The Great War resulted in the utter devastation of the town of Ypres in Flanders. The Menin Gate marked the start of one of the main roads out of Ypres towards the front line, on to an obscene loss of young life. There was no actual gate – just a gap in the old city walls and a bridge across the moat. When the First World War came to Ypres in 1914, the walls could not stop the heavy shells which were fired into the town.
The Menin Gate, Ypres
Almost as soon as the war was over, there were plans to build some kind of memorial in the Ypres area. The Belgian Government offered Menin Gate to the British for their use as a commemorative site and the British Government decided that it should commemorate the Missing i.e soldiers of the British and Empire armies who had died in the 1918 fighting around Ypres, but who had no known graves. The number of dead was staggering - Britain: 40,000 men, Australia: 6200, Canada: 7000 and India 4200. [New Zealand and Newfoundland soldiers were honoured separately]. This memorial was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield and was opened in 1927.
Artist Will Longstaff (1879-1953) enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of WW1 but was injured early in the war. In October 1915 he rejoined the war in France and Egypt before being evacuated, again, to England in 1917. In England, he returned to military art. Eventually Longstaff was appointed Official Australian War Artist in 1918 and produced many works during the final campaigns of the Western Front.
Australians and New Zealanders are used to war artists painting tent camps, men on parade, men in trenches, men in hospital and women farewelling/welcoming their soldier husbands and sons. But it was less common for artists to portray spiritualist ideas in WW1 paintings.
Longstaff painted Menin Gate at Midnight well after the war, after he saw the opening ceremony of the Menin Gate memorial at the entrance of Ypres. Longstaff said that he was so profoundly moved by the ceremony that during a midnight walk along the Menin road he saw a vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit corn fields around him. It is said that, following his return to London, he painted the work as quickly as he could, so as not to lose the sensation of Menin Gate.
Longstaff, Menin Gate at Midnight 1927. Australian War Memorial, Canberra
The scene was painted largely in blue, which was part of the midnight imagery. It was created in a traditional, landscape structure: the moonlit memorial was placed on the horizon line, and before it marched a host of ghostly soldiers, portrayed by just a suggestion of bodies and helmets. In the foreground, the ground was covered with red poppies. In the distance, a small building added a dramatic contrast to the Menin Gate and to the silence of the region.
Following the success of Menin Gate, Longstaff painted several other works on a similar theme. Immortal Shrine/ Eternal Silence 1928 depicted ghostly soldiers marching past the cenotaph in London on Remembrance Day 1928. This work was closely based on a watercolour by Longstaff held in the Imperial War Museum that depicted the cenotaph on a rainy day: the bold structure of the cenotaph, the reflections in the street, and the glimmering lights were similar, but the watercolour was peopled by the ghostly figures of ordinary citizens, rather than by soldiers, and in Immortal Shrine the cenotaph itself had an eerie presence, dimly spotlighted in front of the solemn, dark buildings.