In Flanders Fields

Debbir B. Dasgupta visited the The Menin Gate War Memorial in Belgium and found there a little-known connection with the Indian subcontinent

In Flanders Fields
For those who visit the battlefields, cemeteries and memorials in France and Belgium on this centennial year of the First World War, it will be a solemn occasion for reflection about the futility of war.

Perhaps no site is a more poignant reminder and symbol of the brutal waste of human lives than the Menin Gate War Memorial in Ipres, the small Belgian town in westernmost Flanders. Since its inauguration in 1927, the Menin Gate remains the “most visited” mausoleum on the Western Front.

During a recent visit, I found it impossible to miss a sub-continental connection to this memorial. For more than 400 soldiers, part of the British-Indian Expeditionary Force of 130,000 infantry troops sent to France and Belgium, are remembered at the site. Two army corps – one infantry and one cavalry – comprising four divisions were deployed on the Western Front. Predominantly Pathan, Baluch and Sikh soldiers, attached to the 3rd (Lahore) Division and 7th (Meerut) Division, fought and died at Ipres, then known as Ypres. (A small contingent of Gurkha troops also saw action here.)

[quote]At Ipres, Indian soldiers became eligible to receive the Victoria Cross[/quote]

At Ipres too, Indian rank-and-file soldiers became eligible, for the first time, to receive the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry. The honour of the first VC recipient went to Sepoy Khudadad Khan of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis in October 1914. Six months later, Jemadar Mir Dast of the 55th Coke’s Rifles (Frontier Force) was awarded the second VC for his courage in carrying eight officers to safety under heavy enemy fire.

The Menin Gate is a stately memorial, in the shape of a Roman triumphal arch, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield. It memorializes British and Commonwealth soldiers who died defending the town but have no known graves because their bodies were never found. Five fierce battles were fought to wrest control of the town, which was reduced to rubble by unrelenting German shelling, but the defenders held on during the entire four-year duration of the war.

The Menin Gate memorial
The Menin Gate memorial

Collectively, the five battles claimed the lives of more than 300,000 British and Dominion soldiers; the remains of 90,000 were never found. The Menin Gate memorializes the 54,000-odd soldiers of those 90,000 killed in action between 1914 and August 15th 1917. (The nearby Tyne Cot cemetery commemorates the rest killed after that date.)

The idea to build a suitable monument to commemorate the war dead in the Flanders Fields was mooted in the British Parliament shortly after the November 1918 Armistice. Construction began in 1921 with a grant of £150,000 and was completed six years later. Field Marshal Lord Plumer, representing the British Crown, many survivors and several thousand family members of the dead were present at the dedication on July 24, 1927.

Made entirely of French limestone with a red facing, the Menin Gate is 135 feet long, 140 feet wide and 80 feet high. The summit of its eastern entrance is crowned by a majestic lion – symbol of both Great Britain and Flanders – looking away from the town towards the battlefield a few miles away at the Ypres Salient. The western entrance, facing the town center, features a stylized sarcophagus, partly draped by a flag, and an ornamental wreath.

Names of Indian soldiers at the memorial
Names of Indian soldiers at the memorial

The Menin Gate has another sub-continental connection as well. Rudyard Kipling crafted an epitaph that adorns the two dedicatory panels at both entrances: “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.” Kipling, novelist and an assistant editor of the Lahore daily “Civil and Military Gazette” from 1882 to 1887, lost his only son Jack at Loos in France; his body too was never found.

The curving walls of the Hall of Memory inside the Gate and the sides of the two central staircases leading to the two open-air upper balconies feature 60 stone panels inscribed with the names of the dead. To accommodate as many names as possible, Blomfield organized them in blocks, vertically cascading from the top, by regimental affiliation, rank (a brigadier-general is the most senior battle casualty) and alphabetically by name. Another epitaph, also by Kipling, at the entrances to the staircases, reads: “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”

The names of the 400-odd soldiers from the subcontinent are inscribed on the western side panels and on one of the four central pillars. Unsurprisingly, all commissioned officers, listed above the soldiers’ names, are British. Looking at the serried ranks of names, one could not escape thinking what went through the soldiers’ minds as they fought and perished in the muddy trenches on foreign soil, dying for a distant King Emperor, whose country they were defending when their own was in chains.

Today, 87 years after the dedication, the Menin Gate does not evoke the same visceral reaction it did among many survivors and their families. Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated and wounded poet-veteran disillusioned by the war, described the Menin Gate as a “sepulchre of crime.” Blomfield disagreed. He said it was one of the three works that he wanted to be remembered for.

Sadly, on the centenary of the First Word War – a war many believed was the “war to end all wars” – we cannot forget a deeper irony. Barely twenty-one years later, another war, far more devastating in carnage and savagery, convulsed the world, thrust millions into gas chambers and obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Debbir B. Dasgupta, a business communications consultant in New York, is a First World War military history enthusiast