When war artist Captain Will Longstaff came across Mary Horsburgh during his evening walk at Hellfire Corner 90 years ago, he could not have imagined the brief encounter would become part of the inspiration for his most famous work, Menin Gate at midnight.
“No,” the Englishwoman said when he asked if he could be of assistance on 23 July, 1927. “I just want to be with my dear boys. I can feel them all around me.”
It was the night before the opening of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium, and Mrs Horsburgh, who had run a British canteen near the entry to the trenches in the Ypres Salient in the First World War, regarded all of the soldiers as “her boys”.
The following day, on 24 July, Longstaff and Mrs Horsburgh were among the 15,000- strong crowd that attended the opening of the memorial, which bears the names of more than 54,000 allied soldiers who died on the Western Front with no known grave, including more than 6,000 Australians.
Field Marshal Lord Hubert Plumer of Messines, standing on the spot where countless soldiers had passed through on their last march to the front, said it was resolved at Ypres, where so many of the missing were known to have fallen, to erect a memorial worthy of them which would give expression to the nation’s gratitude for their sacrifice, and its sympathy with those who mourned them. He added, “it can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today: ‘He is not missing; he is here’”.
Plumer’s friend and colleague General Charles Harrington later wrote:
I’m sure he was thinking, as we were, of all those Brigade and Battalion Headquarters which he used to visit living in burrows under those ramparts, of the casualties incurred nightly by the endless stream of transport men, their horses and their mules – on their nightmare journeys through that Menin Gate, the star shells, the crackling rifle fire, shell bursts, plunging horses and dogged Infantrymen. Each gateway a bottle-neck, registered to an inch by the enemy guns.
As the first memorial to the missing established by the Imperial War Graves Commission, the Menin Gate was the work for which architect Sir Reginald Blomfield said he wished to be remembered, and was described by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig as being “more impressive than any triumphal arch or monument to Victoria that I have ever seen”.
It stands on the site of the ancient gateway on the eastern side of the city. Originally known as the Hangoartpoort, or “Hangoart gate”, by the outbreak of the First World War it was known as the Menenpoort, because the road running through it led to nearby Menen.
An inscription inside the memorial archway, composed by Rudyard Kipling, reads: “Ad majorem Dei gloriam” [To the greater glory of God], and follows:
Here are the 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.
Longstaff was apparently so profoundly moved by the memorial that he could not sleep that night, and during a midnight walk along the Menin Road he reportedly saw a vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit cornfields around him.
Upon returning to his studio in London, he is said to have painted Menin Gate at midnight in a single session. The work was bought by Lord Woolavington in 1928 for 2,000 guineas, a considerable sum at the time.
The painting’s tribute to sacrifice and spiritualist overtones struck a chord with many who had lost family and friends in the war. It was displayed in London, and was taken to Buckingham Palace for a private viewing by King George V and his family before being shown in Manchester and Glasgow. It was then donated to the Australian government, and was placed on display during 1928–29 in capital and regional cities around the country, where it was seen by record crowds.
Australians queued to get a glimpse of the painting, along with a model of the Menin Gate memorial. For so many, this was the closest they would get to visiting the site dedicated to their fallen loved ones. Like Mary Horsburgh, they wanted to feel the presence of their dear boys.