Belgium 1917: Third Battle of Ypres
Ieper, The Menin Gate
The Menin Gate at Midnight
In the 1920s and 1930s more Australians had close associations with the battles around Ypres than with Gallipoli. All five divisions of the Australian Imperial Force, close on 80,000 men, fought at Ypres between June and November 1917. In those months more than 12,000 lost their lives and thousands more were wounded, a total well beyond the casualties sustained on Gallipoli between April and December 1915. And of those dead in Belgium more than 6,000 had their names inscribed on the Menin Gate, a greater number than those inscribed on the Lone Pine Memorial to the missing. All in all those terrible battles in Belgium invaded popular consciousness in a way that has been largely forgotten today.
One Australian greatly affected by the dead of the Menin Gate was war artist Captain Will Longstaff. Longstaff, living in England at the time, attended the unveiling of the memorial and that night he claimed he was unable to sleep. Going down to the memorial, and walking there in the dark, he had a vision of the soldiers who had marched through the Menin Gate during the war on their way to the front line. This vision he transferred to a great canvas showing ghostly soldiers rising out of the ground in front of the Menin Gate and moving off towards the Menin Road, Hooge, Zonnebeke, Broodseinde and Passaschendaele. Reputedly he painted the scene in one session when still under the psychic influence of his vision. Another story is that he was influenced by an English lady who had lost sons in the war and who told him when they walked together in the evening that she could feel ‘her dead boys all around her’.
The painting was an instant success and even scored a private viewing at Buckingham Palace by King George V and his family. Thereafter, following showings in major British cities, it was bought by English aristocrat, Lord Woolvington, and given to the Australian government and people. Shipped to Australia it was quickly added to the growing art collection of the proposed Australian War Memorial. In Australia, too, the ghostly figures of the Menin Gate struck a chord with more than one million Australians who came to share Longstaff’s vision in capital cities when the painting went on tour in 1928–29. Accompanying the painting was a large–scale model of the Menin Gate which had been presented to Australia by the memorial’s architect, Sir Reginald Bloomfield. The Australian High Commission in London had negotiated with the Imperial War Graves Commission for the model arguing that Australians were largely unable to visit the memorial itself:
[The model] would thus afford the relatives of over 6,000 missing Australians whose names appear on the original, an opportunity of inspecting the model and appreciating what is being done by your Commission to perpetuate and honour the names and the memory of their fallen kinsmen.
Letter from Australian High Commission, London, to Imperial war Graves Commission, 1927, 13/1/43, AWM 93
So when Australians came to view the ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ they could see from Bloomfield’s model what the gate looked like in the round and, using the special index prepared by the Australian War Memorial, be shown exactly the location of the panel that commemorated the name of their loved one or friend. Later, salesmen in the employ of the Australian War Memorial, sold reproductions of the painting door to door. They learnt a text by heart which included Plumer’s words, He is not missing – he is here.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010