commissioner in London, ex-Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, asked the Burgomaster of Ypres to donate the wounded lions to Australia where, in the late 1980s they were restored and placed on display.
Looking through the main entrance of the Australian War Memorial the view is past the lions to the Pool of Reflection and then to the steps leading to the Hall of Memory. From here the Ypres lions appear to be guarding Australia’s most famous grave which lies in the Hall – the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier.
The Unknown Soldier came to the Menin Gate on the evening of 2 November 1993. His coffin was borne on the shoulders of a bearer party of six men of the Australian Defence Force from the Lakenhalle, across the Grote Markt and down the Meensestraat. There he was placed on the ground under the great arches of the memorial and looked down upon by the thousands of names of the ‘missing’. After a short ceremony, buglers of the Australian Defence Force and the Last Post Association of Ypres sounded the Last Post over the remains of a soldier who was about to journey home to represent all who had fought and died for Australia in the heart of the nation’s capital.
The buglers of the Last Post Association, local men with different professions connected with the Ypres volunteer fire brigade, have been honouring the dead of the Menin Gate in this nightly ceremony since July 1928. The idea came from Ypres Chief of Police Pierre Vandenbraambussche who had been in Ypres during those early months of the war when many of the inhabitants of Ypres remained in the town despite the German shelling. After witnessing the unveiling of the Gate in 1927 he brought together a group of like–minded friends, eminent citizens of the town, to consider ways in which the British Empire sacrifice at Ypres could be more formally marked by those homes the British soldiers had fought to protect. So was born the nightly ceremony of sounding the Last Post under the Menin Gate.
Only once did the bugles fall silent and that was during the years of German occupation in World War II. The call rang out again on 6 September 1944, the day the Germans left the town. The story goes that Joseph ‘Fred’ Arfeuille, one of the old pre–war buglers, was sought out and encouraged to sound the first Last Post in liberated Ypres. Afterwards, British soldiers, who had heard the sound, supposedly sought him out and got him roaring drunk. Another story has it that Fred was already pretty inebriated by the time he got to the Menin Gate and once there, encouraged by British, Polish and Canadian servicemen he sounded the Last Post no less than six times!
- to the Last Post Association buglers playing the Last Post
Today the Last Post ceremony draws thousands to Ypres. While for decades on cold winter nights there might have been only the buglers and a representative of the Last Post committee under the Gate, now there is nearly always visitors, from smal groups in winter to large crowds during the spring and summer. The Last Post has become Ypres’ main tourist attraction and more visitors are drawn here than to any other memorial or cemetery in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. This raises questions about the meaning of the Menin Gate, questions which local historian Dominiek Dendooven argues have been there from the beginning. Is the great monument simply a commemoration of the dead or an edifice that symbolises victory in war? Or is it perhaps both?
Bloomfield’s design when viewed from the Menin Road certainly can be interpreted as having the look of a triumphal arch about it. Engraved on its walls, surrounded by laurel wreaths, are the words ‘Pro Patria, Pro Rege’, ‘For King and Country’. Poets like Lieutenant Wilfred Owen MC, killed leading his men into action on 4 November 1918, just days before the armistice, would perhaps have been highly sceptical of such public sentiments. In one of his most famous verses dealing with the horrific death by gas of a soldier, Owen ended the poem with these lines:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth–corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The last words are from the Roman poet Horace and translate as ‘it is sweet and right to die for your country’. Even angrier was Captain Siegfried Sassoon MC, another decorated British officer who, after ‘official’ treatment for shell shock, returned to the front in order not to let down his men. His poem, ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ written in a Brussels hotel the day after the unveiling by Plumer in 1927, has these lines:
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate –
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace–complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
The War Graves Commission has always, according to Dendooven, argued strenuously against any interpretation of the Gate which sees it as glorifying war. That, it is said, is an insult to the relatives of the ‘missing’ who find at the gate a place to mourn and remember. Indeed, most visitors would most likely agree with Stephen Zweig, the famous Austrian pacifist and writer who, on visiting the Gate in 1928, wrote:
Here is no image of the King, no mention of victories, no genuflections to generals of genius, no prattle about crown princes and archdukes; only the laconic, noble frontal inscription: Pro Rege, Pro Patria For King, For Country. In its really Roman simplicity this monument to six and fifty thousand is more impressive than any triumphal arch of monument to victory I have ever seen, and its impressiveness is still further increased by the sight of the heaps of wreaths constantly being laid there by widows, children and friends.
Stephen Zweig, Berliner Tageblatt 16 September 1928, English translation in WG/219/2/1 Pt 3, Box 1011, Commonwealth War Graves Commission archives
Another English soldier poet, Edmund Blunden, friend of Sassoon and editor of an edition of Wilfred Owen’s war poems, sensed the significance of places like the Menin Gate for ordinary people. In 1967 he wrote a lengthy and complimentary introduction to a history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in which he wrote movingly of a personal visit to the Tyne Cot Memorial near Ypres where 36,000 names of ‘missing’ British soldiers, for whom there was no space on the Menin Gate, are commemorated:
I saw … names I knew – I take it these missing soldiers died in the Passchendaele battle, and one whom I never heard of since that battle had been one of my most amusing and affectionate schoolfellows. A few months ago three names together brought three of our finest officers into sunshine again as on that incredible last day in the river valley below Thiepval in 1916 the day before the opening of the Battle of The Somme on 1 July 1916. Three names on a quiet stone … Three familiar figures, not much changed.
Edmund Blunden, in Philip Longworth, The Unending Vigil London, 1967, pp.XXIII–XXIV
Today the playing of the Last Post has become part of a well–established tradition for the people of Ypres. If asked the question posed by those words of soldier–poet Siegfried Sassoon:
Who will remember, passing
Through this Gate,
The unheroic dead who fed
the buglers of the Last Post Association would proudly reply:
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010