Names. Thousands of names. Tens of thousands of names, etched in the stone of a great arch over the road leading into Ieper.
The British built the Menin Gate after World War I, to commemorate what they lost. There are 54,896 names written there, names of men lost in the various battles around here — men who were lost but whose graves were never identified. The full name of the place is the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing.
All you need to know is that there is nowhere near enough room on the gate to memorialize everyone who died in this most pointless war. There are 34,000 more names written a few miles away, in Passchendaele, and that still does not get it done.
From a distance, the names are just a great blur. Up close, names and ranks and units tell a clearer story — but it is still a bit cold. It is in the homages left behind by recent visitors that the names become people. It is in the notes pinned to small poppy bouquets — from school groups and relatives. It is in the notes that remember fallen parents and grandparents, nots scribbled on to crosses made out of the same wood used to make Popsicle sticks.
At night, every night, they hold a ceremony at the gate. It has been held every night since the gate was dedicated in 1927 — even though, during the German occupation in World War II, the ceremony was held in Surrey, England,s instead. Why that was, when the daily re-lighting of the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris was allowed to continue during the occupation, is one of war’s vagaries. But every night now, the buglers come and the dead are honored again.
You walk around and it is all too big and too long ago — that is, until you come upon one of those little crosses, propped up at a spot along the wall near one of the names. Then it isn’t too big anymore.