The Menin Gate site in Belgium was chosen as a memorial site by the Commission because of the hundreds of thousands of men, from all British Empire nations, who passed through it on their way to the WW1 battlefields. The Ypres Menin Gate Memorial now bears the names of more than 54,000 officers and men whose graves are not known. The memorial, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield with sculpture by Sir William Reid-Dick, was unveiled in July 1927.
Soon after the Great War ended, British families also wanted an Anglican church in Ypres. Parents and widows had not received their sons and husbands’ bodies back for a proper burial, so it was important to have a safe, peaceful and Christian place for mourners to visit. It took some time, but in 1924 a fund was finally launched, with the intention of building a church possibly next to the old Menin Gate. The choice of architect (Sir Reginald Blomfield) was a good one since he was already involved with a number of the British and Commonwealth military cemeteries in the Ypres area.
The foundation stone of St George's Memorial Church was laid in 1927 and building started on the simple brick church. The interior, which was to serve as a memorial to the young men who lay in the soil near Ypres, had enough room only for 200 people. Families, schools and military units donated pews, plaques, windows, the font and the altar. The Bishop of Fulham dedicated the completed church in 1929 and soon there were regular services and a Sunday school.
What I hadn’t realised, until I saw the BBC4 film The Children Who Fought Hitler, was that it was decided to open a school in Ypres as part of the same project. It was to be funded from donations by Old Etonians who needed to build a memorial to the 300+ old-Etonians who had lost their lives in the Ypres area from 1914 on.
The tiny school opened in April 1929. There were 62 pupils learning at the school at the beginning, most of whom were the children of British workers who had moved to Ypres with the Imperial War Graves Commission. The Commission's bus brought the children to school each day, from their homes in the villages all around Ypres.
Imperial War Graves Commission workers who lived in Ypres in the inter-war years.
Eventually more teachers and a headmaster arrived from Britain until, by 1933, 130 pupils were enrolled. The original principal was delighted to introduce a full curriculum, along the lines taught in schools in Britain. In 1934 the new principal changed the name from Eton Memorial School to the British Memorial School and also introduced a British school uniform.
It was appropriate that the Belgian King Leopold III visited, given that he had himself studied at Eton college during the Great War. But eventually, during WW2, the school had to close. In May 1940 all the British students returned home and the Germans took over the church buildings; they used them as their officers' club.
So from 1929 on, the school had served a special community of ex-servicemen and their families who cared for the WW1 graves in Ypres. Steeped in ideals of patriotic service and sacrifice, many pupils and ex-pupils refused to surrender to the invading Nazi forces and went on to make names for themselves in missions across Europe. As that is another, huge story in its own right, I recommend the book by James Fox and Sue Elliott called The Children Who Fought Hitler: A British Outpost in Europe, published by John Murray in 2009.
Children of the Ypres British colony celebrate Empire Day, 1933. The Telegraph
Post-WW2, the church's chaplain was paid for by the Imperial War Graves Commission. The British community of Ypres had so shrunk that there was a much smaller number of people to attend the church on a regular basis. Furthermore there were hardly any British children based in Ypres who would attend the school, even if it ever tried to open again.
In recent years there has been a renewed interest by British families tracing a relative who fought in the First World War. Many visitors to Ypres now visit St George's church, specifically to look at the special memorials and to locate the graves. And to add memorials to their relatives who died in the Second World War. Services are still held at the church by the chaplain. But these days, the most special annual services are held for Armistice Day (11/11).
St George’s Memorial Church, Ypres today. Memorial windows and plaques