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He Is Not Missing. He is Here!

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

The IWGC decided that four memorials would be established in the Salient to commemorate those with no known grave, the missing. These numbered some 90,000. The most iconic memorial to the missing, is the Menin Gate which lists 54, 816 names of the missing. In 1919, Churchill convinced the Cabinet that Britain should pay for and erect memorials to the Army on the principle battlefields of the war. He was in favour of a great memorial at Ypres and there were many ideas of the most fitting way to commemorate the memory of this battle-ground that had been fought over continuously from 1914 to 1918. In his book ‘Ypres: The Holy Ground of British Arms’, Lt Col Beckles Wilson thought that Ypres should be made into ‘ great and sacred repository of all the scattered dead in the Salient…. A great marble chapel and sanctuary’ should be built opposite the once majestic Cloth Hall.... The cemeteries of the first Seven Divisions would range along the streets by the eastern Menin Gate whose cobblestones are worn by the tramp during those four years of our infantry and the restless wheels of our guns.’

Churchill shared in this idea declaring that ‘I should like us to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres… A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.’

In July 1919, The Belgian Government agreed that the Menin Gate, Ramparts and Cloth Hall should remain in their ruined state until the British Government had decided what form of memorial should be built. Reginald Blomfield, at the invitation of the British Government, visited Ypres in September 1919 to survey the sites. As the Belgian Government had withdrawn their offer of the Cloth Hall as one of the potential sites for the memorial, Blomfield decided upon the site of Vauban’s Menin Gate as the location,

the original gate had been dismantled before the war. In the summer of 1920, the Cabinet granted the sum of £150,000 to the costs of building this ‘Imperial Memorial,’ although India and the dominions were asked to contribute a third of the costs. As work got underway Blomfield asked the Ypres town architect for advice on the subsoil he was likely to encounter and was told he would find a solid layer of clay. Blomfield had trial holes dug only to discover to his horror that it was running sand. The commission consulted Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice one of the foremost engineers of his day, and he suggested that there should be a raft of concrete supported by piles driven thirty-six feet into the subsoil. Blomfield completed his designs by June 1922 and the contract to build the Memorial was granted in April 1923 and by June work was underway. As this was happening no one at the commission was sure of how many names there would be as the Army’s lists of men who had died had proved unreliable and it took until the end of 1924 for the lists to be verified. It was agreed that the names of the missing would be engraved on stone panels with 1,200 names to a panel of different sizes and the panels would be arranged along the main hall, the stairways and loggias. The Menin Gate could contain no more than 60,000 names and it soon became clear that there was not enough space for all the names of the 90,000 missing of the Salient. It was therefore decided that the names on the Menin Gate would cover the period 1914 to the night of 15 August 1917 when the Battle of Langemark began. The missing after that date would be listed on the Tyne Cot Memorial and even this was not deemed sufficient with further space being found at the Berks Memorial at Ploegsteert. New Zealand had decided not to have their missing listed on the Menin Gate but on their memorials at Messines Ridge and Buttes New Cemeteries at Polygon Wood.

Blomfield’s concept may be an imperial monument first and a memorial to the missing second, but it is a very effective reminder, as the inscription on the monument states, ‘To the Armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no known grave.’ The arch, stemming from Blomfield’s admiration of the Roman style of triumphal arches, of the memorial is surmounted by a massive lion Blomfield called it ‘a symbol of our latent strength and heroism of our race’ and facing the town of Ypres a sarcophagus draped with a flag and surmounted by a wreath symbolising to the people of Ypres the sacrifice made. With work progressing and a projected completion date of May 1927 attention turned to the official inauguration. However, last minute delays on the site meant that the inauguration would have to be postponed to July. Both the King and Haig could not perform the ceremony but Field Marshal Plumer, President of the Ypres League could. The invitations were issued and preparations got underway. Barricades, flagpoles and loudspeakers were erected. Some 6,000 people could be accommodated standing in the vicinity of the memorial with priority given to relatives of the missing or those representing units who had served in the Salient. All the preparations were now in place for the inauguration on 24 July 1927 the BBC broadcasting events back to Britain. At 10am Plumer led the King of the Belgians and various other dignitaries in procession to the Menin Gate. There was a succession of speeches, Christian dedication, hymns and the crowds fell silent for the Last Post played by the 2nd Somerset Light Infantry and the piper from the 1st Scots Guards played the lament Flowers of the Forest. In his address Plumer spoke the immortal line ‘He is not missing, he is here!’

In July and August 1928, 23,000 people signed the visitors book and in 1937, some 60,000. A special guardian had to be employed to help people find the name of a relative and to keep initial scratchers and souvenir hunters from damaging the monument. In 1928, leading citizens, led by the Commissioner of Police, arranged for the Last Post to be sounded nightly at the Menin Gate. To this day, apart from the German occupation in WWII, organised by the Last Post Association as a tribute to the British dead, the Last Post and Reveille is sounded each night at 8pm by the local fire brigade at the Menin Gate.

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