Finally yesterday I made my way to the village that was once known as Ypres. These days it is known more by its flemish name of Ieper but everyone knows the name Ypres.
I wanted to see this monument, the gate that leads eastward out of the town where many soldiers walked out of on their way to the front line. I wasn’t really prepared for what I would experience.
I parked close to the monument and approached from the southern end. I stopped at a small monument for the 160,000 Indian troops that died in both wars before walking up to the now imposing gate. The gate itself is huge but the first thing I noticed was the southern wall filled with names, ranks and regiments. It did truly take my breath away.
We are all aware of the ‘numbers’ involved with human life lost during the wars but numbers really mean nothing, especially when they are so huge they are incomprehensible. I was now face to face with a wall maybe 50 feet high and 100 feet long – filled from floor to ceiling, end to end with names from all around the world.
I started walking down the stairs to pass inside the gate. At my first turn, I noticed more names on the walls, in fact, at every turn, wherever there was wall space there were names – from top to bottom, from end to end – under the archways, besides the stair cases – there was no space free.
Then – inside the gate itself, a huge cavern, decorated with names – every where you look, huge long lists, 50 feet high or more.
I crossed the road inside the gate and passed out through the northern entrance – again, every inch of wall space had a name, rank and regiment on it. Some names had poppies stuck next to them – some people must have brought ladders to put them up, they were too high for even me to get close to. Some freshly laid wreaths from the evenings ceremony the day before.
Since 1928 – The Last Post has been played every night at The Menin Gate – only stopping briefly between 1939 and 1945. I planned to stay on to witness this too.
8pm sharp! As you would expect with military precision. I was surprised at how many people turned out bearing in mind that this is a daily tradition – even more surprised to see the majority of visitors were school age. I snapped a few sneaky photos of the Buglers before they started playing, then lowered my camera and took my hat off as The Last Post was played. By the time the ‘Rouse’ was played I was shivering. Cold from maybe 3 minutes without my furry hat. It was cold. snow on the ground and just below freezing. I was left wondering just how, in trenches dug in open fields, with no technology keeping them warm, those soldiers survived months on months of this cold and still had energy and the will to dodge german artillery and bullets.
Back in my nice warm car on the way back to Brussels I started thinking. There are 54,839 names on the Menin Gate. These are names of soldiers that have no known resting place which effectively means somewhere out in the Belgian country side, there are 54,839 bodies buried under the soil – Think about the enormity of this for just a moment – nearly 55,000 bodies laying in the countryside – but then I remembered that wasn’t true – The Menin Gate is just 1 of 4 such monuments in Belgium.
To the right of this posting is a link to the photos I took while there – entitled ‘54,839’. Please take a look at them – click the link, then click the first photo to view it full page and scroll through all of them – I tried hard to capture the scale of what I was seeing.
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Have a moan - the beers are on me !!