It is exactly ninety years to the day since the Menin Gate memorial to the missing was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by Albert, King of the Belgians, Lord Plumer of Messines and the British Minister of War.
René Colaert, Burgomaster of Ypres, perhaps the man most intimately linked both to the memorial and the rebuilt city in which it stands, lay ill in bed within earshot of the ceremony. He was to die just a few weeks later.
Without Colaert the memorial might have been the shattered remains of Ypres itself. Soon after the end of the war a British proposal that Ypres be preserved as a ruin was supported by, among others, Winston Churchill, who had served briefly in the Salient himself. He wrote:
I should like to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres… a more beautiful monument than Ypres in the afternoon light can hardly be conceived. A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.
But there were those who regarded the ruins as little more than a monument to the efficiency of German guns, and plans to rebuild the city were soon in place.
The Menin Gate – or Menin Port – leading west out of the city to the front lines and through which so many thousands of men had passed between 1914 and 1918, was chosen as the site for a grand memorial arch to commemorate the many men missing in action.
Reginald Blomfield was charged with the design, and construction began in early 1923. Although not without difficulties, work continued steadily for the next four years and the monument was ready to be officially opened on Sunday 24th July 1927.
British interest was, understandably, high. Thousands of pilgrims travelled to the city for the ceremony and for those unable to travel, the BBC relayed the ceremony to Britain in one of its earlier – and possibly the most innovative – outside broadcasts.
Having assembled in the market square outside the Town Hall and in the shadow of the (still ruined) campanile, the inauguration party marched in procession to the gate itself. King Albert and Lord Plumer stopped en route to call on the dying Burgomaster in his room overlooking the monument. Then, at 11 o’clock, the ceremony began.
After the prayers and hymns and a speech – in English – by the King of the Belgians came the moment when Plumer himself was to press the button which finally revealed the memorial plaques. But not before he had delivered – from memory – a moving speech culminating in the now famous words, ‘He is not missing, he is here’.
Afterwards, the Last Post was played by the buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry – a tradition that has been maintained almost without interruption from that day to this.
And so, at sundown this evening, as on every evening throughout the year, before a crowd of hundreds or for just a few, beneath the names of over 60,000 British and Empire troops, people will gather as they have every day for each of the last ninety years, to remember.