Name after name after name, 54,896 of them, young men from all over the world with no grave, no remains, only a name carved into the Menin Gate in Ypres, in Flanders, Belgium. Major Papineau, Lieutenant Williams, Corporal Cavanagh and Serjeant Dedman all now line up next to each other, comrades for eternity.
By 7.45pm I’m standing inside this memorial, as people do every night of the year, to remember the fallen Commonwealth soldiers of the First World War, who have no other resting place. At 8pm four buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post and silence the gently murmuring crowd.
A tall, blond young man steps forward, and reads the words of Laurence Binyon:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
We will remember them, and the presence of perhaps two hundred people here tonight shows that we do. The thought-filled silence after the words of the poet is broken by the mournful wail of pipes. I can’t see the pipers through the crowds, but the stirring whine fills the space with visions of men marching to war, and of wives and mothers and fathers mourning and howling behind. Underneath the droning the big drum pounds a steady tolling beat, like the thudding of time and the pounding of the guns that laid waste to the land around here, and levelled Ypres to the ground.
I’m here to take a bicycle tour of the battlefields and cemeteries that surround Ypres, a town completely rebuilt from the rubble it was reduced to after the events of the First World War. These events will be remembered nowhere more vividly than right here, during the commemorations which will begin in August, 2014, 100 years after Germany invaded Belgium and Great Britain came to their aid.
Death seems a long way away as we cycle out of Ypres in glorious sunshine, along the towpath of the Ieperlee Canal. The hum of the tyres, the rhythmic whirring of the pedals going round, and the singing of birds is all that breaks the silence. We arrive at the Essex Farm Cemetery, where our guide, Carl Ooghe, performs the amazing feat of explaining the complexities of the start of the war, with about 15 minutes of passion and drama – and maps drawn in the earth with a stick – holding his small group spellbound.
Here, we learn, was a dressing station, where wounded men were brought in a steady stream, and where doctors were making life and death decisions every few minutes. One of those doctors, John McCrae, saw a close friend blown into pieces, and his remains buried in a sandbag. For his own consolation, McCrae wrote a poem, beginning:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
It was the first use of the image of poppies in connection with the Great War. And a few yards from where he wrote those words, we see the crosses, row on row, including the grave of Rifleman V.J. Strudwick, who lied about his age and died here at the age of 15.
We see monuments to Canadians and to Kiwis, to Irish and Scots, and visit the German cemetery at Langemark, where 44,061 lay buried.
Seeing these sombre sights by bike is the perfect way to do it, as there’s a chance to blow the thoughts of death away with the wind – at least for a while – as you ride by fields of chewing cows, of sweetcorn and sprouts, see a horse pulling a plough, and smell the fresh leeks as a man hauls them from the ground and trims them with a long knife.
We stop at a strawberry farm where we buy a punnet from a primitive vending machine. I see the farm’s address on a sign above the machine: Passendale. Carl shows us some of the farmer’s Iron Harvest – shell heads, grenades, twisted Lee Enfield rifles.
‘Farmers here always keep the cabins of their tractors closed,’ Carl says, ‘as there are still occasional explosions. It’s not so much the explosion that can kill you, but the flying shrapnel.’
Down the road, a heron skulks by a pond, and two young deer panic and clatter over the cobbles and out of a deserted farmyard as we cycle by to our final stop: Tyne Cot. Paschaendale. It’s the largest of the Commonwealth cemeteries, and here, as well as almost 12,000 graves, a memorial bears the names of 33,783 British soldiers and 1,176 New Zealanders, which wouldn’t fit on the Menin Gate. As vast as the Menin Gate is, they ran out of space and the missing soldiers who died after 15th August 1917 are marked here at Tyne Cot.
I think back to the rest of the previous night’s ceremony. Another young man reads consoling words:
When you go home
Tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow
We gave our today
The Last Post is played once more, and finally the pipers emerge and march by. At last I can see them, and they’re not uniformed, as I’d assumed, but instead are a raggle-taggle collection of people in everyday clothes – men, women, young, old, tall and short, fat and thin, one looking like he’d come straight from a motorbike rally, a young girl as if from a church choir. They march and they blow their pipes, united in music and memories, then disappear as if off to war themselves.
Ten minutes later the crowd has dispersed, and it’s almost empty under the gate. Only the names remain, to be remembered tomorrow night, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
I travelled to Ypres with Bike and Culture Flanders, who combine cycling tours of World War One sights with cultural experiences in cities including Bruge, Ghent and Antwerp: www.bikeandcultureflanders.com.
For more information on Ypres visit the official Ypres Tourism website: