You’re standing at the Menin Gate, by the stone bearing the New Zealand fern. The Menin Gate is dedicated to the soldiers of the British Empire who were killed in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. It also marks the starting point, leading along one of the main roads out of the town, that took Allied soldiers to the frontline.
This New Zealand stone is a reminder that there are no New Zealand names inscribed inside the Menin Gate. The 2,384 New Zealand soldiers lost in Belgium who have no known graves are commemorated at either Tyne Cot, Polygon Wood, or Messines. Others who died in France are commemorated at memorials there. The New Zealand Government wanted the nation's dead to be commemorated near where they fell, and so the only New Zealanders on the Menin Gate are ones that fought with British and Australian forces.
The Menin Gate was an important location. The Menin Road begins at the centre of Ypres - in front of you. You can see the square, with Cloth Hall and the Cathedral. The road passes out through the gate, and runs to the high ground at Hooge, four kilometres away. In December 1917, Hooge crater was a New Zealand Brigade headquarters, and they held that high ground as their sector after the October battles at Passchendaele. That high ground was the frontline, and so this was one of the most dangerous roads in the Ypres Salient. It was under constant artillery and gas-shell fire, day and night, and from here it goes out to a major junction called Hellfire Corner. That name alone sums it up.
New Zealanders who fought in the Ypres Salient would have, at some point, marched through this square by night, and some inevitably would have come out this gate. Most, however, would have been diverted to your left, and gone out the Lille Gate, because that offered more protection, as it was shielded from German fire.
Ypres itself, or ‘Wipers’ as the British called it, had been strategically important over the centuries, and it was no different in the First World War. It was sitting directly in the path of Germany’s planned sweep through Belgium. The range of hills and the fortress, with the military canal to the North, presented a prize that the Germans wanted to take and use to their advantage.
In 1914 the Germans briefly occupied Ypres but, as the Allies pushed forward, the Germans retreated from the town and set up their defences on the ridges all around, digging in, and bringing up their artillery. They used poison gas - chlorine gas - for the first time on 22 April 1915, and they later introduced mustard gas, which was also known as ‘Yperite’ in 1917. Ypres was regularly under heavy attack. As a salient, it was surrounded on three sides, and continually fired on by German artillery. It would have been a desperate, living hell. But the Allies held on. And, for the New Zealanders, Ypres was our principal battlefield throughout 1917, and over Christmas into 1918.
New Zealand continues to have a strong relationship with the Flanders region, both in France and Belgium, because of the sacrifice made by New Zealand soldiers here. And when you visit these large monuments - such as the Menin Gate - it’s good to remember why there are no New Zealand names inscribed here. It’s because it’s not where they fell, and the New Zealand Government wanted the fallen to be honoured where they lay. But here, where you are now, remembers the fallen soldiers of the British Empire, and every night, at 8.00p.m., there is a memorial service, and the Last Post is played to honour them.