I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Ypres is a town in Belgium (now known by its Flemish name Ieper) that was at the centre of fighting throughout World War I. The carnage was awful with hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded on both sides.
In 1927, the Menin Gate was opened at eastern exit of the town. It honours the British Empire (Commonwealth) soldiers who died in the Ypres area and whose remains were never found―all 54,595 of them. These were just the men for whom no grave exists.
The Menin Gate
The first time the people of Ypres had contact with German troops was on October 7, 1914. Thousands of soldiers entered the town through the Menin Gate. Six days later, British, French, and Belgian troops took up positions east of the town aiming to halt the German advance. So began four years of horrific bloodshed at the end of which not much had changed.
By the end of the war, the town of Ypres lay in ruins and the task of rebuilding started. The British architect Sir Reginald Blomfield was given the job of designing a monument to honour the British Empire soldiers with no known resting place.
The names of the dead are inscribed on stone panels but there was a problem. There wasn’t enough space to accommodate all the names, so it was decided to include only those who died before August 15, 1917.
Thousands more were honoured at another memorial. Also missing from the memorial are names of the unrecovered bodies of soldiers from New Zealand and Newfoundland; they are honoured elsewhere.
The memorial is a large archway, a little reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. World War I veteran and poet Siegfried Sassoon expressed his displeasure with the edifice in his poem On Passing the New Menin Gate.
The Ypres Salient
In military terms, a salient is a bulge in the line of engagement that extends into enemy territory. In the First Battle of Ypres, Allied forces pushed the German soldiers out of Ypres where they set up defensive positions on slightly higher ground to the east of the town. The German perimeter formed a rough semi-circle around the town.
Allied soldiers occupied the salient, which left them open to fire from three directions. Also, being on higher ground gave the Germans a good view of Allied positions and activity.
The Allies were determined, at any cost, to stop the German advance to the northern French coast whose most likely route was through Ypres. Yielding the Channel ports would have cut off absolutely essential supply lines.
For the next four years, in struggles of astounding futility, the two sides battled over the same stretches of ground―sometimes advancing and sometimes retreating―but always losing soldiers at staggeringly high rates.
The Ypres Battles Scorecard
The First Battle of Ypres, October 14 to November 30, 1914
Belgian wounded, killed, or missing―20,000
Outcome―Stalemate and the start of trench warfare.
The Second Battle of Ypres, April 22 to May 25, 1915
The Germans attack French positions using poison gas and punch a hole in the defensive line. A Canadian counter-attack drove the Germans back. After several days of more gas attacks and counter-attacks, the lines settled down to much as they had been before battle commenced, although the Germans were three miles closer to Ypres in some parts of the salient.
Amidst the turmoil of the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote his famous poem after a friend had been killed.
The Third Battle of Ypres (sometimes called the Battle of Passchendaele), July 31 to November, 1917
The plan was to attack the German line on the north-east segment of the salient. At first, the attack went well and the British captured the strategically important Passchendaele Ridge. Then, the rain came. Any further advance was next to impossible because the water would not drain away in the clay soil of Flanders. Five months later, all the ground taken was lost in the German spring offensive of 1918.
Combined British casualties―275,000
The Unsung Heroine
The mangled bodies from the battlefield were passed down the line to be tended to by doctors and nurses. One of those nurses was Nellie Spindler. She lied about her age to be accepted, as many young soldiers had done.
As a member of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service she was treating seriously wounded soldiers brought in from the fighting around Passchendaele. Her Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) was three miles from the front line.
On August 21, 1917, the CCS came under a German bombardment with shell fragments doing the damage they were designed to do. Nursing Sister Kate Luard rushed to the tent where Nurse Spindler had been sleeping after a night shift. She wrote in her diary “The piece went through her from back to front near her heart. She was only conscious a few minutes and only lived 20 minutes.” She died in Sister Kate’s arms.
Nellie Spindler was 26 years old; just one of the estimated 1,500 nurses killed during World War I.
- Over a period of four years the town of Ypres was blasted into oblivion with 20 shells a minute landing at the peak of the bombardment. The population had been evacuated. Under the guidance of town architect Jules Coolmans, the old city was completely rebuilt in its pre-war condition. Discovering Belgium notes that “just ten years after the Armistice, Ypres looked like the town had never experienced a war. Almost all the destroyed buildings had been rebuilt. Today, Ypres is generally considered one of the best examples of post-conflict reconstruction.”
- Every evening since July 1928, the Last Post has been sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. During World War II the ceremony was held in England.
- “Battles of the Ypres Salient.” Greatwar.co.uk, undated.
- “A Noble Type of Good Heroic Womanhood.” Katie Daubs, Toronto Star, October 11, 2018.
- Imperial War Museum.
- “The Reconstruction of Ypres.” Discovering Belgium, undated.
- “Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial.” Commonwealth War Graves Commission, undated.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 09, 2021:
Such bloody battles and so many casualties took place there! The Menin Memorial Gate is beautiful to my way of thinking. Thanks for this look back in history.