Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
The armies who endured that sullen swamp.
Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
These are the angry words of Siegfried Sassoon, who took exception to this structure, and presumably to the bigger war memorial in Thiepval in the Somme valley also. The Salient he refers to is the Ypres Salient, a bulge in the Western Front around the town which also, if I recall correctly from my battlefields tour included “Passchendaele at two o’clock”.
Ypres is a weird place. I can say so because I was there. It was flattened during hostilities a hundred years ago, then rebuilt from scratch, so one is in a Flemish town with an impracticably large guild hall and all the shops selling WWI memorabilia. In nearby Hooge there is a crater from a mine – fenced off to avoid live ordnance – and a Blighty cafe. There is a heavy energy about the place; I find it hard to be more precise than that, but one feels it. The land around is undulating to flat, making warfare difficult; it is easy to believe that the hostile armies had a good view of each other!
That said, there is something majestic about the Menin Gate. It is disproportionately large for the size of the town, but that isn’t the point. It is a war memorial to every British and Commonwealth soldier whose resting place is unknown. I should say a word about war graves – they all conform to an Art Deco design and there are certain standards that are always adhered to. You won’t be seeing lights, balloons and flowery wreaths spelling out TOMMY on a war grave.
And the dead are still remembered. Every night of the year – every single night since 1927, the only exception being during the Second World War – a group of buglers, pipers and drummers play the Last Post in the archway of the Menin Gate. The night I was there, a balmy one in early May, a choir sang “Abide with Me“. To my genuine surprise I found myself moved to tears. I think it might have been because the toxic energy of all those battlefields had enervated my system, but there was also beauty and honour in the observance. I don’t blame Siegfried Sassoon for the rage and hurt he felt, and the burning sense of injustice. I can only begin to imagine what he experienced out there. But I think perhaps in this instance he might have been a little unfair.