Monday, July 31, 2017

'I died in hell': sacrifice of war dead remembered at Passchendaele

As the sun went down on Ypres on Sunday, the shale grey stone floor of the old Belgian town’s Menin Gate, the world’s first memorial to those who fell but who were never found during the first world war, was slowly covered by more than 54,000 blood-red poppies falling from its high arch. There was a paper flower for each name engraved upon the vast gate.

A crowd numbering in the thousands, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Theresa May and the King and Queen of Belgium, Philippe and Mathilde, watched as the poppies drifted down in the still evening air. The young voices of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, standing below the gate’s 14-metre-high ceiling, sang the Ypres hymn: “O valiant hearts who to your glory came, / Through dust of conflict and through battle flame; / Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved; / Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.”

Poppies are released from the Menin Gate at the end of the wreath laying ceremony during More than 800,000 soldiers on both sides of the war died in the blood and mud of the Ypres salient between 1914 and 1918. Many marched on the so-called Menin road, on which the gate built in 1927 now stands, from Ypres town to the front lines. Still today, the remains of dozens of men are found every year in Flanders fields, identified initially by the colouring and markings of the boots in which they died. Of the three major battles in Ypres, however, it is the third and final, whose centenary will pass in the early hours of Monday, that bears the greatest infamy. “I died in hell – they called it Passchendaele,” the soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote of the carnage that raged from 31 July until 10 November 1917. Perhaps the first world war battle that is today most sharp in the collective British consciousness is the Somme, but at the time it was this battle, and this place, that was synonymous with the hopelessness and horror of what was playing out on foreign fields.

So it is, in this centenary period, that among the many battles and places, Passchendaele, and Ypres, have followed Gallipoli and the Somme, in being conferred by the British government with what is likely to be a last great act of remembrance, certainly in the presence of the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews of those who fought… read more:

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