Ypres or Leper, is a popular place for British visitors mainly due to the towns’ significance during the First World War. The centre of the town is attractive with the Cloth Hall which was restored after the war, as like the town itself, was reduced to rubble, dominating the main square.
The hall now contains the “In Flanders Field Museum” which tells the story of the town and the three battles fought around it. The main square is a bustling centre, with bars where you can enjoy a meal and a beer, or perhaps a coffee and brandy. For those of you with a sweet tooth there are chocolates shops aplenty!
If you stand in the square with your back to the Cloth Hall and follow the road that runs along the right of the square you will arrive at the Menin Gate Memorial (approx 400yds). Designed by one of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission’s principal architects Sir Reginald Blomfeld. Anyone who has visited a War Cemetery will recognise the Cross of Sacrifice with the sword on it, which he also designed.
The memorial commemorates the death of 54398 soldiers killed in and around Ypres who have no known grave. The memorial comprises panels in Portland Stone listing all of the names of the missing between the start of the war in 1914 till August 1917. It does not therefore include those killed in the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as “Passchendaele”. The missing from this battle, 34948, are commemorated at the Tyne Cot Memorial located at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
The sheer scale of loss for many visitors is overwhelming and it is difficult to comprehend.
Many visitor’s to the Menin Gate come to watch the daily “Last Post Ceremony” held each evening at 8pm. The Local Fire Service provides buglers who play the “Last Post”. The sound from the bugles echoes from the roof of the memorial, enhancing the sound they make.
In addition to the playing of “The Last Post” regular wreath laying services take place. I had the honour of laying a wreath on 1 Oct 2007 on behalf of the “Faculty of Advocates”. In Scotland an Advocate is the equivalent to a Barrister and Lt Walter Scott Stuart Lyon, Royal Scots was before the war a member of the Faculty. As he was born on 1 Oct it was appropriate to lay the wreath on this date. In addition to being an Advocate, Lt Lyon was known as a “War Poet” and amongst his published works is a poem entitled “I tracked a dead man down a trench”, the second line “I knew not he was dead”. Lt Lyon was killed on 8 May 1915 at Potijze Wood.
This line is particularly significant to me as I had Googled Sir Robert Lorimer, another War Graves Commission Architect, who is a distant forebear. He is noted particularly for designing the Thistle Chapel in St. Giles Cathedral and also The Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. He also designed the Faculty of Advocates Memorial where amongst others Lt Lyon is commemorated. By a quirk of fate, I discovered that two of his colleagues were omitted from the Rolls of Honour in the National Memorial and so a quest to find other “Missing” began to secure their inclusion in the Roll.
With so many names it is impossible to relate to the individual stories behind each death. However, when I visit the memorial there are some names I look for. One is Sgt Harry Band, a Scot serving in the Canadian Army. During the war there were many tales of atrocities, whether they happened or not, is open to debate. One such story was that the Germans had crucified a Canadian soldier, whilst there is no definitive evidence to support this story; it is believed that Sgt Band was the soldier.
As you study the panels, you will see the same surname repeated in many Regiments. It is not instantly possible to tell if any of them are related, however, throughout the war there were 325 pairs of brothers who were killed on the same day. Of these, 21 pairs are commemorated on the memorial. There are three brothers, Alfred, Frank and Frederick Racheil who all died on 24/5/15 serving with the Royal Fusiliers.
It must have been terrible for any mother to receive the news that her son had died. So for these mothers to receive the notification that two or in the case of Mrs Ann Racheil, from East Ham, three sons had died on the same day must have been particularly devastating.
You might like to also spare a thought for Mrs Mary Pritchard, who not only lost her son Reginald aged 19 but also her husband William, both on 2/5/15, whilst serving with the Monmouth Regt.
Another pair of brothers killed on the same day whilst serving with the Canadian Army were James and William Farquhar, killed on 3/6/16. Originally from Bower near Wick, their mother Elizabeth was to receive the news that not only these two sons died but their brothers George (NZ Rifles) and Alexander (Norfolk Regt) also died. The local paper reported that on hearing of the death of her fourth son in 1918 she was so overcome with grief and “swiftly sunk into the grave”.
It is likely that you have a connection to someone commemorated on the memorial. Either a relative, someone from your own town or, statistically, one of the 149 names sharing your birthday! If you have a relative who died in the Great War the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s web site www.CWGC.org list all the casualties from World War 1 onwards giving details of the location of their burial site, or memorial if like those on the Menin Gate they have no known grave. In addition to giving details of the casualty they have additional family information which is helpful if you are researching your family history.
Although it is nearly 100 years since the last soldier commemorated on the memorial died the number of visitors each year who attend the service continues to go making the exhortation all the more appropriate.
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Years shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them!”