May 4, 2017 § 1 Comment
Menin Gate At Midnight by Will Longstaff, 1927
As you look closely, the spectral soldiers appear in Will Longstaff’s 1927 painting as they move through the Menin Gate toward the Western Front. The Menin Gate Memorial was dedicated in 1927 and on its 59 panels are listed the more than 55,000 men killed at Ypres (Ieper) whose bodies were never found. My young uncle, Léo, is one of those. Perhaps hidden in that very darkness, he advances toward his fate.
Of course, in 1916, there was no memorial gate, only the scarred road in the photograph below leading to the trenches. The husk of the Cloth Hall and the destroyed remnants of Ypres (now bearing its Flemish name, Ieper) are behind them. One can only imagine the thoughts they must of had while marching.
The Menin Gate Memorial now stands astride that road leading out of the city to the then devastated lands known in the history books as, “the Salient” where 200,000 British Commonwealth lives were lost. Over the course of the war, 1,700,000 soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded around Ypres and an uncounted number of civilians. The last shell fell on what remained of the city on the 14th of October, 1918.
On a warm summer’s day, Sunday, July 24th, 1927, the Menin Gate Memorial was dedicated. Five hundred piles were driven 40 feet deep to ensure a stable foundation. Thousands of unexploded shells were painstakingly removed . Six thousand tons of stone, 11,000 tons of concrete, 500 tons of steel. With the weight of the panels and sculptures, the Menin Gate Memorial weighed 20,000 tons.
Thousands attended the ceremony including 700 mothers who had lost sons in the war. A view through the arches will give you a glimpse of how the city was beginning in 1927 to be restored. If we had been there in that crowd that morning, we would have heard Field Marshall Lord Plumer, former commander of the British Second Army, address his remarks directly to the families of the missing by stating that the memorial had been erected to be worthy of those who gave their lives and was an attempt to give them an expression of the nations’ gratitude for their sacrifice and to show sympathy for those who mourn. Lord Plumer continued that the memorial, “In its simple grandeur, fulfills this object, and that now it can be said of each one in whose honor we are assembled here today; ‘He is not missing; he is here’.” He is here. For my young uncle Léo, even at this remove, I wonder what he would say. But, that is my speculation this spring day almost 100 years after the conclusion of that war to end all wars.
Next year, in June of 2018, our theater group, Le Théâtre Générations, plans to present our play, Le Retour, in a venue not far from the Cloth Hall and The Menin Gate in Ieper, Belgium. Some members of our group are as young as the young men who served in that war, some members as old as their mothers or fathers, some as young as children in the families who said goodbye in front of steamships or trains. All of us carry that war in our historical memory, in our own family histories. In some sense, maybe we will all be returning.