Day 4 – Part 2: Ypres & The Menin Gate

Having returned from Messines Ridge where I spent the morning, I decided to spend the rest of the day having a look around Ypres (Ieper) before the ceremony in the evening at the Menin Gate. Now Ypres was the arrival and dispersal point for the soldiers arriving to the Western Front and was the last stop before they headed out to the trenches across Flanders.

Ypres is the centre of the Flanders and the Flemish area of Europe in the south western corner of Belgium.  The city is located almost on the French border about 50 km from the coast, Dunkirk and the English Channel, and dates back to Roman times.  As can be seen, it lies at a strategic crossroads controlling access to ports and the coast.  It has always had a strong connection to the English providing them with linen and cloth through the centuries. It was been occupied by just about everybody…French, Spanish, Germans, Austrians…the poor Flemish have not had it easy, an explanation to why the town is surrounded by large city walls and a wide moat.

The city like most trading cities is build up around the central square. Occupying and dominating the square is the impressive “Cloth Hall” from the 13th century where all the merchants stored and traded their linen.  It is said, that during the witch hunts that cats  being the symbol of the devil and witchcraft, were thrown off Cloth Hall, possibly in the belief that this would get rid of evil demons (poor pussy cats 😦 ). A different theory is that cats were held to protect the cloth against mice, but the annual excess of kittens had to be dealt with in some way.  Today, this act is commemorated with a triennial Cat Parade through the town. Today, Cloth Hall contains the international peace museum – “In Flanders Fields”. The museum not only preserves the memories of what happened in Flanders fields but has a mission to also research and convey as much as it can about what happened.  Behind the Cloth Hall is St. Martin’s Cathedral also dating from the 13th century.  It houses the grave of Robert the III, Count of Flanders but also affectionately known as the “The Loin of Flanders” for resisting the rule of the French in the 1300s.  The Cathedral and Cloth Hall were heavily damaged by German WWI bombardment, however, both have been faithfully restored/reconstructed during the 1920s and 30s.

Continuing my wander around the town, I headed up to the old fish market (Vismarkt) with its Toll house. From there on up to the market square with its Town Hall, stopping along the way to purchase some Belgian Chocolates at Peter de Groots and some Belgian beers to take home, before finally arriving at the Menin Gate.

The Menin Gate is a memorial to all the British and Commonwealth soldiers who are missing in action after the battles of WWI in and around Ypres who have no known graves with the exception of the New Zealanders who have their memorial at Tyne Cot cemetery.  The memorial is located at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line.  The eastern exit was simply cut through the remains of the ramparts and across the moat.  Many who past through this exit never returned with some 300,000 of them being killed in the Ypres Salient and 90,000 of these soldiers with no known graves.  The Menin Gate as we see it today was designed in 1921.  Its large Hall of Memory contains names on stone panels of 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient but whose bodies have never been identified or found. On completion of the memorial, it was discovered to be too small to contain all the names as originally planned. An arbitrary cut-off point of 15 August 1917 was chosen and the names of 34,984 of the missing after this date were inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing instead.

To this day, the remains of missing soldiers are still found in the countryside around Ypres. Such finds are made during building work or road-mending activities. 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 removed from the Menin Gate and added to their headstone in the cemetery.  Following the Menin Gate Memorial opening in 1927, the citizens of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom. Hence every evening at 8pm, buglers from the Last Post Association close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the “Last Post“.  With the exception of the German occupation in WWII, this ceremony has been carried out every night uninterrupted since 2 July 1928.

On the eve of the commemorations of the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, the citizens of Ypres had accorded New Zealand the honour of dedicating the Last Post ceremony on the 11th of October to the Kiwis who had fallen to protected their beloved Flanders even though no Kiwi names adorn the memorial.  The 11th of October saw many leave through this exit preparing for the battle which was to come on the 12th of October 1917.  During the day as I had passed through the city, people on learning you were a New Zealander would come up, smile, say hello, some would even shake your hand and thank you for the sacrifice NZ made in defending this small part of their country.  The sight of the fern and the poppy on my lapel was enough for them to open their hearts in welcome.  Fantastic generosity to citizens from a country as far as you can get from theirs.  Moving.  As the evening drew in, I was joined once again by my cousins.

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, I meet a group of Kiwis at the Messines Ridge Memorial yesterday who said they were here to paddle the waka in the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate  The evening ceremony of the Last Post was proceeded by a light show on the ramparts of Ypres called “From the uttermost ends of the earth” with the waka taking part in it.  It was a moving picture, light and sound show before the public moved inside the gate for the “Last Post” ceremony.  The ceremony was both sombre and joyful and definitely very Kiwi.  From the thundering sounds of the haka, Dave Dobbyns beautiful rendition of his hit song “Welcome home”, to the many waiatas (Maori Songs) which echoed within the beautiful acoustics of the gate to amplify the emotions fell by all in remembering what had happened to our soldiers 100 years ago.  Not a dry eye in the house.  As the evening drew to a close we retired to a local pub to enjoy a beer with the locals and enjoy the moment we had just experienced.

A short film of the ceremony can be found on Youtube by clicking on this link: “From the uttermost ends of the earth!

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