Great War memorials and The Menin Gate – Part 2

Hello All,

It’s dark, wet and cold out, so how better spend an evening updating my friends on the interwebby thing. Hope you are all well.

In other news, I have done my month with face fuzz and have grown quite attached to it (this pun wasn’t lost on myself and my father in a cafe yesterday) so, today, I went to a local barber to have a little bit of a trim, so I looked less of a hobo without a whisky bottle and more of manly man (grrrrr). Quick buzz here or there, no questions about where I plan to go on holiday next and the very nice young lady was done. Price for 20 minutes of her time? A whole £2.50. Bargain. I shall go back before the office Christmas party if I feel the need. On a large plus side, I estimate near £100 in my Poppy Box for this little bet raised by my colleagues, but I will let you know the exact amount shortly.

Anyway, on to the second part of my battlefield tour in Belgium. However, as I said before, please bear in mind that this is a massively edited photographic tour, it really is something you should all do just to see the scale of monuments and such. After our trip to the museum, there was an opportunity to go and see a very small part of the battlefield that was retained as memorial to a large battle here, the battle for Hill 60. If you ever visit, you will notice that not much of the area you see is all that hilly. There are two reasons for this; 1) the geographical area was not all that hilly anyway and 2) the sheer tonnage of high explosive landed in the area had a cumulative effect to flatten most hills in Flanders. It seems outlandish, but that is the truth. For every one square metre of land, it is estimated that one tonne of high explosive was fired in 1915-18. Amazing. Conservative guesses of the actual number of shells fired in this area alone over the entire war rests over the one billion mark.

In the image below, you may be able to see the effect of such a bombardment, albeit very much softened by the passage of time…

Site of the Battle of Hill 60

Site of the Battle of Hill 60

Not a dramatic enough picture? Well, bear in mind that what used to occupy this now roughly flat area was a clay spoil heap from the local railway that was used as an observation point by both armies; this spoil heap used to be 46 metres/150 feet high and 230 metres/750 feet long. Maths was never my strong point, but that’s a crapload of soil which was obliterated over a few months by the sheer weight of explosives thrown at it.

From here, we moved on the memorial at Messines Ridge. Our guide told us that the land on which the cemetery and memorial were constructed had been the site of a mill (the Moulin d’Hospice) belonging to the Institute Royal de Messines (a Belgian orphanage and school). The mill dated from 1445, but was destroyed during the war and the memorial was then erected where the mill once stood.

The memorial at Messines Ridge

The memorial at Messines Ridge

I was left wondering, at many of these places and our stops, “what the region would have looked like had all these destroyed villages and buildings survived?”. The guide pointed out (and you had to have it pointed out) that none of the building were any older that 90-100 years. The simple reason being that everything before this was destroyed or so heavily damaged it had to be rebuilt. To be fair, the buildings that are there now are in the character of the period, but it doesn’t take an architect to see that they are more modern. Such a shame.

From here we moved to the Menin Gate, the part of the tour that most had come for from overseas. I am sure that most, if not all, of you have heard of this place and, if you haven’t, you should make it your business to find out. The Gate is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient in World War One and whose graves are unknown – in all there are nearly 55,000 names on the gate.

The Menin Gate, site of the daily Last Post

The Menin Gate, site of the daily Last Post

As I referred to in my previous post, this memorial was discovered upon completion to be too small to listing all the names of the missing and the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing was then constructed with a further 35,000 names on. The inscription inside the archway is a short verse followed by a Latin phrase: “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – “Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”. The Latin phrase means ‘To the greater glory of God’. Both this inscription and the main overhead inscriptions were composed by Rudyard Kipling.

A bronze of the Menin Gate - I couldn't fit the whole gate in from the ground!

A bronze of the Menin Gate – I couldn’t fit the whole gate in from the ground!

To this day, the remains of missing soldiers are still found in the countryside around the town of Ypres during building or roadwork. Any human remains discovered receive a proper burial in one of the war cemeteries in the region. If the remains can be identified, the relevant name is then removed from the Menin Gate.

To get a sense of what it was like and what a trench system of the period would have looked like, near the Gate is a reconstructed trench system, nicknamed “The Yorkshires” after those who dug it. Obviously, ignore the grass and the neatly laid sandbags, this would have been a mud filled chaotic quagmire in the day.

The reconstructed trench system built by "The Yorkshires"

The reconstructed trench system built by “The Yorkshires”

Unfortunately, this system that was built by volunteers is now suffering from the encroachment of modern society and the environment. The dug out that was excavated is now full of water due to the nearby canal that was recently repaired and then started leaking in. As well as this, the area that was an unofficial war grave has now been built upon by numerous large companies who paid no heed to the voluntary code that applies in the region to do a cursory check of the land for human remains. So, despite the best efforts of these volunteers, there may be some remains here that may never be repatriated which, to the mind of our group, was bordering on scandalous.

Our next stop was to a fairly normal looking building on the main road from Ypres. It looked for all the world to be an old sunken concrete bunker, but it hides a very special piece of history. This bunker is part of the Essex Farm memorial. In the battles, it was a front line dressing station and it was here that Canadian Army surgeon Lt Colonel John “Jimmy” McRae was working. Don’t know the name? Neither did I until I read the plaque that told of what he did after a particularly grim day where he recalled that the fighting was so heavy that, on occasion “men who were shot actually rolled down the bank into the dressing station”.

The Essex Farm dressing station, birthplace of "In Flanders Fields"

The Essex Farm dressing station, birthplace of “In Flanders Fields”

Not only was Dr McRae a doctor and veteran of the war in South Africa, he was a poet. After this bad day, he wrote that world-famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. Unbelievably, the story has it that having written the poem, he crumpled the paper and threw it to one side. A medical orderly recovered it and it would later be published in the popular British magazine Punch. Whether that is true no-one knows for sure.

Finally, it would be very wrong of me and felt wrong of us when we were in the bus, not to pay our respects by visiting a German graveyard in the area. We stopped briefly at the Langemark cemetery. Unbelievably, more than 44,000 soldiers are buried here in a way not used by the Allied powers, a mass grave.

The German cemetery near Ypres

The German cemetery near Ypres

The cemetery, which evolved from a small group of graves from 1915, has seen numerous changes and extensions. There is a mass grave near the entrance and this so-called “comrades grave” contains 24,917 servicemen, including the flying Ace, Werner Voss. Between the oak trees, next to this mass grave, are another 10,143 soldiers (including 2 British soldiers killed in 1918). In addition, there are 3,000 volunteer school students who were killed during the First Battle of Ypres buried in a third part of the cemetery.

The German cemetery near Ypres

The German cemetery near Ypres

Powerful? You bet. It was obvious too that this site doesn’t get the care that the Allied sites. In my opinion, the same amount of respect should be given to these soldiers as to the Allied soldiers. If you look in the ‘net it’s almost as though the German public are happy to forget these places. Although there is an organisation similar to our Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it has less funding and staff to look after places like this, so much so that local volunteers are canvassed to mow grass, prune trees and so on. That’s a crying shame. After all, how does the famous saying go? If you ignore history, you are bound to repeat it.

Well, there we have it. A short tour of the Ypres salient battlefields and cemeteries. Again, I will persuade you wholeheartedly to undertake this tour or one similar if you can. It really is worth it and is a true education you could never get via the TV or in a classroom. However, thanks for just sticking with me on these posts and I hope you have found it as interesting as I, the next posts will be of a lighter note I assure you.

See you soon.

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  1. #1 by bookvolunteer on December 2, 2014 - 9:17 am

    William Rees Reynolds from Dinas Cross died at Ypres on 12th October 1917. His name is on the Menin Gate memorial.

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