With such an amazing collection of war relics, artwork and other memorabilia the majority of which evoke, in the visitor, sad and dark memories from wars and conflicts (though many simultaneously create a sense of hope) it is hard to single out a favourite item at the Australian War Memorial. If I were forced to do so, this painting may indeed be it.
Tucked away, all by itself, in a purposely darkened room at the rear of the World War I galleries you will find this painting – ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’. I couldn’t help but be moved as would anyone conscious of the loss of life in World War I. Even greater atmosphere and solemnity is created by the playing of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in the background.
Not a word is said – no words are necessary.
Painted in a single sitting in 1927, after attending the unveiling of the current Menin Gate memorial, at Ypres (Leper), Belgium, by official Australian war artist William (Will) Longstaff, the image features the famous memorial. In WWI tens of thousands of soldiers passed through the original Menin “gate’ (the Porte de Menin, more a cutting through the remains of ramparts the city’s medieval defenses than a gate) on their way to the Western Front. Equally tens of thousands did not return.
The Menin Gate memorial, designed by the architect Sir Reginald Blomfield, commemorates those from the British Empire who were killed in Belgium before the arbitrary date of 16th August 1917 and have no known grave. Listed on the memorial are the names of 54,389 Empire soldiers (excluding New Zealand and Newfoundland). Perhaps as many more are not listed including over 34,000 buried in the nearby by Tyne Cot cemetery. While thousands of the “missing” lie unidentified in nameless graves thousands more remain simply unaccounted for. Readers may know that over half a million lives were lost, just here in the Ypres Salient area during World War I.
The names of 6,000 Australians, missing in Belgium, are among those engraved on the walls of the Menin Gate memorial. These 6,000 names are likewise listed and form part of the 100,000 names on the Role of Honour here at the Australian War Memorial.
Inscribed on the both the eastern and western facades of the memorial are the words of Rudyard Kipling:
‘To the Armies of the British Empire who stood here
from 1914 to 1918
and to those of their dead
who have no known grave’
and above the staircase arches (also by Kipling):
‘In Majomem Dei Gloriam
Here are recorded names
of officers and men who fell
in Ypres Salient, but to whom
the fortunes of war denied
the known and honoured burial
given to their comrades in death’
Today, on the Menin Gate Memorial you can see a single lion atop the memorial. Two lions guarded the original gate. These lions are now located at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial – See my separate tip on the Menin Gate Lions.
While hard to see in the attached image, the white figures in the foreground (seen in a vision during the artist’s visit) very eerily and movingly portray the steel-helmeted spirits of thousands of the unknown dead rising from the cornfields and marching towards the battlefields. Likewise, the red poppies in the foreground also may not be discernible in the attached image.
Each evening at around 5pm a simple though poignant Last Post Ceremony is performed at the War Memorial (as it is at Ypres) in memory of the 6,000 missing together with the remaining 94,000 plus Australians who have died in wars and conflicts since colonial times.
Address: Treloar Crescent, Campbell
Directions: Within the WWI Gallery
Phone: 02 6243 4211