Behind the names on the Menin Gate

Soldier at Memorial Stone Ypres ©D. de Kievith

Here are some of the stories behind the names on the Menin Gate. The stories of particular soldiers are stories of mud and blood, of unspeakable suffering and limitless human endurance. Their lives and deaths can tell us something about the terrible conflict in which they were involved.

Menin Gate, Ypres - (c) Westtoer

Jemadar Kapur Singh

57th Wilde’s Rifles - Panel 1A

During the first of the many murderous battles for possession of the Messines Ridge during the Great War, the south-eastern approaches to the village (along the road to Bethleem Farm) were guarded by an isolated company of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles. This company was the Dogra Company – tribesmen from the remote hills between the Punjab and Kashmir, on India’s North-West Frontier. Lieutenant-General Sir George MacMunn, a pre-war expert on the Indian races, had characterised the Dogras as being ‘of good behaviour, courtly manners, high courage and physical endurance’.

The men of Wilde’s Rifles were about to have these estimable qualities put to the test. On the morning of 31 October 1914, the full fury of the German 26th Division was unleashed against the scattered units of the 2nd Cavalry Division and their Indian comrades. Out of the morning mist, three battalions of the 119th Grenadier Regiment bore down on the waiting Dogras, advancing at a jog-trot and making ‘raucous, guttural sounds’. Most of the British officers were killed in the ensuing hand-to-hand fighting, so that command eventually devolved upon the sole survivor, Lieutenant Molony. Molony withdrew the Rifles to a shallow trench along a hedge line and here they engaged the Germans in a ferocious fire fight lasting more than two hours. At around 6 a.m. Molony was badly wounded in the arm and his men decided to try to evacuate him while it was still dark. Before leaving, Molony gave strict instructions to the two surviving Indian officers that they should under no circumstances retire, unless the neighbouring units of British cavalry should do so first. 

Last Post - (c) Last Post Association Ieper

With these orders ringing in their ears, the two jemadars (officers) – Ram Singh and Kapur Singh – returned to the trenches to renew the fight with their numerically superior foe. Under less pressure than the Rifles, the neighbouring British units did not withdraw and so the Dogras felt honour-bound to remain in their exposed and increasingly hopeless position. One by one, the men were picked off, until only Kapur Singh remained. Even then, the Germans were still unable to take the position by storm. However, by 8 a.m. the brave Jemadar was down to his last bullet. Nobody could have blamed Kapur Singh if he had now surrendered or retired. He had no men and no ammunition and he had fought as well as any man could. However, this 26-year-old Hindu clearly viewed matters differently. As the Grenadiers closed in, Jemadar Kapur Singh, commander of the post and the only man not dead or wounded, took his rifle and put his final bullet into his own brain.

The concept of ‘death before dishonour’ is no longer a fashionable one (if it ever was). Yet while many may dispute the logic or even the point of Kapur Singh’s actions, nobody can deny his extraordinary courage and devotion to duty. Moreover, whatever adjective one chooses to apply to this remarkable deed, it cannot be denied that Kapur Singh’s death secured for him a place in the mythology of his village and of his regiment that still endures to this day. Perhaps, in the final analysis, this is what he most wanted. ‘To live on in the hearts of those we love is not to die ...’

Menin Gate, Ypres

Captain John Geddes, great-grand-uncle of the former British prime minister David Cameron

16th Battalion, Canadian Infantry (Canadian Scottish) - Panel 26

John Geddes was born on 6 November 1878, son of Alexander and Frances Geddes of Blairmore, Aberdeenshire, and nephew of Sir William Geddes, the principal of Aberdeen University. Following completion of his education at Rugby School, he left for the New World, finally settling in Canada, where he made a new life with his wife Helen and their three children. When war broke out in 1914, he was already 36 years old – approaching the maximum age for military service – but he was one of the first to volunteer: ‘If they have any use for me,’ he said, ‘I’m ready.’

His battalion landed in France in February 1915 and, following a brief initiation in the trenches at Bois Grenier and a period of training at Estaires, was sent north for its real baptism of fire in the Ypres Salient. They did not have to wait long. The Canadian Scottish went into the trenches at Poelkapelle on 16 April 1916, and less than a week later the Germans launched the gas attack that marked the opening of the Second Battle of Ypres. The 16th was just one of the many battalions, both British and Canadian, thrown piecemeal into the fray to try to plug the resulting gap in the Allied lines, and John Geddes and his comrades played a huge part in closing this gap with a heroic attack at Kitcheners Wood on the night of 22–23 April. 

Menin Gate - Last Post, Ypres

John was one of the few officers to survive this assault, but further heavy fighting was to come, as the Germans sought to press home their advantage on 24 April. It was on this day that John Geddes was killed, a victim of the furious succession of attacks and counter-attacks around the village of St Julien. One of his school friends wrote: ‘He was an absolutely fearless man… At school, he never knew what fear was, and his one idea was to do things in a way to bring credit to his house.’ His attitude on the field of battle was no different. A fellow officer recalled: ‘Even after he was hit, and while dying, he kept crawling onwards, calling: “Go on, boys, you’ll win, you’ll win.” He was a true-born Highland gentleman.’

This he most certainly was. He was also the great-grand-uncle of the former British prime minister, David Cameron.

Mr Cameron commented: ‘Captain Geddes is a powerful example of how when the chips were down, the stakes were high, and the cause just – we [the British people] stood together.

27 WWI memorial sites in Flanders Fields recognised as Unesco World Heritage


The landscape of Flanders Fields. A witness of World War I

Dodengang Diksmuide

You may also like these stories

Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row
These lines by poet and soldier John McCrae describe the horrors of the First World War. Some of the war’s bloodiest battles were fought in the Westhoek. One million soldiers died, were injured or went missing. Entire cities and villages were wiped off the map.

Tyne Cot Cemetery ©Westtoer