THE Mayor of Rugby made an emotional trip to Ypres to honour the thousands killed during World War One – and learned an unknown link between the two towns.
Coun Tony Gillias led a party of 48 Rugbeians to the Belgian city, where the famous Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing commemorates the lives of nearly 56,000 soldiers who were killed during the fierce Ypres Salient battles.
The party – which included MP Mark Pawsey, county councillor Phillip Morris-Jones, borough council strategic director Ian Davis, and members of the British Legion – visited the historic Talbot House in Poperinge, which was the British Army’s retreat from the front line.
They attended a welcome reception at the council chamber in Ypres’ Cloth Hall, where Coun Gillias exchanged gifts with the city’s Mayor, before visiting the Flanders Field Museum and the battlefields.
The Mayor and his party then followed the Borough Flag and British Legion flags on a parade from Ypres’ main square to the Menin Gate Memorial, where he laid a wreath on behalf of the borough of Rugby.
The inspiration for visiting the Menin Gate Memorial came from Rugby’s own War Memorial at Whitehall Recreation Ground – which was unveiled in 1922 by Field Marshall Earl French of Ypres.
Coun Gillias said: “I’m honoured to be the first serving Mayor of Rugby to attend the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, reciprocating the visit made by Field Marshall Earl French when he unveiled Rugby’s own War Memorial 92 years ago.
“We were made to feel very, very special.
“We were given special privilege, because we were the first to lay our wreath. Were also given the privilege of parading into the Memin Gate with our party, with the Borough flag flying.”
The Mayor said the Deputy Burgomaster of Ypres had told him of another link between the two towns.
“A lady called Denise Dael became known as the Lady of the Menin Gate.” he said.
“At the outbreak of war in 1914, her father went to fight on the front, and her heavily pregnant mother went to safety in Scotland. On her way she stopped in Rugby and gave birth to Denise before dying of birth complications, she’s actually buried in Rugby.
“After the war, Denise went back to live with her father. She lived in Ypres until her death in 2010 at the age of 95, and every night she went to the ceremony at the Menin Gate. That’s why she became known as the Lady of the Menin Gate.”
The Last Post has been sounded at the memorial at 8pm every day since 1928.
Coun Gillias decided to organise the trip as part of the borough’s commemoration of the centenary of the start of World War One.
He invited members of local branches of the British Legion to accompany him, and extended the invitation to residents. The trip has been entirely funded by those taking part.
“We should never forget their sacrifices and to make this trip on the centenary of the outbreak of World War One makes the visit especially poignant.” he said.
“I’ve been struggling to find the words to explain it. It was very humbling, and yet kind of satisfying to say that you’d gone there and remembered those who gave their lives.
“It was extremely memorable and moving. I think it’ll go down with a lot of people as a highlight of their life.”
Rugbeians raise the Borough flag at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing (s)