More background info:
Memorialization of the Great War
started soon after it ended. The first dedicated places to be established were war cemeteries, as the battlefields were cleared. Initial small patches of graves were later concentrated into the ca. 150 we see today in the former Ypres Salient region. Not all dead were ever found, however. Many bodies could not be identified after having been lying unburied out in the open in the battered no man’s land between the front lines. And yet more remain missing altogether.
The Menin Gate was specifically constructed to honour those Commonwealth soldiers who remain missing, but not all of them. Only officers and men from the UK
and South Africa
who died before August 1917 (i.e. before the Battle of Passchendaele – see under Ypres
) and their more their 54,000 names are engraved on the monument. So this monument is in lieu of graves for those that don’t have proper ones. (And if by some miracle a body can still be identified today and given a proper grave, that name will be removed from the Menin Gate memorial.) Those who went missing after August 1917, some further 35,000, are commemorated elsewhere, especially at Tyne Cot
The Menin Gate (“Menenpoort” in Flemish/Dutch) was constructed by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), to a design already presented in 1921, and finally unveiled in 1927.
The following year the tradition of the “Last Post” was begun (see below
). Since then, every evening at 8 p.m. buglers from a local association have played the tune of that name in honour of those missing soldiers. The tradition was only interrupted during the occupation of Belgium
by Nazi Germany
, but resumed as soon as on the evening of the liberation of Ypres in September 1944. In the intervening years, the ceremony was instead held in England. So it’s been running continuously for close to a century!
What there is to see:
For most of the day, this edifice serves two functions at the same time. On the one hand it is indeed a gateway to the city, as it stands on the road (Menin Street – or Menenstraat in Flemish) that leads into the Old Town from the east … i.e. the main road to the front during WW1
. And for most of the day pedestrians, bicycles and cars can all make use of the road and gate.
But every evening at 8 p.m. the “Last Post” ceremony
is held, when buglers play the tune of that piece of music in honour of those fallen in the Ypres Salient
in WW1. Sometimes only a few people attend and it’s a rather intimate affair, sometimes it’s much bigger. When I was in Ypres
in August 2016, I went to see the ceremony twice, two nights running. On both occasions it was very well attended, by at least 250 people.
A sign outside informs visitors of the sequence of proceedings and how to behave. You are supposed to keep to the areas allocated to visitors and stay away from the road under the Gate, you are to remain silent during the entire ceremony, and that also means no applause, neither during nor after the ceremony. This was observed for the most part when I was there so it was really a very solemn and sombre atmosphere.
Half an hour before the ceremony the road was blocked off for traffic and people started assembling. Then an official makes an announcement asking for attention; at the extended ceremonies this is also when a prayer or speech follows. Then the buglers of the Last Post Association step into the road at the eastern end of the Menin Gate and play their piece at exactly 8 o’clock. Next an excerpt from the poem “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon is read out, followed by a minute’s silence. During longer ceremonies there may also be a lament sung. When I was there, a bagpipe was played as well. Then wreaths may be laid down by pilgrims/relatives/officials, and little crosses made of plywood with a plastic red poppy in the centre dedicated to individuals can be placed by the monument too. On some occasions national anthems may also be played. The crowds (if there were any) then disperse and the Gate is reopened to traffic.
To visit the monument as such it’s best to come during the day rather than in the evening. The “Gate” is more like a short tunnel or arched hall with a row of open skylights in the ceiling. On the front there’s a general dedication, and inside the walls are inscribed with some 54,000 names. They are not just on the inside but also along the colonnaded walls on the sides of the monument. Steps lead up to that level, which is aligned with old ramparts.
To the south of the monument on the crest of these bastions, a few further, smaller monuments can be found, one honouring the Gurkhas (Nepalese), another the Indian soldiers who fought here. Also up here, directly by the real gate is a small bronze model of it, together with some inscriptions in Braille. Here blind people can literally get a “feel” of the Menin Gate.
All in all
, this may not be a big site requiring much time, but it is one of the most significant war memorials in the world, and the daily “Last Post” ceremonies in the evening make it absolutely unique. The atmosphere here is seriously sombre – and thus the site was given a darkometer rating
of 5, even though there isn’t much to see.
on the eastern edge of the Old Town of Ypres
, on Menin Street (Menenstraat in Flemish/Dutch) just before the bridge over the river/canal, ca. 400 yards from Grote Markt.
Access and costs: easy to find, free
Details: You really cannot miss it. You may even pass through it on your way into the Old Town, namely when coming from the east. From the town centre at Grote Markt simply walk eastwards along Menin Street (Menenstraat) until you get there. The monument can be freely accessed at all times, except when the “Last Post” ceremony is being held, for which the inner part of the Gate is cordoned off, cars are redirected and visitors can watch the ceremony from either the eastern or western side or from the pavement within the Gate but should not step into the road.
Time required: The bugles playing the “Last Post” only lasts a few minutes, but it is accompanied by a ceremonial prelude and often also by an extension afterwards. So in total it can add up to 20 minutes to half an hour or more. During the day, how long you will spend at the monument depends very much on how much time for contemplation you want to allocate and how many of the engraved names you want to study. So anything from just a couple of minutes to significantly longer.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Ypres
- Menin Gate 1 - from the east
- Menin Gate 2 - from the south side
- Menin Gate 3 - inside, looking west into town
- Menin Gate 4 - dedication at the top
- Menin Gate 5 - lots of names on the walls
- Menin Gate 6 - in Flanders Fields
- Menin Gate 7 - Last Post ceremony
- Menin Gate 8 - poppy wreathes
- Menin Gate 9 - atmospheric evening light