Laura Collins: A memorial that reveals scale of our debt to fallen

Sunlight casts a shadow across some of the names of the Passchendaele fallen carved into the Menin Gate in Ypres.
Sunlight casts a shadow across some of the names of the Passchendaele fallen carved into the Menin Gate in Ypres.
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“THEY shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.”

The names of the First World War fallen are inscribed on Menin Gate.

The names of the First World War fallen are inscribed on Menin Gate.

They are the most simple of words, by poet Laurence Binyon, and yet they carry the most extraordinary emotional weight.

Almost a century ago the last soldier fell on the quagmire of the Western Front knowing that he gave his life for freedom, for his King and, ultimately, for his country.

That remarkable hero who became the last British soldier killed in action during the First World War was George Edwin Ellison. In a cruel twist of fate, he died just 90 minutes before the Armistice was called and he made the ultimate sacrifice while on patrol on the outskirts of Belgium.

He was one of 886,000 British military personnel who lost their lives in one of the nation’s deadliest campaigns. But he is not just another statistic – George was someone’s son, someone’s father and someone’s husband.

And it is the stories of bravery, such as that of George Ellison, that make the act of remembrance all the more significant.

Even now, 100 days prior to events to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice and the guns falling silent over Europe for little more than two decades, the destructive nature of war still has a profound influence on who we are as human beings and also as citizens of the world.

Despite the passage of time, those scars still run deep to this very day across the rolling countryside of Belgium where some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War were fought.

Once the city of Ypres was close to the point of being wiped off the map – decimated, ravaged and shell-shocked by the onslaught of conflict.

The luscious green fields around its outskirts were transformed into barren land which knew only of death. Not even the trees were capable of survival as the battles were won and lost around their roots.

And yet despite this seeming devastation, it is a city that has rebuilt itself.

Rising like a phoenix from the deadly, dusty ashes of war the city prides itself on the act of remembrance.

For it is where every single year hundreds of thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage to trace the footsteps of their treasured family members and piece together their own past.

Following the opening of the striking Menin Gate Memorial in 1927, the citizens of Ypres wanted to find a way to express their gratitude for all those soldiers who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom.

Every evening on the stroke of 8pm buglers close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the Last Post.

It is a tradition steeped in history which only endured a brief pause during the Second World War. And as the buglers salute those who paid the price with their lives, not a single mutter can be heard.

Young and old alike join in the same act of remembrance as the standards flutter in the breeze.

And as the sound of the horns reverberate around the memorial it is hard not to feel genuinely moved by the experience.

It is only on closer inspection that you truly get a sense of the reality of the impact of the scale of loss. For on the walls of the triumphal arch are the names of those who were missing. These soldiers never had a known grave. On the large Hall of Memory are stone panels carved with the names of more than 54,000 Commonwealth soldiers who have never been identified or their remains found.

Listed among those were the dozens of fallen comrades of the West Yorkshire Regiment with Major CGM Slade overseeing his fallen troop.

Amidst the seemingly endless list were three Pearsons: J Pearson, R Pearson and TH Pearson. Were they brothers who left behind a grieving mother back in Yorkshire? And what story do their lives tell?

But, as the list of names continued, it was hard not to be moved by the human sacrifice made and the stories of those who fought as well as those who were left behind. However, on the completion the memorial, it was discovered to be too small to contain all the names that were originally intended for the site.

Almost 35,000 names of those recorded as missing after August 15, 1917, were then inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial.

Yet the thing that struck me the most as we walked away from the Menin Gate was the lion of Britain – and also the lion of Flanders – guarding the names of those who died. It is a fitting, yet simple, act of remembrance to those lion-hearted soldiers whose names are immortalised on its walls as well as a symbol of pride.

Perhaps it is one that we should all feel as we remember those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

Laura Collins is The Yorkshire Post’s head of content.