Menin Road and Remembrance
Ypres is a place that has seared itself into both the collective soul and the communal memory of the British people. An historic cloth town lying in the flat landscape of northern Flanders, it has come to symbolise the sacrifice of a generation of young men in the Great War. This metamorphosis of Ypres into a focal point of remembrance began in mid October 1914 when the area was overwhelmed by bloody fighting as the Germans strove to end the war quickly in a ‘race to the sea’. Their aim was to capture the Channel Ports and thus cut off the British Expeditionary Force from reinforcements and supplies from England.
Derided by the Kaiser as “a contemptible little army”, the doughty troops of the British Expeditionary Force, helped by the valiant Belgians and French, held off a much greater German force. The cost was horrendous. Between 14 October and 30 November 1914, the British lost 53,000 men; whilst over 4,500 Indian troops were also killed, wounded or went missing. Many, many more would be added to that terrible toll.
From this the First Battle of Ypres, a salient emerged. A bulge punching out from the British lines into the German positions, it could be attacked from three sides – to the east, the north and the south. Within that salient lay Ypres itself, which the Germans desperately wished to take but which was defended resolutely against them throughout the war.
Bombed relentlessly for four years it was all but razed to the ground and became known as the Martyred City. In recognition of the agonies its people had to bear, in 1920 Ypres was awarded the British Military Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.
Nearby locations such as Sanctuary Wood, Langemark and Zonnebeke were also held by the British, whilst the Germans occupied the Messines Ridge, Menin and Passchendaele. All of them call out of the death, destruction and misery of the Great War. Together with Ypres they defined the British experience of the First World War.
Following the first great battle there when a German breakthrough was thwarted, miles and miles of trenches were dug as the two sides came to face each other across the shattered fields of No Man’s Land. From the First Battle of Ypres to the end of the Great War between 220,000 and 240,000 men from Britain and the Empire would die in the small space of the Salient. That was a third of all those who were killed in the First World War.
The shattering statistics of death and injury and their equally shattering effect on the British consciousness have ensured that Ypres has become a place of pilgrimage for the many who wish to pay their respects to those who died. From all over Britain and the Commonwealth they come. Some are young and others are old; some have made their way to honour a grandfather or uncle who did not return home, others have gathered in reverence to the men of their town or of all of the men who died in the battlefields of Ypres.
Many will visit the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’. Its exhibitions are powerful and emotive, distressing and personal, thought provoking and compelling. In this most haunting of museums the dead of both sides are brought together so that the living can comprehend the need for men and women of all kinds to live together in peace. If the leaders of the world spent a day there then never again would they send the sons of other fathers to die in war.
More than a museum, ‘In Flanders Fields’ is a precious repository of humanity – for all its ills and good – and calls out not only of human suffering but of human endurance and human spirit. It is found in the spectacular Cloth Hall. One of the biggest and most imposing commercial buildings in Medieval Europe boasting a bell tower, spire, and turrets, it was left in ruins after the Great War. Rebuilt between 1934 and 1958, it captures the indomitable will of the Flemish people who underwent four years of hellish conditions and who came through to rebuild their land.
Ypres is a town infused with remembrance – as much for the British and Commonwealth nations as for the Flemish. As the Great War finally came to an end Colonel Beckles-Willson, a serving Canadian, wrote that though it was “a heap of ruins, but it is an eternal memorial of British valour. It is only a shell-swept graveyard, but the graves are those of our heroic dead… Ypres and the expanse of earth spread out eastward is in truth ‘the Holy Ground of British Arms!’ For the tens of thousands of gallant Frenchmen who fought and fell here it must also be sacred to our Allies. But the brunt of the defence for four years fell upon us, and 250,000 British dead lie within its borders.” Winston Churchill felt the same. In January 1919, he declared that “more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world”.
War cemeteries abound in the fields of Flanders and in Ypres itself those with no known grave are remembered at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. Within its imposing Hall of Memory the names of 54,896 British and Empire soldiers are inscribed upon large panels. Even so great a memorial is unable to name all those who died and have no known grave. Those who were killed after August 15, 1917 are inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. There are 34,984 of them, whilst the names of all the missing of New Zealand and Newfoundland soldiers are honoured on separate memorials.
This Menin Gate Memorial was opened in 1927. Soon afterwards the citizens of Ypres resolved to show their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom – and to do so in a fitting way. They formed a Last Post Association to carry out a touching daily tribute. Since 1928 the road which passes under the Memorial has been closed each evening. Hushed and sombre crowds then gather to hear buglers from the local volunteer fire brigade sound the Last Post at 8.00.
Menin Road in Billesley commemorates the Memorial, but Birmingham itself, the focal point for Remembrance is the Hall of Memory, which enshrines “the roll of honour of the many thousands of Birmingham’s sons who died in the war”. Its foundation-stone was laid on Tuesday June 12, 1923 by Edward Prince of Wales, during his first visit to the City. He did so with a silver trowel and an ivory mallet, tool that were beautifully designed and executed at the Central and Vittoria Schools of Art.
Thousands watched respectfully and strained to hear the Prince declare that the Memorial would stand “to symbolise to generations to come all that Birmingham stood for during a period of great national crisis – work of every kind unflinchingly given, compassion to the sick and wounded, courage and resources in adversity, and, above all, self-sacrifice, dedicated as it was to the immortal memory of the heroic dead”.
The area chosen for this place of remembrance was towards the top of Broad Street close to its junction with Easy Row, and was given by the Corporation. It had been part of the grounds of the home of John Baskerville, the acclaimed printer, but in the early nineteenth century had been cut through with canal arms between which the land was filled with factories, wharves and commercial buildings. Some of these were cleared for the building of a memorial worthy of the city’s war dead.
There is no doubt that Birmingham people had played their part to the full in the Great War. They had turned out a multitude of munitions so vital to victory and over 150,000 men had answered the call to fight. Sadly, 35,000 of them were wounded and 12,320 killed. Their fellow citizens were resolved that these men would not be forgotten.
Soon after the First World War had begun, the Lord Mayor, Alderman W. H. Bowater, had inaugurated a Roll of Honour to commemorate the Birmingham men who had fallen. These names were recorded at the Lord Mayor’s Parlour and soon the feeling grew that there should be a more permanent memorial.
In 1920 designs for a Hall of Memory were invited in a competition for Birmingham architects only. It was won by S.N. Cooke and W. Norman Twist, both of whom were ex-servicemen. Through a public subscription, over £60,000 was raised for the clearance of the site and the building of the Hall of Memory. The demolition was carried out by Martin Ciangretta, an Italian Brummie who had lost a son in the war; whilst the builders were John Barnsley and Sons and John Bowen and Sons, who mostly employed local men.
Construction was finished in 1925 and on July 4 that year, the Hall of Memory was opened by His Royal Highness Prince Arthur of Connaught. On that solemn occasion a huge crowd assembled to pay their respects at a building “erected to the glory of God and in memory of the men and women of this city who fell in the Great War”.
Octagonal in shape, made of Portland Stone, and covered with a low dome pierced by a single light in the crown, the Hall of Memory is entered through massive cast iron doors. It is flanked by four bronze statues carried out by Albert Toft to symbolise the contribution made to the war by the Navy, Army, Air Services and Women.
Inside is a shrine which supports a bronze casket. Within it lies a magnificently inscribed and illuminated First World War Roll of Honour designed by Sidney Meteyard of the Birmingham Central School of Art. After 1945 a Roll of Honour was added for those who died in the Second World War; and across the hall is a third Roll of Honour which contains the names of those citizens who have died in campaigns since then.
On the walls are three bas-reliefs designed by local artist William Bloye which indicate different aspects of the Great War. The first is ‘Call’ and shows men leaving home to join up. It records that “Of 150,000 who answered the call to arms 12,320 fell: 35,000 came home disabled”.
The second is Front Line. It depicts a party of men in the firing line and bears the powerful words, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we shall remember them”. The third portrays the wounded and maimed coming home. It states simply yet movingly, “See to it that they shall not have suffered and died in vain”. May it be so. Lest we forget.
First published in the Birmingham Mail’s First World War supplement.