Belgium 1917: Third Battle of Ypres
Ieper, The Menin Gate
He is here
Plumer’s striking words – He is here – captured what is usually understood as the primary intent of the Menin Gate. That is to commemorate by name all those who perished in the Salient and have ‘no known grave’. And ‘here’ specifically meant the stone panels which cover the walls beneath the great arches of the memorial and stretched up the two side stairwells to loggias facing out to the ramparts. On the panels are displayed, unit by unit, with ranks and bravery awards, the names of more than 54,000 of the ‘missing’. Their remains lie either in the cemeteries of the Salient under headstones with inscriptions such as ‘A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God’ or ‘An Australian Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God’ or are lost forever in the soil of Flanders.
Currently on the panels of the Menin Gate are the names of 6,191 men of the Australian Imperial Force. When the Gate was first dedicated there were 6,208. All sixty infantry battalions of the AIF are represented here. The 45th Battalion, New South Wales, had the highest number of 'missing': 194. Support units such as the artillery, medical corps, service corps, engineers, pioneers, tunnelling companies, light horse and mortar batteries are also there. Interestingly, the panel showing the greatest Australian loss is that for the units of the Australian Machine Gun Corps - 244 names. Registers kept at the Menin Gate provide an alphabetical index to all the names on the memorial indicating the panel number on which the soldier is commemorated.
A record at the Australian War Memorial provides a reminder of the impact on Australian families of the struggle in the Ypres salient. This is an index to the Australian names on the Gate compiled, most likely in 1927 or 1928, from the official registers produced by the Imperial War Graves Commission. The index reveals that virtually every community across Australia at that time had at least one soldier who went ‘missing’ at Ypres. Some pages are packed densely with the names recorded for capital cities, suburbs and country towns; others have only one name. Often these are from isolated rural localities in Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland.
The names from a district can uncover that local chronology of death and suffering produced by the Ypres Salient. Typical in this respect is the town of Roma in south central Queensland for which the names of 13 private soldiers appear in the Australian War Memorial index. All of them died in 1917. William Walters, 12th Battalion, was killed in the aftermath of the Battle of Messines in June, and Edward Tardent, 42nd Battalion, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres, 31 July. Ernest Davies, 9th Battalion, disappeared on 20 September at the Battle of Menin Road. Neill Crawford, 31st Battalion, Julian Thomas, 31st Battalion and David Murphy, 15th battalion, were never seen again after the Battle of Polygon Wood on 26 September. On 4 October, the Battle of Broodseinde claimed Oliver Cromwell, Australian Machine Gun Corps, and Albert Yeoman, 42nd Battalion. And in the final push towards Passchendaele village between 9 October and 1 November Roma lost Stephen Brett, 26th Battalion, Alfred Danman, 26th Battalion, Alfred Stein, 9th Battalion, William Waters, 12th Battalion, and Edward Williams, 35th Battalion.
Behind each name is a story of battle and a family tragedy. But which name to pick from so many, which story to tell? One name that suggests itself is in a photograph of an unknown woman laying a wreath at an Australian section of the Menin Gate in the 1920s or 1930s. She is standing beside Panel 31 and directly under the wreath is the name Sergeant Thomas Henry Fraser. Fraser, a 26–year–old civil engineer and municipal surveyor of Williamstown, Victoria, enlisted in Melbourne in January 1916. He ended up in the 2nd Pioneer Battalion and from the rank of private had worked his way to sergeant by the end of July 1917. This was much to the disgust of his father, Alexander Fraser, who, as letters in Sergeant Fraser’s AIF dossier in the National Archives of Australia show, wrote both to the military authorities and to a member of the Federal Parliament of his acquaintance, the Hon Sir Robert Best, MHR for Kooyong. Fraser’s father’s case was simple – his son, a highly qualified man, was being used as little more than a labourer in the pioneers. Moreover, according to Mr Fraser, other similarly qualified municipal surveyors who had enlisted had refused to await events in England with regard to a commission, as Sergeant Fraser had done, and gained rank by attending the relevant officers’ training camp in Australia before proceeding overseas. Sir Robert passed the matter on to the Secretary for the Army with a request to see what could be done in Sergeant Fraser’s case. The matter was under investigation in October 1917 when the 2nd Pioneer Battalion were in action in the Ypres Salient.
Private Robert Porter was in Fraser’s unit that day:
We were making a road … close to Ypres close to a place called Hellfire Corner about 6 o’clock in the evening of 15 October 1917. We were laying planks and Fraser went a short distance ahead with a chain when a shell from the Germans burst close to him and killed him. He was buried at the side of the road not very far from where he fell. A large cross was erected.
Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau file, Sergeant Thomas Fraser,
Porter’s description of Fraser’s death was corroborated by other witnesses who also mentioned the burial and that his cross had been marked with his name and number. Fraser’s family were informed of these details and in Fraser’s official Army dossier at the National Archives of Australia is this notation – ‘Buried N of Plank Road W of Tractor NE of Y Wood 2 and a half miles from Ypres’. However, when the battlefield came to be cleared after the war Fraser’s cross was relocated into Hooge Crater Cemetery not far from the location given in his dossier. His mother, Harriet Fraser, requested and was sent photographs of her son’s cross but must not have picked up the detail that the cross was called a ‘memorial’ cross by the authorities. Whatever happened, Fraser’s remains were never recovered or, if recovered, could not be properly identified. It is possible that he rests among the 178 unidentified Australian graves at Hooge Crater. And so, despite due burial and the registration of the grave and its location by the authorities, Sergeant Thomas Fraser is now among the ‘missing’ and is so commemorated on the Menin Gate, one Australian story among the 54,000 soldiers remembered on these panels.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - July 2011