The Menin Gate in Ypres was built to honour the 102,000 men who fell on the Western Front (up to 16 August 1917) and had no known grave. "It was resolved that here at Ypres, where so many of the 'Missing' are known to have fallen, there should be erected a memorial worthy of them which should give expression to the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice and its sympathy with those who mourned them. A memorial has been erected which, in its simple grandeur, fulfils this object, and now it can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today: 'He is not missing; he is here'.
It was opened on 24 July 1927 by Field Marshal Lord Plumer who Australians had great respect for having fought under in the 3rd Battle of Ypres at Messines, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle and Passchendaele.
"The beautiful old gothic city of Leper (Ypres) was a symbol of allied resistance during the war. Except for brief occupation by the Germans in 1914 it stood defiant but by the wars end it had been completely destroyed by German shelling. Across its flat agricultural plains to its north, south and east vast armies were engaged in major conflict for 1914 to 1918. The battleground was fought over many times and became a tragic resting place for hundreds of thousands of the youth of Britain and its dominions and of Belgium, France and Germany."
"Australian troops from all five divisions were active here from late 1916 until 1917. Their principal involvement was in the 1917 offensive including the battle of Messines, Menin Road, Polygon wood, Broodseine and Passchendaele. These battles resulted in more than 43,00 Australian casualties."
"Leper (Ypres) was totally rebuilt and today acts as a gateway for all those who come in search of the past, and of the generation that perished in Flanders fields. "
"In 1916 the Australian Army entered the Western Front with an army of 180,000 men, three times the number that had served at Gallipoli in 1915. The Australian Troops won undying fame in the battlefields of France and Belgium during three years of war. In doing so, 46,000 of the 60,000 Australians killed in the war died on the Western Front. From a population of just 4.5 million 313,000 volunteered to serve during the war and 65% of these became casualties. The relationships formed by France and Belgium during the war with Australia flourish today, with cultural, educational and economic exchanges. The friendships extended by local people to visiting Australians is indicative of the friendships forged in the old battlefields, a fellowship born of the mutual striving and sacrifice of these nations at that formative time."
Australians in the Third Battle of Ypres
The ultimate object of the 1917 offensive, which was to become known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was to overrun the German position and move forward to occupy the Belgian coast. This would result in taking over an number of key German positions hampering their communication ability and also closing down the strategic German submarine bases on the Belgian coast that allowed them access to the North Sea and the Atlantic where they were causing major disruption to Allied shipping. The battle was preceded by the capture of Messines Ridge overlooking the intended battlefield, where Australian troops were extremely prominent in this notable success.
"For the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in the 1917 offensive, which was known as the third battle of Ypres, there were three distinct phases, with the first lasting from July to mid September. The battles in this period were fought by British infantry divisions with their artillery reinforced by the AIF divisions, who took heavy casualties. The battles were fought in a quagmire of mud and rain with limited advances and heavy casualties.
The second phase of the offensive with the AIF consisted of three separate battles under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer of the 2nd Army and were: Menin Road (20 September), Polygon Wood (26 September) and Broodseinde (4 October). The battles were successful with limited victories and carried out in relatively dry weather.
The third phase of the offensive was to take the high ground around Poelcapelle and Passchendaele. Even after the experience of the atrocious weather conditions of the first battle and other wet weather battles, this offensive was also carried out in appalling weather with horrific casualties, with men actually drowning in the mud and water of the battlefield.
Not generally well known is that there were more than 2,700 New Zealand casualties, of which 45 officers and 800 men were killed or mortally wounded on the one day. In terms of lives lost per day, this remains the darkest day in New Zealand's recorded history of battle. Although still much debated, Passchendaele is considered - even by the appalling allied generalship that was characterised in WW1 - as a monumental blunder and waste of life. It was not until the Canadian Corps - (like the Australians and New Zealanders the Canadians troops were often called "Stoßtrupp" ("shock troops") by the Germans due to their ferocious fighting ability) often fighting 'hand to hand' in bitter fighting, finally taking Passchendaele in the second battle of Passchendaele between 6-10 November.
The end result was that the Allies had captured 5 miles of ferociously defended territory that cost them 140,000 dead - a ratio of around 2 inches per dead soldier. Five months later when the Allies withdrew the Germans reoccupied the ground with minimal casualties, losing it again just before the end of the war in 1918. Utter futility.