HIST1010: “How do we remember?”
Memorials remembering a tragedy (or perhaps celebrating the perceived positive outcome of a tragic event) often serve different purposes over time. In the beginning, they usually focus on the suffering and on the loss of both soldiers and civilians. The establishment of the memorial is an integral part of the mourning process. But while historians try to keep these memories alive in their ‘objective’ accounts of events, they do inevitably fade.
At the same time, others (for example the government, but also support groups) try to remember the past, creating lieux de mémoire that evoke pictures from the past in the public sphere – after a “turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been tornin such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists.” These lieux de mémoire can be material objects, songs, symbols, monuments and so on. Some of them focus on the heroic past, others on the tragic elements of that history or they revolve around striving for peace. And although they initially wanted to commemorate one aspect of this past event, they always end up signifying multiple meanings. As mentioned by Jeanne Bethke Elshtain (summarized by Scott L. Bills): “Culture changes through the ongoing engagement between tradition and transformation.”
This paper argues that the commemoration of Flanders Fields in Belgium (World War I) also fits the description of changing (dynamic) lieux de mémoire. It postulates that different types of memorials (for example public or private) indeed respond differently to (aspects of) a violent past and that this reaction evolved over time. Finally, it acknowledges the importance of space, certainly where public memorials are concerned.
The First World War in Belgium
The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.
According to Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, “even ‘little Belgium’ helped to cause war in 1914.” If Belgium would not have refused the Germans passageway to France, a strategy that was already pointed out by General Graf von Schlieffen in 1905, “the consequences for the Belgian people could well have been profoundly unpleasant. But the clash of the armies would not have been among them.”
The foundation of the Belgian monarchy in 1830 was tolerated by the so called Great Powers (Great Britain, France, Prussia, Habsburg and Russia) under the strict condition of neutrality, an order that needed to be safeguarded by these Great Powers themselves. This is, amongst other reasons, why, when in 1914 Germany invaded Belgium in order to reach Paris and catch the French off guard, Great Britain engaged in the emerging conflict. The Belgian army was able to withstand the German invaders for a month, making it possible for the British and French forces to prepare a counter offensive. The Belgian King Albert decided to only fight to defend his country’s neutrality and did not engage in the war as an ally. Nonetheless, Flanders did become the main settlement of the British army. Because of its central position within a network of roads, the city of Ypres was one of the principal stages of battle during the whole period of war. In Flanders Fields is the title of a wellknown poem written by a Canadian major following the death of one of his fellow soldiers.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing
Already during the Great War, different opinions about the reconstruction of the city of Ypres came to the fore, more specifically about the Lakenhallen and the church of Saint Maarten. Not only were policy makers in disagreement about whether or not to rebuild these ruins, the ones who did want a reconstruction did not see eye to an eye as to whether it should be a modern reconstruction or a traditional (and complete) reconstruction. Moreover, this topic was also of interest to the British. British and Commonwealth soldiers had been present in Ypres during the whole of the war. They even ruled the city for a couple of years, after the Ypres population was forced to evacuate in 1915. Thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed on the Western Front in Flanders. To the British Imperium, Ypres was not merely a symbol, it was Holy Ground. For a while, the Imperial War Graves Commission – the organization that came in charge of the construction and the maintenance of British military cemeteries abroad in 1918 – even wanted to buy Ypres from the Belgians. However, due to several reasons and conflicting opinions, this idea was not pursued and in 1919, the whole concept of maintaining the Ypres ruins was discharged. Instead, the British decided to focus on the erection of a war memorial in Ypres. Royal architect Reginald Blomfield got the assignment to look for a suitable location and to design the monument.
While several interesting locations were available, the Menin Gate was chosen. The gate was attractive because of the closebye fortresses, because the view from across the water was nice and because it was close to the city center. Moreover, the gate had an appealing symbolic value: (British) soldiers exited the city through this gate when departing for the front line. And finally, the Belgian government experienced less difficulties and opposition about signing away the gate to the British, as was the case when disscussing the Lakenhallen for example.
At the same time, the Imperial War Graves Commission chose to commemorate the missing soldiers – those soldiers whose bodies were never retrieved (but who must have died during battle) – with a monument. Consequently, it was decided to combine both monuments: the British War memorial and the commemoration of the missing were both to be incorporated in the Menin gate.
In 1927, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing was erected at the eastern part of town. It is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the war and who have no known graves. Their names are engraved in the walls of the gate. Morever, since July 1928, the Menin Gate is the stage of the Last Post Ceremony. Every evening at eight o’clock, the road under the memorial is closed and buglers play the Last Post, the traditional salute to the fallen. They also read the final lines of the poem For the Fallen, with the last words “We will remember them” repeated by all those present and the ceremony is concluded with a rendition of the Réveille (which, in periods of mourning, announces the return to a normal daily life).
Alexander Arnot’s letters
Alexander Arnot was born in 1883 in Schotland. He was a student in a technical mining school before he joined the Second Batallion of the Seaforth Highlanders and went to war. He died in the battle of St. Julien, north-east of Ypres, in 1915. He was also buried there. Between December 1914 and March 1915, he wrote several letters to Mr Murdoch, the principal of the Technical School he attended. In these letters, he described the daily life of the soldiers in the trenches. Because these writings also revealed a clear literary talent, the local newspaper The Leader published them (by the courtesy of Mr Murdoch). The letters can be found online (http://www.rawson.me.uk/arnot/) and in 2009, they were published as a book. The main objective of this personal memoir was to send word to the home front about life at war. And although the reading audience and the mode of communication changed over time, this basically remained the purpose throughout the years.
Public and Private Commemoration of the British battle in Flanders
As Stephens argues, war memorials often are “heavily contested places.” The same is true for the Menin Gate. Opposers condemned the apparent – and political – glorification of war, enhanced by the gate’s triumphal arch form. But while Blomfield might indeed have wanted to demonstrate that the British Imperium was still standing, even after the Great War and all related loss, the Imperial War Graves Commission tried to counter this idea of war glorification from the beginning, since this would have been an insult to all those whose name is engraved in the walls: “This is not an Arc de triomphe, but a gateway of eternal memories, a shrine of the might of the British Empire, and perhaps, when millions of our people have seen it and read some of it, it may be the gateway of “Never again”.” Morever, the memorial was imperative in facing the problem of forgetting. While those soldiers who had returned from the front line did not need a monument to remember the missing, “posterity did need it if their memory was to be transmitted to further generations.” The names, engraved in the walls of the gate, added to this transmission. People were able to see them and to touch them and, according to Susan Stewart, “tactile perception involved a particular type of ‘remembering’, as we touch with sensitive parts of our body so that there is the contact itself bringing to life the object”
While the Menin Gate Memorial itself often was criticized for its (too) political nature, it was sometimes argued that the Last Post Ceremony was not ‘official’ enough. The ceremony was initiated by people of the town of Ypres (it is a Belgian initiative, not a British one). The buglers did (and do) not wear a uniform, to stress the fact that there is no involvement of policy makers whatsoever – not even financially. People consider the ceremony as a warning never to engage in war again, as a call for peace. Others think of it as too militaristic and static. Be that as it may, up until today, the Last Post Association is in charge of the ceremony – keeping it alive and ensuring that the Last Post is performed at least once for every fallen soldier.
Finally, the concept of pilgrimage should be mentioned when discussing the commemoration of the battles of Flanders Fields in Ypres. Several British and Commonwealth organizations arranged tours to Ypres for (mostly) mothers and wives of those who were missing. As demonstrated by Lloyd “pilgrimage was an important part of the remembrance process. Touching or seeing the names of relatives was an emotional experience” Over the past nine decades, millions of people have visited the Menin Gate, touched, or even kissed, the names of their missing relatives and witnessed the Last Post ceremony. One could argue that the Menin Gate (accompanied by the Last Post Ceremony) has become a memory place, a distinctive space that was designated “as a site of significant memory for a collective Memory places are destinations; they typically require visitors to travel to them.” This rather touristic aspect can be considered a threat to the understanding of the past, although it also provides opportunities to keep the memory alive and to pass on this knowledge to future generations. Notwithstanding these critical notes, it is a fact that both the monument and the ceremony are an integral part of the Ypres community. While several opinions about the memorial exist (and have always existed), the memorial takes up an undeniable space in town.
Exactly the opposite is true for Arnot’s letters. No travel is required to access these letters, not now and not when they were published originally. Consequently, the aspect of pilgrimage does not apply to this type of source. One can read these letters within the confinement of his own environment. This make for a feeling of safety, but most probably also for a less outspoken feeling of connectedness and understanding.
Since Arnot’s letters were originally intended for his principal, they are not very emotional. However, they are very detailed, as if he wanted to impress his teacher with his memory and sense of detail. He described battles, marches, attacks and so on. Although his writings seem very comprehensive, he himself observed that “he has missed out on many little incidents for want of time.” Not only does this remark make the letters more trustworthy as a source, they also indicate that the soldiers sometimes were in need of time.
It is this kind of detailed information that makes up for the added value of personal memoirs. It is not possible to retrieve such particulars from a war memorial, nor from a scholarly study that was composed based on official war documents, after the war. Personal memoirs provide the war with a human face.
However, it is exactly the intimacy of the account – and therefor its inherent limited nature – that makes it tricky to examine. These letters are written by one soldier, in one specific region, addressed to one defined reader. Arnot did not see the whole picture of the war, neither did he write about everything that happened to him (as he himself mentioned). Moreover, the letters were published for a large audience (both during the war and again, almost a century later), both they were not intended for these readers. The readers might not understand all the allusions or they might interpret them wrongly. However, this aspect of different interpretations also came to the fore when discussing the public memorial in Ypres.
The memory of war is always reshaped to mask the inherent character of war. The grandeur of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing was necessary to demonstrate that the British Imperium was still standing and to pay tribute to the fallen. The Last Post Ceremony adds a call for peace to this memorial. Although several meanings were and are attributed to this monument, it is clear that will always take up an important place – and space – in Ypres and surroundings. The personal memoirs of a fallen soldier, on the other hand, add detail and a human face to the brutality of war. And although they are the memories of one soldier, they should not be neglected when trying to understand the necessity of commemorating tragic events.
Bills, Scott, L., “Public Memory, Commemoration, and the ‘Régime of Truth,’” Peace & Change 23, no. 2 (1998): 183-192.
Dendooven, Dominiek, Ypres as Holy Ground: Menin Gate and Last Post. Koksijde: De Klaproos, 2001.
Dickinson, G., Blair, C. and Ott, B.L. eds., Places of public memory: the rhetoric of museums and memorials. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010.
First letter, written on November 24th, 1914. Accessed on March 23rd, 2014.
Second letter, written on January 30th, 1915. Accessed on March 23rd, 2014.
Third letter, written on February 27th, 1914. Accessed on March 23rd, 2014.
Fourth letter, written on March 20th, 1914. Accessed on March 23rd, 2014.
“In Flanders Fields”, accessed March 23rd 2014.
Keegan, John, The First World War. London: Hutchinson, 1998.
Lloyd, David William, Battlefield Tourism: Pilgrimage and Commemoration of the Great War in Britain, Australia and Canada 1919-1939. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998.
Nora, Pierre, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (1989): 7-24.
Prior, Robin and Wilson, Trevor, The First World War. London: Cassell & Co, 2001.
Stephens, John, “’The Ghosts of Menin Gate’: Art, Architecture and Commemoration,” Journal of Contemporary History 44, 1 (2009): 7-26.