It is a somber place, the Ypres Salient, where so many young men perished between 1914 and 1918. I have begun a series of hikes around the many battlefields, following Paul Reed’s excellent guide: “Walking Ypres”. However, my exploration of the Ypres Salient rightly begins at the Menin Gate, a memorial to the British and Commonwealth soldiers missing from the beginning of the war until 15 August 1917. It was then that 55,000 names of missing men had been reached and additional names would be recorded on other memorials around the Salient. However, for the missing from Commonwealth countries: Australia, Canada, and South Africa, all their missing from the Ypres Salient are recorded at the Menin Gate. The memorial was built in the 1920s and unveiled in July of 1927. At the unveiling of the monument, Field Marshal Herbert Plumer, 1st Viscount Plumer, who had led forces in the Salient during the war, most notably at Messines Ridge, famously said of those with no graves: “They are not missing, they are here.”
Originally, the gate was an opening in the 17th Century walls built by Vauban which led from the medieval market town of Ypres to the town of Menin some miles away to the east. During the war, the opening in the walls led to the front, and as the war progressed, hundreds of thousands of men would pass from the town through the destroyed portal to the trenches and dugouts which surrounded the tenuous British position in the salient. Ypres itself came under increased German shelling throughout the war and was almost completely destroyed by the armistice in 1918. Soldiers passing from Ypres through the ruined walls to the trenches were said to joke: “tell the last man through to bolt the Menin Gate.”
Beginning in July 1928, only interrupted during the German occupation during the Second World War, the Last Post Buglers’ Association has played the Last Post at 8 pm each evening under the arch of the Menin Gate. In fact, as Ypres was liberated by Polish forces in the Second World War, the ceremony was bravely resumed by local firefighters while fighting continued in the town. It is a moving ceremony and a credit to the Belgian allies of Great Britain, the citizens of Ypres, who have maintained this somber tradition for almost a hundred years. Each night, traffic is stopped and visitors stand silently as the buglers play in unison the Last Post, which echoes under the gate and among the 55,000 names of the missing. It is fitting to feel overcome by a sense of loss and tragedy at such a moment.
For more information on the Last Post Buglers’ Association, or to schedule a wreath laying at the Menin Gate, visit their website: https://www.lastpost.be/en/ceremonies/participation