23 July 2017

Rare material from the CWGC archive on the Menin Gate

Tomorrow, the Commission will mark the 90th anniversary of the unveiling of the CWGC Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial with a ceremony mirroring the event from 90 years ago, and the launch of a photographic exhibition.

 

The memorial, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield - one of the Commission’s first three Principle Architects, bears the names of more than 54,000 members of the British and Commonwealth forces who died in the Ypres Salient and have no known grave.

Ahead of tomorrow’s commemorations, we look through the CWGC archive to show the memorial's journey from concept to a popular stop on battlefield pilgrimages.

The concept

In September 1919, Sir Reginald Blomfield - one of the Commission’s Principal Architects, was sent to Ypres (now Ieper) to report on three proposed sites for a Memorial to the Missing. They were:

1. The Lille Gate

2. The Island in the Moat south-east of the Lille Gate

3. The Menin Gate

The map shows the location of each site considered as well as the British Cemetery:

 

As this report shows, Sir Reginald recommended the Menin Gate for three reasons:

“(1) because it was by the Menin Gate that our men went out to fight;

(2) it was the most central of the three sites, and

(3) I saw that this site in conjunction with the old ramparts, the Moat and the road across it offered a splendid architectural opportunity.”

 

Having considered Sir Reginald’s recommendations and the objections to his ideas, at the National Battlefields Memorial Committee meeting in 1921, it was decided the memorial at Ypres would take the form of an archway at the Menin Gate with an inscription.

 

The design

In November 1921, Sir Reginald submitted a report outlining his revised design for the Menin Gate, and in May 1922, he showed his plans for the memorial to His Majesty King George V.

 

This sketch shows Sir Reginald’s vision of how the Menin Gate would look upon completion.

 

The construction

Construction of the Menin Gate Memorial began in July 1923 and was contracted to the firm Messrs Somerville, but the discovery of a solid layer of clay forced Sir Reginald to alter his plans. Following the advice of engineer Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, a massive concrete platform was constructed to overcome this issue, supported by reinforced concrete piles measuring 36 feet in length. The foundation was completed by 1925.

Problems arose again in early 1927, when the devaluation of the franc forced many of the contracted stonemasons to seek work across the border in France. Matters were further complicated by the difficulties in procuring quality stone for the lion and sarcophagus. These problems were eventually resolved and the memorial was completed by the end of April 1927.

 

The unveiling

Arrangements were made for Field Marshal Lord Plumer to unveil the memorial after an invitation to inaugurate the monument was declined by King George V.

 

The unveiling ceremony was advertised through articles in the press and adverts, such as this example from Thomas Cook & Son Ltd.

 

Thousands of veterans and relatives attended the unveiling ceremony. Arrangements were also made for the ceremony to be broadcast on wireless radio for those in England and France. All 21 stations in the British Isles took the broadcast and the relay was carried through a pair of overhead telephone lines from Ypres to Ostend (one of the longest landline links ever used for British listeners) and then by submarine and underground cable to London.

 

The pilgrimage

Since the Menin Gate was unveiled, thousands of visitors have passed through its archway on their battlefield pilgrimage. Below is a circular for a Menin Gate Pilgrimage in July 1927. Today, the memorial remains an iconic destination for those visiting the Commission’s cemeteries and memorials.

 

The act of sounding the Last Post became a daily ritual, led by the local fire brigade. It has been sounded under the arch every night at 8pm almost every day since, except during the Second World War when Belgium was again occupied. Today organised by the Last Post Association, the ceremony is often attended by hundreds who have come to pay their respects.

 

The Second World War and beyond

During the Second World War, the memorial suffered damage when the British Expeditionary Force defended Ypres from the rapid German advance in May 1940. It was not until December 1940 that the Commission was informed of the damage and made emergency repairs.

Sir Reginald suggested the smaller damage sustained from machine gun fire and shrapnel should remain as 'scars of war'.

 

Between 1945 and 1948, Austin Blomfield, Sir Reginald’s son, oversaw the restoration of the memorial to its pre-war state.

 

The memorial has also become an important symbol of the town of Ypres itself. In December 1962, as part of the 1000th anniversary of the foundation of Ypres, the Menin Gate appeared on a set of commemorative postage stamps.

 

 

Other stories about the Menin Gate Memorial

Menin Gate: the history, design and unveiling

Faces of the CWGC Menin Gate Memorial

The Menin Gate in photos

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