Representatives of 19 allied nations from the First World War gathered at the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium today in what is likely to be the last great remembrance to those who died on the Ypres salient. It’s a very personal commemoration for me, and many other Australians.
Of the three major battles in Ypres, the third, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, began on the 31st of July 1917. Its mere mention still creates shivers for Australians generations later. My great-grandfather Tom Peacock was gassed in the battle, but luckily he came home. It’s four other family members whose names are engraved together on the same panel of the Menin Gate. They are among 54,392 allied men killed on the salient who have no known grave.
The Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the King and Queen of Belgium, are among the sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews, of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers lost in the Ypres mud, who are present today.
A great regret of mine is that I’ve never visited the Menin Gate Memorial, despite for three years living a mere ferry and train ride away. A couple of years ago, however, a friend Darren visited there and photographed the name of the first cousin of my great-grandmother Mary Ann Storer.
Corporal Les Storer was killed in action at Broodseinde on the 4th of October 1917. He was buried near where he fell, as recorded by divisional records, “1 mile N. of Sonnebeake Village (Map reading D.16 central).” The war raged for another year and the location was obliterated by artillery fire. His remains were lost, and so Les’s name lives forever on the Menin Gate.
If Mary had ever got to visit the memorial, her gaze needn’t have left that same panel to see others close to her. Harry Crabbe was the brother-in-law of two of Mary’s cousins. He was killed by a high explosive shell also at Broodseinde and on the same day as Les. Charles Smitham was a brother-in-law of two more of Mary’s cousins. He was killed at Messines some months earlier. He too is remembered here.
Then there’s my grandfather Trev Satchell’s first cousin Stan Malseed who is also on that panel. On the 20th of September 1917, as Stan jumped into a shell hole he was shot through the lungs by German machine gun fire. He was buried in the field near Polygon Wood, but the location was lost in the fog of war.
The remains of around 30 soldiers are still found every year, identified initially by the boots they were wearing when they died. Another friend of mine, his wife uses DNA and genealogy research to identify and find living relatives of those Australians found. I must talk to her soon about that.
Today’s last great act of remembrance at Ypres has deserving headlines. Then the world’s media will cease recording and go elsewhere. Meanwhile, the daily playing of the last post by the local residents of Ypres will continue. It’s been performed by volunteers at 8pm every evening since 1928, which is the year after the memorial was built. It’s a tradition broken only by a period of occupation in the Second World War. For millions of people, it’s a very personal place that they hope will be remembered forever.