Ypres

Ypres Salient and the Somme
Click to enlarge
A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in all the world. 

Winston Churchill, 1919
In the Middle Ages Ypres became world famous because of its cloth trade. Commercial relations flourished, particularly with England, which provided much of the wool on which the town’s great prosperity was based. The most obvious symbol of this prosperity was the magnificent Cloth Hall, built during the 13th century. Ypres was occupied by the German army for one night at the beginning of the Great War and recaptured on 14 October 1914, remaining in Allied hands until the end of hostilities.
 Some five million British Empire soldiers passed through Ypres on their way to the Salient. Reduced to rubble by constant bombardment, the town came to symbolise the meaningless slaughter of the Great War. After the Armistice, the British government wished to acquire the ruins of Ypres as a permanent memorial to the sacrifices of its army between 1914 and 1918. However, the returning refugees wanted to rebuild their homes and the wishes of the local population finally prevailed. Now restored to its former grandeur, Ypres still contains numerous poignant sites and monuments linked to the war.
The importance of the town is reflected in the five major battles that occurred around it during the war:
First Battle (19 October - 22 November 1914)
After the German advance through Belgium and Northern France was halted in September 1914, the centre of fighting shifted to the Westhoek. The Belgians halted the Germans by flooding the Yzer plain (27-29 October 1914). To the south, the British and the French fought determinedly to prevent a German breakthrough at Ypres. This was the First Battle of Ypres, which raged from 22 October to 22 November 1914. When the battle was over, the Germans held the ring of high ground which overlooked the city. Both armies dug in and the famous Ypres Salient was born.
Second Battle (22 April - 25 May)
In the spring of 1915, the Germans made a new attempt to break through at
Ypres. They captured Hill 60 and on 22 April 1915, between Steenstrate and Langemark, using chlorine gas for the first time in modern warfare. 150 tonnes of chlorine gas were released from 6,000 cylinders directed against the French lines. The result was death, panic and total surprise. The Allies were forced to withdraw for several kilometres, but there was no breakthrough. In September it was the turn of the Germans to be surprised when the British attacked at Loos. Until the end of the war, both sides bombarded each other with millions of gas shells. However, in proportion to the total number of casualties, gas claimed relatively ’few’ victims.
Third Battle (31 July - 10 November 1917)
The Mine Battle at Messines-Wijtschate
Summer 1917 saw the great Mine Battle of 7 June to the south of Ypres - Messines Ridge to the British and to the Germans ”Wijtschate Bogen” - quite literally made the world shake. 19 mines were detonated under the German lines, causing explosions which could be heard as far away as London. In the beginning, this British offensive was a success. This was the prelude to the ill-fated Third Battle of Ypres.
The Battle of Passchendaele
The success at Messines was followed up in August with a new offensive: the Battle of Passchendaele. This battle was a complete disaster. The shells and the rain reduced the battlefield to a muddy swamp, through which neither attackers nor defenders could move. In four months the British lost 400,000 killed, wounded and missing for the gain of just 8 kilometres of territory.
The Germans had built strong concrete bunkers, defended with nests of machine guns that were almost impregnable. Passchendaele was an hell of mud, blood and superhuman endurance. Little wonder that British called the village ”Passiondale” - the valley of suffering. 1917 also saw the first use by the Germans of mustard gas or ’ieperiet.’ An ’improvement’ on chlorine and phosgene, mustard gas not only attacked the victim’s airways, but also caused the skin to erupt in hideously painful blisters.
German Spring Offensive  (April 1918)
In the spring of 1918, the Germans were strengthened by the arrival of fresh divisions from the Eastern Front, where the October Revolution of 1917 had led to Russia’s withdrawal from the war. The German offensive began in March, in the sector between Arras and Laon. In April new attacks were launched near
Ypres, where the Allied line was almost broken. During the Battle of Merkem (near Houthulst) on 17 April 1918, the Belgians had to withstand a severe attack by the Germans. ’De Kippe,’ a locality in Merkem, and a number of bunkers were initially lost but, following fierce hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets and knives, the Germans were forced back to their original positions by nightfall. Losses on both sides were high: the Belgians suffered 155 dead and 354 wounded, against a German total of 254 dead and 1,211 wounded. 780 Germans were also taken prisoner. It was the first major Belgian victory since Halen in 1914. During the Battle of Mount Kemmel the French in particular were very hard-pressed, losing this strategically important hill to the Germans on April 25, almost allowing Ypres to be captured.
The Cloth Hall
 The Ypres Cloth Hall was, as a guidebook at the time described it, "one of the mediaeval gems of Europe" prior to 1914. Located in the centre of the city of Ypres, it echoed back to the period when Ypres was the centre of the European cloth trade and merchants from all over the continent came here to buy and sell their goods. and home to numerous stalls selling cloth from across the globe. This trade had made Ypres rich, wealthy enough to fund its own Vauban-designed defences during the long periods of conflict that followed. By 1914 Ypres was a city in decline, located in a quiet backwater. During the Great War the Cloth Hall came under fire during the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 and then caught fire the same November. Some, but not all, of its many treasures were saved and gradually by 1918 it was reduced to rubble as every shell from 77m up to 420mm naval shells fell on it at some point. Only the central tower stood proud, but that in ruins and two years after the end of the war we see it in this photograph pretty much in the same state it was at the end of the conflict. The howitzer was one of several war trophies on display in the main square at this time and appears to be a German 150mm howitzer. The photographers son is once again used for scale, as he sits on the gun.  Ypres was gradually rebuilt, using the original medieval plans, but it took time – the Cloth Hall was not finished, for example, until the early 1960s. Today it houses the council offices and the In Flanders Fields Museum.

In flames in 1916
 The Cloth Hall Ypres, [ca. 1918] after J. Kerr Lawson with Canadian troops passing the ruins of the Cloth Hall.

Panoramic image of Ypres from 1919, showing the town's destruction.
On the same road nine decades earlier.
Hitler visiting the town in 1940
        

St. Martin's Cathedral

Saint Martin's Cathedral (although no longer technically a cathedral, it is still often referred to as one) is, at 335 ft in height, one of the tallest buildings in Belgium. Construction started on in 1230, and was finished in 1370. It was heavily damaged during the Great War and was rebuilt afterwards, following the original plans.
To the north of the Hall was the Church of St. Martin, built in the thirteenth century. The unfinished tower, 190 feet high, the rose window of the south transept with its magnificent stained glass, the triumphal arch between the pillars of the west porch, which had been constructed in 1600 by Urban Taillebert, the choir-stalls carved by the same Urban Taillebert, the pulpit with its lavish carving, the late- Gothic monument erected to the memory of Louise de Laye, widow of Hugonet, Chancellor of Burgundy, the tomb of Antoine de Henin, the brazen screen in the south aisle with its alabaster statuettes of saints attracted visitors to this noble church. To students of religious history St. Martin's was especially noteworthy. Under a plain flat stone was buried in it Cornelius Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the followers of Jansenius, of whom the most illustrious was Pascal, had disputed with the Jesuits for the souls of the French and their Bourbon rulers.
The Times History of the War Vol. IV (204)

Inside is a plaque honouring the Imperial soldiers reading: "To the glory of God and to the memory of one million dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War 1914-1918, many of whom rest in Belgium".
Ypres Cloth Hall and Cathedral in 1918
Ypres was damaged by the Germans in the Second World War as well. Here is the Hotel t’Zweerd as photographed by a German soldier in May 1940, and the same site today.
 At No. 54 Rue de Dixmude is the façade of the Maison Biebuygk. Built in 1544, this house was one of the most remarkable in Ypres. Immediately below the gable were two carved medallions representing the sun and the moon. The great pointed arch which framed the gable windows gave exceptional grace to the façade; it has since been reconstructed.

Office of the CWGC
The Menin Gate
"Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?"
-- Siegfried Sassoon, On Passing the Menin Gate

The site of the Menin Gate after the war.

The building of the Gate and ten years after the Armistice
The Menin Gate Memorial commemorates the missing of the Salient, and was designed by Reginald Blomfield with construction completed in 1927. It lists the names of 54,332 men of Britain and the Dominions (apart from New Zealandwho fell in the Salient and who have no known grave. The names represent the fallen of Britain, Ireland, and what were then the Dominions (apart from New Zealand and Newfoundland which chose to have their own separate memorials) up until 16th August 1917 after which the other names are recorded at Tyne Cot CWGC. The inscription inside the archway is similar to the one at Tyne Cot, with the addition of a prefatory Latin phrase: "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death". The Latin phrase means 'To the greater glory of God'. Both this inscription, and the main overhead inscription on both the east- and west-facing façades of the arch, were composed by Rudyard Kipling. On the opposite side of the archway to that inscription is the shorter dedication: "They shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away". There are also Latin inscriptions set in circular panels either side of the archway, on both the east and west sides: "Pro Patria" and "Pro Rege" ('For Country' and 'For King'). A French inscription mentions the citizens of Ypres: "Erigé par les nations de l'Empire Britannique en l'honneur de leurs morts ce monument est offert aux citoyens d'Ypres pour l'ornement de leur cité et en commémoration des jours où l'Armée Britannique l'a défendue contre l'envahisseur", which translated into English means: "Erected by the nations of the British Empire in honour of their dead this monument is offered to the citizens of Ypres for the ornament of their city and in commemoration of the days where the British Army defended it against the invader.

Every evening at 20.00 the Last Post is played at the Menin Gate, with a local policeman on call to stop traffic. Buglers from the local fire brigade play ”The Last Post”. The ceremony was begun in 1928 and the buglers have performed it faithfully ever since, although they were banned from playing during the German Occupation of 1940-44. Brookwood Barracks in England took over the ceremony during the war, but the tradition was immediately re-established on the first day after the liberation in September 1944. Sometimes the ceremony is attended by just a few spectators; on more formal occasions, hundreds can be present. Irrespective of numbers, the Last Post remains a unique and moving experience.  Info: T 057/48 66 10 - www.lastpost.be
During the ceremony a verse from the poem ’For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon is usually read out loud:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and the morning We will remember them
Belgian firemen preparing to perform the Last Post. Following the Menin Gate Memorial opening in 1927, the citizens of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium's freedom. As such, every evening at 20:00, buglers from the local fire brigade close the road which passes under the Memorial and sound the Last Post. Except for the occupation by the Germans in World War II when the daily ceremony was conducted at Brookwood Military Cemetery, in Surrey, England, this ceremony has been carried on uninterrupted since 2 July 1928. On the evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres in the Second World War, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate despite the fact that heavy fighting was still taking place in other parts of the town.

The names are inscribed on panels arranged by Regiment, and within that by rank.
The Gate in 1940 under German occupation

From Siegfried Debaeke's book Hitler in Vlaanderen


The same year Hitler visited twice...
Hitler's first experience of fighting was in one of the fiercest and most critical engagements of the war, the First Battle of Ypres, when the British succeeded in stemming an all-out effort by the Germans to burst through to the Channel coast. For four days and nights the List Regiment was in the thick of the fighting with the British round Becelaere and Gheluvelt. In a letter to his old Munich landlord, the tailor Herr Popp, Hitler reported that when they were pulled out of the line and sent into rest billets at Werwick, the regiment had been reduced in four days from three thousand five hundred to six hundred men; only thirty officers were left and four companies had to be broken up.
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Continuing from the Menin Gate is the Menin Road South CWGC
This cemetery is on the infamous Menin Road (N345) running from Ypres to the front line and remained an Allied possession throughout the war. It was founded in January 1916 and used until the summer of 1918. After the Armistice, the neighbouring Menin Road North cemetery was concentrated into this cemetery, with additional concentration from single battlefield graves from the front itself. 1658 lie here with 119 unidentified.
Apparently the graves of those shown in this period photograph are of: Privates Wearing, Murphy, Hart, Davis, Mills, Rowland, Treadgold and Bussy. That in the foreground is of Private Dicken, all of whom served in the South Staffordshire Regiment.

A particularly interesting inscription is for that of 22 year old Lt. Charles Douglas Lucas Hill of the 9th Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment, killed February 14, 1916:
"He passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty."
Captain Thomas Riversdale Colyer-Fergusson, VC, was killed in action on July 31, 1917 after having encountered the enemy with a sergeant and five men only. Nevertheless he carried out the planned attack and managed to capture the enemy trench. When the Germans counter-attacked, he resisted with only an orderly beside him and captured a German machine-gun, which he then directed against the attackers. Later still, aided only by his sergeant, he again attacked and captured a second enemy machine-gun, only to be killed by a sniper.

Ypres Town CWGC
His Majesty King George V paying his respects in 1922 and today.

This cemetery is about an half-mile north-east of the Menin Gate where some six hundred lie here, some two to a grave. The main cemetery and its extension were in use until 1915 and then used again in 1918. The extension was expanded by the concentration of graves from nearby small cemeteries and battlefield burials.  The cemetery and extension were brought into use again in 1940, to receive the dead of Commonwealth forces retreating from the area as it fell to the forces of Nazi Germany.  Between the two cemeteries and the two wars, 788 men are buried here. The sites are also used by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for its own permanent staff and their families, with alternative designs of headstones slightly set apart.
Among them once was Prince Maurice of Battenberg, a grandson of Queen Victoria. Although the body now lies elsewhere, his grave remains where H.M. George V paid tribute. The Battenbergs were hereditary enemies of the Hohenzollerns and had been treated by Bismarck and William II with peculiar insolence. Prince Maurice was the grandson of Queen Victoria and the brother of the Queen of Spain. To his mother, Princess Henry of Battenberg, President Poincare, on the 29th, sent the following telegram: " I had quite recently the great pleasure of seeing Prince Maurice in the midst of the splendid British troops, and to-day I learn that he has fallen on the field of honour. I beg that your Highness in this great trial will accept my sincere and respectful sympathy." He is honoured in a letter dated October 29, 1914 to H.S.H. Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg from the First Lord of the Admiralty after the former wrote to resign his commission:
MY DEAR PRINCE Louis, This is no ordinary war, but  a struggle between nations for life or death. It raises passions between races of the most terrible kind. It effaces the old landmarks and frontiers of our civilisation.  
I cannot further oppose the wish you have during the last few weeks expressed to me to be released from the burden of responsibility which you have borne thus far with so much honour and success. The anxieties and toils which rest upon the naval administration of our country are in themselves enough to try a man's spirit ; and when to them are added the ineradicable difficulties of which you speak, I could not at this juncture in fairness ask you to support them.  
The Navy of to-day, and still more the Navy of to-morrow, bears the imprint of your work. The enormous impending  influx of capital ships, the score of 3O-knot cruisers, the  destroyers and submarines unequalled in modern construction which are coming now to hand, are the results of labours which we have had in common, and in which the Board of Admiralty owe so much to your aid.  
The first step which secured the timely concentration of the Fleet was taken by you.   
I must express publicly my deep indebtedness to you, and the pain I feel at the severance of our three years' official  association. In all the circumstances you are right in your decision. The spirit in which you have acted is the same in which Prince Maurice of Battenberg has given his life to our cause, and in which your gallant son is now serving in the Fleet.  
I beg you to accept my profound respect and that of our colleagues on the Board.  
I remain, 
Yours very sincerely,  
WINSTON S. CHURCHILL
Ypres Reservoir CWGC
 
Today and as it looked after the Armistice. It was originally one of three cemeteries in the immediate area. At the end of the war, the Ypres Reservoir South Cemetery (formerly known as "Broadley's Cemetery" and "Prison Cemetery No 1") and the Ypres Reservoir Middle Cemetery (formerly "Middle Prison Cemetery" and "Prison Cemetery No 2") were concentrated into the North cemetery. The cemetery at the Infantry Barracks was also concentrated into the North cemetery, with additional scattered graves from nearby areas added later.
St. Martin's can be seen on the right. An intriguing inscription on one of the stones of that of Joseph McCarthy who served for six years in the Garrison Artillery at the Fremantle Forts, Western Australia. His stone records an even older family-military link:
Beloved son of D and M McCarthy. Grandson of Cpl. D McCarthy (Crimea).
There are 2,613 soldiers of the Commonwealth either buried or commemorated here, among whom are three men who had been executed by the military authorities - Privates Moles, Lawrence and McColl, "shot at dawn" for cowardice when they could have simply been suffering from shell shock. Moles's grave, like many S.A.D.s (Shot at Dawn), with a small cross planted by a visitor.
 The graves of Canadians Butler and Dickens then and now
The graves of brothers Major John Leadbitter Knott and Captain Henry Basil Knott, sons of Sir James Knott who owned the Prince line, among the largest shipping lines in the world at the time. The former was killed at the opening day of the Somme and, when unable to repatriate the bodies, the father managed to have both brothers buried side-by-side. After their death, he sold the Prince line and created a trust for charity work whilst also commemorated his sons through his provision of the bell tower at the Church of St George in Ypres.
The grave of Brigadier General Francis Aylmer Maxwell, who earned the Victoria Cross in South Africa when he was a 28 year old Lieutenant in the Indian Staff Corps attached to Roberts's Light Horse during the Second Boer War.
On 31 March 1900 at Sanna's Post (aka Korn Spruit), South Africa, Lieutenant Maxwell carried out the self-imposed duty of saving the guns from capture by the enemy. He went out on five different occasions and helped to bring in two guns and three limbers, one of which he, another officer and some gunners dragged in by hand. He also went out with two other officers and tried to get the last gun in and remained there until the attempt had to be abandoned. During a previous campaign in British India, (the Chitral Expedition, 1895) he had removed the body of a lieutenant colonel of the Corps of Guides, under fire.
He was eventually shot by a German sniper here in Ypres on September 21, 1917 whilst commanding the 27th Brigade, 9th (Scottish) Division.

Ramparts Cemetery (Lille Gate) CWGC
This small cemetery is the only CWGC burial ground within the ancient walls of Ypres. The cemetery was begun in November 1914 by French troops defending the city and was used by Commonwealth troops from February 1915 until April 1918, by which time the Western Front had moved away from Ypres.  At the end of the war, the French graves were removed and concentrated in the nearby Ypres Necropole National French cemetery. Of the British and Commonwealth troops buried here, all but ten are named; in the case of five of the unidentified, the nationality could not be ascertained.
 
The cemetery contains the graves of 198 soldiers. Amongst these are the graves of six Australian troops killed simultaneously by the same shell. These graves are symbolically grouped together.  Rose Coombs, who did much to popularise Ypres and the Salient for tourists and pilgrims through her book "Before Endeavours Fade" which was used extensively for this website, had her ashes scattered in this cemetery in 1991.
 
Among the poignant inscriptions are those found on the graves of Lance-Corporal Arthur Ockelford (Gone but not forgotten from his loving wife and baby Peggy) and Private Albert Pacey (Some may think that we forget him when at times we are apt to smile.)
 Australian troops in the dugouts at the site, probably between August and November 1917 during the ‘Third Battle of Ypres.’

Lille Gate
Cycling south from Ypres through the Lille Gate. One of the mediaeval gateways into the walled town, it was constantly under enemy fire and badly damaged but strong enough to be used as HQ during the Great War. There are some original Imperial War Graves Commission direction signs on plaques in the road tunnel. Whilst the Menin Gate was by far the best known exit from the centre of Ypres during the war, arguably the most used was in fact the Lille Gate, pictured here in a British stereo image in 1919.  During the Great War the Ramparts close by were used as headquarters – at one stage for Tunnelling units – and there was also medical facilities and a cemetery grew up on the Ramparts itself – one of several on the city walls. After the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915 the Menin Gate was in direct observation from the high ground around Ypres and so the Lille Gate became the main route to get to the front line for troops passing through Ypres.  Today the Lille Gate has been restored and nearby is the Ramparts Cemetery and Ramparts Museum. 
Looking from the other side, then-and-now

The Ramparts then and now