Menin Gate South in Memory and in Mourning
(South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016)
with Panel Index: Menin Gate (South)
I was intrigued upon the arrival of this book for review. At first glance it appeared to be a stand-alone work – no other titles by the author were listed on the inside pages or the inner ‘blurb’ – and yet this work was clearly only a part of a bigger story. On flipping open the back cover for details of the author I found reference to the ‘In Memory and In Mourning series’ drawing upon ‘years of intensive research’. So I could see that a small amount of investigation and research on my own part was called for – no effort must be spared in serving the members of The WFA where book reviews are concerned.
Some of you may already be aware of Paul Chapman and his mission to bring to life the lists of names of those who fought and fell in Flanders over the course of the First World War – I have to apologise now and say that up until this point I was ignorant of his painstaking endeavours. My enquiries found that Chapman has spent the last ten years and more, researching and collating details regarding the British and Empire soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice and are buried and commemorated in the Ypres salient. Of these 210,000 casualties, the author states that he has produced biographical details relating to over 20,000 soldiers.
The resulting work In Memory and In Mourning is intended for publication over six volumes. The series started in spring 2015 and I understand that three editions have been released prior to Menin Gate (South). These are:
Menin Gate (North)
Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
So we have here one man’s dedicated commitment to researching and recording the personal histories of the men who gave their lives for their country - and in defence of Flanders and the Ypres salient during the conflict of 1914-18. In the words of the author, his mission became ‘…to ensure that their stories are preserved for future generations and battlefield visitors’. The headstones in the CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) cemeteries record the casualty’s name, rank, regiment, service number, date of death and for some, the age. The memorials to the missing give simply the name, regiment and rank. It was the desire to learn more about the man behind a limited list of basic facts which led Chapman to begin researching the background to many of the names; in his own words ‘explaining and answering more of the who, what, where and why’.
Paul Chapman has a proven track record in the WFA as founder and ex-Chair of the Northampton branch of The Western Front Association; he is also a member of the Talbot House Association. His link to the First World War includes his grandfather who served with the Canadian Army Service Corps and subsequently took on a role within the ranks of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission. For a number of years Chapman has been involved in arranging and escorting tours to the Ypres Salient, which has proved to be the springboard for this tremendous undertaking.
This fourth book in the planned series is once again the result of years of research augmented by frequent trips to the battlefields. In an introductory chapter - titled Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial South - Chapman provides a summary history of the Menin Gate memorial, which was officially inaugurated on 24 July 1927 in a ceremony led by Sir Herbert Plumer (‘of Messines’ fame who spent much of the war at the Flanders front) and including King Albert of Belgium. Within some selected highlights, the reader is told of the veteran visiting after 1927 to find his own name and details recorded on the memorial. A Private J Smith of the Black Watch is listed – with the remarkable service number ‘1’. Also listed is Lance-Corporal Thomas ‘Pat’ H Rafferty, who was the inspiration for cartoonist Captain Bruce Bairnsfather’s ‘Old Bill’ character. This opening section concludes with reference to the nightly ‘Last Post’ ceremony; and the annual ‘Poppy Parade’ at Ypres on Armistice Day.
Following this introduction the book is organised into six unnumbered chapters, each covering and named for a set of between seven and nine panels from the memorial; starting with panels 2-8. There are no separate chapter headings – so one simply turns over the last page of the ‘introduction’ to find the following section heading (you can tell it is a heading because it is in capital letters):
PANEL 2 BEGINS – JEMADAR KIRPA SINGH, 57TH WILDE’S RIFLES.
The text then provides some background information on the Gurkhas on the Western Front particularly the assault on Mauser Ridge on 1 May 1915. The name of Ran Bahadur Bura, Rifleman 4579, who was killed that day, is picked out for a short set of family details. Next is a paragraph on the actions of the Lahore Division at the end of April 1915 – with 57th Wilde’s at the forefront of the attack – and the latter regiment’s losses. Chapman provides a paragraph of biography on Major Francis Taylor Duhan, 19th Punjabis and also on Captain Leonard De Lona Christopher , 40th Pathans. This section now concludes with:
PANEL 2 ENDS – BUGLER ZAMAN ALI, 40TH PATHANS.
PANEL 2A BEGINS - MAJOR L J JONES, 9TH BHOPAL INFANTRY.
The rest of the book proceeds in the same vein. Although I have mentioned ‘chapters’ there is no recognisable arrangement of this kind; the sections on each memorial panel follow on in chronological order with the addition of Chapman’s background and biographical summaries and pen portraits, as in the first example above. At the very end the book closes with a short index of the panels and the battalions and regiments on each. There is an unfortunate typo in that the pages are headed Menin Gate (North) when they are in fact the correct listings for Menin Gate (South).
This editorial lapse brings me to my criticism of the book. The detail and purpose attached to the research is of the highest order in my view. However the presentation could have been so much better not just in terms of style and format but also to assist anyone looking to use the book for research purposes. There is no index of the soldiers for whom biographical details have been included. There is no page index for battalions/regiments. No use had been made of emboldened type and/or different fonts to help break up the pages and the various sections on panels/units/individuals. There are no sources provided for the information on the various units and operations – or for the individual biographies. If one throws open the book at a random page then you are faced with two sheets of what appears to be continual text all in the same font and print size, with an occasional paragraph indent.
The book is at the middle/higher price end of the market at £30 – some readers would have expected more in terms of the presentation and organisation of the contents. It would also have been useful to have had some photos of the memorial and the panels – or perhaps a diagram of the layout. There are no photos or illustrations included. These shortcomings may of course have been necessary to meet the production costs. However if I am prepared to spend £30 on this book I would probably consider that a further £5 is worth adding to its price if it can deliver improvements in its format, presentation and organisation.
So – should you buy this book? For me the answer is yes, if only because I feel that simply owning the book and having it on my bookshelf is a way of paying tribute to those names within its pages, and all those soldiers commemorated on the Menin Gate. It is also a book I would enjoy having with me on a visit, being able to look up background information on names from the memorial in front of me. For some it will probably be a reference book to look up at a local library or in the (increasing) absence of the latter then to borrow from a friend with more space on their bookshelves or a few more £ to spare.
Paul Chapman is to be warmly thanked and applauded for his research and for bringing this valuable information to our attention. He allows us to engage with the personal histories of the men who fell in Flanders, reminding the reader of the reality of war through their stories.
Now, where is that letter for Santa that I started… I have a few titles from the In Memory and In Mourning series to add.
Reviewed by WFA member Dennis Williams