Ypres

Remembered

Ypres after four years of shelling and ravaging fires
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Ypres (Ieper in Flemish) became the symbol of the fight against aggression during the Great War (1914-1918). A veritable David against Goliath .

 

A market town in West Flanders (West Vlaanderen), it had seen wars before and nations had fought over its importance many times before during its 1000 year history.

It is best known for its role in leading the linen and wool industry in Flanders during the Middle Ages and in 1260 enjoyed a population of 40,000 inhabitants living in a town area half that of today which now has a population of 35,000 spread over the surrounding villages and towns making up the 8900 postcode.

By the beginning of the 20th century, it had settled down to being a moribund and somewhat sleepy town.

 

This little town, and in the eyes of the advancing German army of no consequence, was to be the proverbial thorn in its side, tying up whole divisions of its troops for four years.

Ypres stood in the way of the Channel Ports and the ultimate isolation of Great Britain from the war, leaving Germany to expedite the Schlieffen Plan and concquer France.

The British High Command were not slow to realise its strategic importance to a successful prosecution of the war as well as its nearness to the Channel Ports.

 

In the 1st Battle of Ypres (31st October to 22nd November 1914) the Allies captured the town from the German army who had only occupied it briefly being more concerned in extorting money from the town rather than fortifying it. The German army were never to set foot in the town again as an aggressor. This battle was actually three distinct battles covering Langemarck, Gheluvelt (scene of desperate heroism with the 2nd Worcestershire leading the counter-attack)), and Nonne Bosschen.

 

The 2nd Battle of Ypres (22nd April to 25th May 1915) was significant for being the first time poison gas was used by the German army on the Western Front  (the use of poison gas was banned by International Treaty) and captured ground to the east of the town. The gas used was chlorine and the first attack occurred against Canadian, British and French soldiers; including both metropolitan French soldiers as well as Senegalese and Algerian tirailleurs (light infantry). This battle was actually four distinct battles covering Gravenstafel, St Julien, Frezenberg, and Bellewarde.

 

Of all the battles, the best known and largest, and most costly in human suffering and casualties, was the 3rd Battle of Ypres (21st July to 6th November [or 10th depending which source is referred to] 1917), also known simply as Passchendaele. The British, Canadians, ANZAC and French forces captured the Passchendaele ridge to the east of Ypres, which runs down through the villages of Passchendaele and Zonnebeke. Today the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing and Cemetery denotes the spot where the ridge was declared captured and the advance was halted after months of fighting and nearly half-million casualties to all sides. It was during this battle that saw Ypres all but obliterated by incessant shelling and it is remembered for the introduction of Mustard Gas (also called Yperite) in September/October of 1917. This battle was actually eight distinct battles covering Pilckem, Langemarck, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle, First Passchendaele, and Second Passchendaele.

 

Looking at a war map of Ypres, the battle lines follow the outline of a question mark and these lines became known as the Ypres Salient.

 

To the south of the town lies the Wytschaete-Messines ridge, the scene of the Battle of Messines (7th June to 14th June 1917), a culmination of two years planning, preparation and tunnelling. 19 of 21 mines detonated, most in Y configurations, and this was the turning point of the Salient campaign through the capture of this strategic ridge. This victory provided the spingboard for the subsequent 3rd Battle of Ypres, although as history has shown, the delay in prosecuting this offensive led to unnecessary and needless deaths in the Allied forces through allowing the German army to regroup and strengthen its defences to the east of Ypres, coupled with the wettest August that Ypres had seen for twenty years which contributed to the infamous mud that swallowed up men, guns and even tanks.

 

The stoic and oft stubborn resistance of the Allied forces in the Ypres Salient is commemorated by the Menin Gate memorial. Designed by Reginald Blomfield in 1921, and opened in 1927, its large Hall of Memory contains the names of 54,896 Allied soldiers who died without graves. On completion it was discovered to be too small to contain all the names as originally planned, so an arbitrary cut-off date of 15th August 1917 was chosen and the names of 34,984 British soldiers were inscibed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing instead.

The Menin Gate memorial does not list the names of the missing New Zealand and Newfoundland soldiers, who are instead honoured on their own separate memorials.

 

Since 2nd July 1928, the buglers from the local fire brigade have sounded the Last Post at 8pm every evening without fail, apart from four years during WW2 when it took place at Brooklands Cemetery in Surrey. This was due to the German occuptaion of Ypres during that period.

 

On the day of the Armistice, 11th November 1918, Ypres was barely recognisable. Just raw stumps of buildings and piles of rubble, but to those that fought there, Ypres represented what they had been fighting for. It had become a symbol of hope, and of peace and as such had to be rebuilt.

 

Initially, the Cloth Hall was not scheduled for rebuilding. Prevarication meant that actual rebuilding didn't start until 1928 and was only completed in 1967. This prevarication was due to the British and Belgian governments initially unable to reach consensus on how to retain Ypres as a memorial and in what form. The answer was provided by the populace which wanted its town back. So, agreement was eventually reached that the town would be restored to its original design and format, although the Belgian government did hold out for a while in its wish to retain the Cloth Hall as a ruin.

 

After the Great War, Ypres quickly became a focal point for pilgrims wanting to retrace the footsteps of loved ones. The first buildings to be erected in the destroyed town, were not houses, but hotels. Simple wooden structures, hastily erected. By early 1919, commercial tours were underway with charabancs as the trains steamed into the still ruined station on a daily basis.

The Cloth Hall as it was in 1914
The Cloth Hall in 1919
The Cloth hall as it is today