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menin Gate Ypres
The Menin Gate Ypres

Published:19th August 2014.


Standing in a trench from the First World War thinking about those who fought for a few yards of mud in a war, that cost the lives of so many, has got to be one of the most sobering experiences of my life.

For anyone who imagines rows of neatly dug trenches with well fed and equipped troops waiting to go into battle a trip to Passendale and Ypres reveals a very different picture that shows the courage and fortitude of those who faced the horrors of trench warfare day after day on the Western Front.

Reality was a landscape devoid of grass, trees and vegetation with muddy smelly trenches infested by millions of rats, the constant stench from bodies buried nearby, latrines, often overflowing, and hundreds of unwashed men.

Even when no raid or attack was being launched death was a constant companion to those serving in the line, On busy sections enemy shellfire brought random death, whether the victims were working in a trench or lying in a dugout and disease was rife.

Hunger was often the companion of fear and fatigue with rations, if they were lucky, consisting of bully beef and a biscuits. Bread, by the time it reached the front had gone stale and if the supply lines were shelled it could be days before the troops got their rations.

By the winter of 1916 flour was in such short supply that bread was being made with dried ground turnips. Their main food was now a pea-soup with a few lumps of horsemeat.

Each battalion had two large vats to prepare their food in and this, once cooked, was carried through the communication trenches to the men on the front line meaning they normally ate cold food all of which tasted of whatever else had recently been cooked in the vats.

The first stop of my trip was at the Memorial Museum in Zonnebeke, a stone?s throw from Ypres. As well a large collection of artifacts the museum keeps the memory of the battle of Passendale alive with images, movies and a recreated underground dugout.

Inside the dugout, you get a taste of what life was like for British troops living underground. As you pass through the tunnel which houses the headquarters a communication centre, dressing post, workplaces and dormitories with the sound of incoming artillery and the lights flickering with each explosion making you think about the men who lived underground like moles.

Our next stop was Tyne Cot, the largest British war cemetery on mainland Europe, where 11.956 British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried. Of these 8,369 of the men buried here are unidentified.

The grave of an unkown soldier in Tyne Cot Cemetery
?8,369 of the men buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery are unidentified

The Tyne Cot Memorial, which stands close to the farthest point in Belgium reached by Commonwealth forces in the First World War until the final breakthrough in 1918 commemorates nearly 35,000 servicemen from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died in the Ypres Salient after 16 August 1917 who have no known grave.

The Cross of Sacrifice, was built at the request of King George V above a German bunker captured on 4 October 1917, which later served as an aid post.

Tyne Cot Cemetery Cross of Sacrifice
Names were read from a Roll of Honour of some of those made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War

Our final stop was at the Menin Gate, in Ypres where very evening at 8pm buglers from the local fire brigade sound the last post in memory of those who died in the Ypres Salient.

The site of the Menin Gate was chosen because of the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields and commemorates the soldiers of Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and United Kingdom who died in the Ypres Salient.

 Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing
The stone panels on the menin Gate show the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient?who have no known Grave

Thank you to all who have fought in wars around the world to preserve the way of life we enjoy today, and to my wife for insisting on going to Flanders, something I have often spoken about doing but never semed to find the time.

We Will Remember Them!