Ypres, or Ieper as it is now known, is an anomaly. To many it looks like any well-preserved town from the Middle Ages might look. It has a fabulous Cloth Hall dating back to the 1200s and a street lay-out that owes nothing to modern urban planning. Many of the roads within the Vauban defensive walls are made from either cobbles or setts and outside the defensive walls, the moat now provides a peaceful and picturesque frame. However, not all is as it seems.
The area we know as Belgium has existed for less than 200 years. From Roman times until the 1700s the area covered by Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg was known as the Low Countries. It was a prosperous area for commerce and culture flourished but the area was continuously fought over becoming known as ‘the cockpit of Europe’ (referring to cock-fighting, not navigation!) Ypres was famed for its linen trade, particularly with England, and cloth from Ypres could be found as far away as Russia. St Martin’s Cathedral, next to the Cloth Hall, was started in 1230 and finished in 1370. In 1561 it was elevated to cathedral status when Ypres became the seat of a Bishop. The town was conquered by Louis XIV, the Sun King, in 1678, and it was then that the famous French builder of forts, Vauban, was tasked with creating the defences that can still be seen today. However, in 1697, Ypres was returned to the Spanish King. Twelve years later, in 1709, the Duke of Marlborough was tempted to capture the town but thought better of it after his experiences at Tournai. But, four years later it was ceded to the Hapsburgs and became part of the Austrian Netherlands. In 1782, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II ordered the defences on the west side of the town be torn down thus making its conquest by the French in the French Revolutionary Wars of 1794 all the easier. Finally, in 1830, Belgium separated from the Netherlands and became an independent country. Recognising this, in 1839 at the First Treaty of London, the European great powers agreed with the Netherlands to recognise the independence and neutrality of Belgium. Those great powers included Great Britain, Austria, France and the German Confederation, led by Prussia, as well as Russia.
Thus it was that the seeds of British involvement in the First World War were sown. Treaties seldom force countries to act in a particular way; often they provide a pretext. This was the case in 1914. Clearly, the neutrality of Belgium was not going to be allowed to prevent Germany’s master stroke round the French defences. It mattered even less to Russia who had her arms full with the Austro-Hungarian armies. That left France and England who were clearly both threatened by the German invasion of Belgium which provided Britain with both a political and propaganda justification for declaring war.
Germany’s great drive through Belgium passing the French defences to the north and encircling Paris was doomed to failure from the outset. Troops on foot could not travel fast enough and their logistic support could not keep pace, even with them. Success would have to wait another 25 years until the tank had been invented, and the tactics to use with them, but that is another story. The Moltke modified Schlieffen Plan failed; the French eventually woke up to what was happening, but not before losing hundreds of thousands of men in ill thought-out offensives, and the British reluctantly joined the fight. The result was the first allied victory on the Marne and the German withdrawal back over the River Aisne and onto the high ground to the east of Ypres. From there they were able to launch offensives against the French, British and Commonwealth forces and gradually to pound Ypres to rubble.
After the war ended in 1918, there was much discussion about what should happen to the remains of the Cloth Hall and cathedral. Many wanted them kept as ruins to commemorate the battles of the salient. However, although the British were very vocal, they could not agree among themselves on a plan nor finance the plans they favoured. Eventually, the Belgians began the reconstruction of their city which, in the case of the Cloth Hall, was not completed until the 1960s. Thus everything that one can see in the centre of Ypres is a careful reconstruction of the originals.
The Ypres Salient took on an almost religious significance during the war. It was the scene of bitter fighting and heavy losses by the French, British, Canadian, and Belgian as well as German, armies.
The memorials reflect this. Most prominent of these is the Menin Gate. This is the memorial to those British and Commonwealth soldiers lost in the Salient before 16th August 1917 who have no known grave. It is an enormous and very moving memorial with the names of the lost engraved on marble slabs, in regimental order, on every available space.
By contrast, there is a pretty little cemetery next to the Lille Gate in the south, called the Ramparts Cemetery (above).
The Vauban Ramparts have been restored and now show little sign of shell fire. Above is the Lille Gate in the south of the city. They provide a very peaceful walk around the town and are much enjoyed by young and old alike.
The Cloth Hall is very impressive and it houses, on the first floor, the ‘In Flanders Fields’ Museum. The museum has recently been expensively upgraded and now provides a good visual ‘tour de force’ of the battlefields. It is, however, somewhat anodyne, without so much as a dead horse to be seen. For those who wish to get a more contemporary view of the war, a visit to the Sanctuary Wood Museum just outside Ypres along the Menin Road is a must. There, there is no shortage of contemporary photos of trench life complete with bodies in various stages of decay and even a horse blown up into a tree.
I am glad that the Cloth Hall and cathedral have been rebuilt. However, I found visiting Ypres a strange experience. It felt rather like visiting a film set. I thought that the only real things to see were the cemeteries and the museum. The rest seemed artificial and even the bustling crowds did not feel like they belonged. Many were tourists and it felt, to me, as if the locals had never returned. However, I am sure that to those who live there it feels different, quite like home. Perhaps tourism has just replaced cloth as its principal source of revenue. Either way, it is an essential element of any visit to the Flanders battlefields and, as such, I enjoyed it greatly.