Remembrance Day – Menin Gate

One hundred years ago on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, hostilities in Europe came to a close. Today we know the anniversary of this day as Remembrance Day.

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Throughout the world, people pause and remember all those brave soldiers who were involved in World War I, particularly those who died.

Today there will be many special Remembrance services to mark the centenary of this occasion.

However, there is a place where these soldiers are remembered not only once a year, but every day- The Menin Gate.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is one of four British and Commonwealth memorials to the missing in the battlefields around Ieper in Belgium. Here the names of more than 50,000 soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth countries who died in the area around Ieper, but who have no known grave, are inscribed in the massive Portland Stone wall panels.

Menin Gate - Western

For more than ninety years every night at 8 pm, the Last Post Ceremony is held in the Menin Gate, by the citizens and visitors in grateful acknowledgment of the sacrifice of so many. Traditionally this ceremony consists of a parade, (with traffic halted), a call to attention, the sounding of the Last Post, the Exhortation, one-minute silence, the Lament, then the laying of wreaths, flags, banners and Standards, and the Reveille. More information about the ceremony can be found here.

It is very special to witness this daily event and an even greater privilege to take part and lay a wreath.

When we were on our Western Front Tour, Vern and two women in our tour group were asked to lay a wreath in memory of all the Australians who had died in World War I. We all had family members who had lost their lives near Iepers. See my blogs on James Joseph Stapleton and William Sherwood

Most of the wreaths were of red paper poppies, but we had a huge green and gold floral wreath which seem to glow in the half-light of the Memorial on that Summer’s evening.

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We arrived at the Menin Gate about six-thirty as the crowds began to pour into the memorial arch. We wanted to get into a good position to see the ceremony and to take photographs. By the time the ceremony began at 8 pm we estimated there would have been a crowd of about three thousand people in the memorial and along the streets and roadway outside.

I had positioned myself so I could see Vern and our Aussie companions as they marched forward to place the wreath at the appropriate time. I had read much about the ceremony and what was to take place, but nothing could have prepared me for the rush of emotion when that first bugle note echoed throughout the Memorial. Tears streamed down my face and my hands trembled so much there was no hope of taking any decent photographs. Vern said later he had shivers down his spine too.

For several minutes time seem to stand still. Not a sound could be heard from the huge crowd. Just the bugle and orders shouted by the officers at the appropriate time and then the footsteps of those who marched forward to lay wreaths and finally the stomping of the soldier’s feet as they marched out in formation towards the Town Square.

Several of our tour companions also admitted that the ceremony had had a big emotional impact on them too, as we all walked back to our hotel.

Next morning we rose early and set off in the bright sunshine to visit the Menin Gate again. This time there were no crowds and we were able to visit all the side steps and galleries where the names of the missing are displayed in row after row in hundreds of panels of Portland Stone imported from Britain. The stairways and galleries were covered in hundreds of wreaths of red poppies for the fallen.

Menin Gate - Gallery Stairs

Menin Gate - Memorial Panels

Menin Gate - North side from Ramparts

Our tour guide also explained other features of this incredible memorial.

Lest we forget.

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Australian World War I Battlefields Tour- Iepers

The second day of our tour began with a walking tour of this beautiful medieval city. Perhaps I need to fill you in on a bit of history of this place first.

Ieper is an ancient town located in the Flemish province of West-Flanders (or Vlaanderen). When World War I was declared in August 1914, it was known by its French name, Ypres.

Soon after the declaration of war and the German mobilization, more than 8,000 German soldiers passed through Ypres on the 7 and 8 October 1914, on their ‘push to the coast’.

Within a few days, French and British soldiers arrived in the town to set up a blockade to stop the full-on German offensive, as they realized the strategic importance of the town.

It was the British soldiers who first called it ‘Wipers’, which was a much easier name to pronounce. They were there for four long years from October 1914 to November 1918.

This town was the focus of German operations in the north-west, as they tried to recapture it. However, despite major offensives and severe artillery shelling, which reduced the town to rubble, the town never fell into German hands during the war.

This town was also the main staging post for allied forces before they went out to fight in the surrounding area, known as ‘ the Salient,’ which is a battlefield feature that projects into enemy territory.

Every allied soldier fighting in Belgium most likely would have passed through this town, at some time.

I can imagine several of our family heroes marching out at night, to their positions in the trenches, batteries and observation posts. Most of the troop movements were at night, because there was some advantage to traveling under the cover of darkness, in such an open and flat country. The enemy was not easily able to observe the size and position of troops, and then bombard the area with artillery and bombs.

With the centenary of World War I, there is so much material on-line that literally ‘puts you there’, such as this film.

The film deals with the participation of the Australian troops in the Third Battle of Ypres during the autumn of 1917. The scenes include Australians preparing for the attack; being reviewed by Sir Douglas Haig before going into action; shells falling amongst the ruins of Ypres and then shows the battlefields over which Australians fought and incidents connected with the fighting.

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/ieper/a-walk-around-ieper/ruins-of-Ypres-1917-movie.php

Today it is difficult to image there was so much destruction here, and how everything was painstakingly restored after the war, right down to the cobblestoned streets. In fact, the whole city is a memorial to World War I

From the moment we got off our bus at our hotel, we could feel a special atmosphere about the place. It took me a while to work it out. There was a busyness, but not the loud brashness of many tourist places. The people we met were welcoming, but not patronizing. In many places on our travels throughout Europe, the people smiled and rushed out to greet us, but we knew they were looking for our ‘tourist dollar’.

At Iepers it was different. There was a quite respectfulness as if they knew why we were there, especially as our Australian accents soon announced us. Everyone we met wanted to help us understand and to know, what had happened there all those years ago.

However, I must point out the place was not silent and morbid. In fact, when we arrived in the hotel restaurant for our dinner, there were obviously several celebratory parties in progress, including a large school group.

Perhaps you could say there was a certain ‘joyfulness’ about the place too. I don’t really know why, but maybe it is an appreciation of the sacrifice of all those thousands of soldiers, from all over the world, all those many years ago, so that their city could remain in existence, and be reclaimed and rebuilt.

After a wonderful dinner and a good nights sleep, we were ready to begin our walking tour of the city.

We started our tour not far from the hotel at St Jacobs Church. (below).

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If you look carefully you can see the original doorway and footings of this medieval church which survived the war, but everything above the door was rebuilt.

We then proceeded to a section of the city wall ramparts, where actual shops had been built into the earthen bank. This area was also used as allied headquarters during the war.

We then visited the Menin Gate. Nothing I can write can do it justice, but I will try, with a separate blog or two soon.

After a very emotional visit to the Menin Gate, we proceeded along the main street until we arrived at the Great Market Square. It was a huge cobblestoned area, surrounded by beautiful Gothic buildings faithfully and painstakingly restored after World War I. The Gemeentehuis, or Town Hall is one such building. (Below).

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The weekly markets were taking place in the Square and it was interesting to wander through the stalls. We found them similar to what we could expect to find at city markets back home, and it gave us a comfortable familiar feeling, as the grey over-caste sky gave way to warm summer sunshine.

We headed for the huge inspiring Gothic building, which took up nearly half the square itself. It was the Lakenhalle or Cloth Hall.

So much about the history of this building can be found at-

http://www.ww1westernfront.gov.au/ieper/a-walk-around-ieper/cloth-hall-lakenhalle.php#

This beautiful restored and refurbished building is the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, for the city for the World War I Anniversary celebrations. Lots of information can be found here.

http://www.greatwar.co.uk/ypres-salient/museum-in-Flanders-fields.htm

Within this building is the In Flanders Fields Museum. This museum is spread over two floors and is an incredible place. It uses all the modern technical equipment to tell the story of the war, not only from the city’s perspective but all those who endured those terrible times. Although the history was well told and illustrated, I found it crowded, gloomy and very oppressive, as it is painted all black inside with little light, except for a cold reflected light from the display cabinets and strategically place down-lights..

A large shop can be found on the ground-floor, where I was able to purchase many gifts and books, which will add to my knowledge and understanding of this very special city, and its surrounding villages.

I was pleased to get outside and have a quick morning tea at one of the many pavement cafes, on the edge of the Square, before we returned to the hotel to join our group to begin our bus tour of the Ypres Salient.

As we boarded the bus the sunshine had deserted us again. Our next stop would be the 5th Australian Division Memorial at Polygon Wood.

Australian World War I Battlefields Tour – Family Heroes J J Stapleton and R E Sherwood – Peronne

In my last blog I wrote about our experience at Mont St Quentin, while on a tour of the Australian World War I Battlefields.

After St Quentin we drove on to Peronne, where we had lunch and visited the ‘Historial De La Grande Guerre 14-18’ or the Museum of the War of 1914-18, which was housed in the old medieval castle. It was well worth visiting, as it showed the story of the soldiers, of the many nations, who took part in the war.

After lunch we boarded the bus and drove to the Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension.

The Peronne Communal Cemetery Extension was begun in March 1917 after the Germans had abandoned the town the first time. The Germans continued to use this cemetery when they took the town back in early 1918.

The Australian 2nd Division became the final group to use it, until after the end of the war when the Commonwealth Graves Commission brought in all those soldiers in isolated graves and small cemeteries. There are 517 Australians here, nearly all lost their lives on the attack on Mont St Quentin in late August and early September 1918.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has its own website at http://www.cwgc.org/. It is worth visiting not only for the history and continued work of the Commission, but the symbolism which goes with the cemeteries, such as the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ and the ‘Stone of Remembrance’.

This was the first of many cemeteries we visited over the next few days, and our tour guide did a wonderful job in educating our group on these features, as well as many more concerning the general nature of these cemeteries.

We have two family heroes in this cemetery, Private Robert Edward Sherwood and Corporal James Joseph Stapleton.

Before we left home in June I had printed out from the above mentioned website, the map of this cemetery and marked the position of their graves.

We were able to alight from the bus at the cemetery gate.

The sky was grey and cheerless, never the less the cemetery was beautiful with the gleaming white headstones, lush green grass, and coloured flowers in full bloom decorating the graves themselves. The whole was shrouded in a peaceful silence.

We were the only members of the group to have soldiers buried here, and with the assistance of Pete and our fellow tour companions we were quickly able to find their graves.

For the second time that day we were in for a surprise, although perhaps we should not have been. Corporal J J Stapleton was buried between his two mates, who were carrying him to the field medical station when they were killed by shrapnel from an exploding ‘whiz-bang’ mortar shell.

This gave us a strange comforting feeling knowing that even though he had died so far away from home and family, he was not alone, but resting in peace beside his mates.(Below)

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We were able to take photos with the back -drop of the Australian flag. One of the members of our group had previously made many tours of the Western Front Battlefields, and generously shared with us all an Australian flag he had brought with him. We all appreciated this kind gesture, as it gave an added depth to all our photos.

My grandmother’s, cousin, Robert Edward Sherwood was also buried in another section of the cemetery. We¬† took photos of his grave with the Australian flag too.(Below)

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After reboarding the bus, we headed for the town of Iepers, where we were to stay the night.