St Augustin

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
Who lives sees much, who travels sees more.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A - Z Challenge - Y is for Ypres, Belgium - the Flanders Fields, and I HAVE been there!

This post is longer than usual, but you will see why. It is a mixture of personal narrative and history. Skip over it and read what interests you...

I'm not one to glorify war (even though we've just celebrated ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand and France and perhaps other countries too - remembering all those who died in the wars), but the Western Front, including places like Ypres, Belgium, have a special place in the hearts of Australians. So many of our young men, along with Canadians, New Zealanders, British, French, Belgae and German, lie forever in the cold earth. (Apologies if I've missed anyone out. The Americans were not yet involved.)

Poems have been written, poppies are planted and worn, memorials have been built, films have been made, books have been written, but none of this puts an end to war, which goes on and on and on so help us God.

I've always wanted to visit the War Memorials in Flanders, part of the Western Front battles. and managed it in 2008. We trained it through Germany, Luxembourg, Bruxelles (Brussels), (where we stocked up on Belgian chocolate) then onto Ypres (leper.) It was a most humbling experience to pass through these fields peppered with white crosses.

This is a view from our train window as we zoomed between Bruxells and Ypres. Get the drift?

By the time we got to Ypres, it was no longer snowing, but the day was nicely dreary as it often is in Belgium, but it was perfectly fitting to remember all the young men who fought under these horrendous conditions. Mud, gas and gunfire their last memory, along with mateship forged on the battle fields. Because the day was so bleak and no one else turned up for a tour, we were taken on a personalised tour by the Belgae guide in his 4WD. He took us to all the places the Aussies fought and lost/won/died.

Ypres — now known by its Flemish name of Ieper — is an ancient city located in the Flemish province of West Flanders.The municipality of Ieper includes the city itself and a number of villages, namely Boezinge, Brielen, Dikkebus, Elverdinge, Hollebeke, Sint-Jan, Vlamerginge, Voormezele, Zillebeke and Zuidschote. The city of Ieper and these villages counts a population of around 35,000 inhabitants.

Since the first century B.C., when the Belgae people were conquered by the Romans, the Flanders region has been invaded by successive armies and has suffered from the ravages of war. In spite of this, Ypres managed to establish itself as a financially and culturally rich city in the 12th century. By the 13th century Ypres had gained the status of an independent city-state.

Postcard of the Cloth Hall in 1914 before the war broke out. The pre-war square-topped spire of the St. Martin's cathedral can be seen on the right of the picture. It was burned during the war.

Centre of the Wool and Cloth Trade

Being only 40 miles inland from the Belgian coast, Ypres was the hub of many important trade routes consisting of roads, rivers and canals leading to the Netherlands, France and to the English Channel. Consequently it grew into an important market place for the region. Easy access to the coast meant that the the people of the city established links with the wool trade in England. The city became a very important centre for the cloth trade. Guilds and master guilds were founded. The Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) was begun in the centre of Ypres in 1200. It took 100 years to complete. In 1241 there was a fire in the city which destroyed many of the wooden buildings. By 1260 the population of the city had grown to 40,000.

The Lille Gate (Rijselpoort) and ramparts at the southern entrance to Ypres.

Ypres grew into a wealthy and powerful city. It was the third largest city in Flanders after Gent and Bruges. It played a part in drawing up treaties and was fought over in battles. One of these battles was a siege of the city by an English bishop Henry le Despenser in the summer of 1383.

A Fortified City

From the end of the 14th century (1385) the city went into economic decline for the next two hundred years. In March 1678 the French King Louis XIV took the city into French possession, but within twenty years it passed into the control of the Spanish. The Austrian Habsburg dynasty took it over in 1713. The year of 1782 saw changes made to the fortifications by Emperor Joseph II, weakening the city defences. The French attacked the city in 1794 and once more it was under French control.

Originally the settlement had been protected by earthworks. As the town grew more wealthy the fortifications were modified to keep out prospective invaders.

Major work was carried out by Sebastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban (1633-1707), the famous French military engineer, at the end of the 17th century.

By the time of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 some of the fortifications had been removed. This was mainly on the northern and eastern side of the town.

The ramparts and moat looking to the north from the south-east corner of the old Ypres fortifications. Nowadays the ramparts provide a popular walking route and the moat is a haven for wildlife.


The oldest part of the ramparts still surviving is near the Rijselpoort (Lille Gate) which dates from 1385. After the decommissioning of the fortifications in the 1800s the remaining ramparts on the eastern and southern sides of Ypres were used until the outbreak of war in 1914 by the local people as a recreation area. The ramparts were planted with trees and paths were laid. It became a popular place to walk.

The Moat

The ramparts and moat looking to the north from the south-east corner of the old Ypres fortifications. Nowadays the ramparts provide a popular walking route and the moat is a haven for wildlife.

The moat on the east and south-east boundaries of the town. The moat was an integral part of the earlier fortifications.

When the fortifications were no longer considered necessary to keep out invaders, the new era of recreation for the townspeople in the early 1900s saw the construction of an outdoor swimming pool in the moat called the “Bassin de Natation”. It was formed at the north-eastern corner of the moat, where it was blocked off. Fishing also became a popular pastime.

Town Gates

AA feature of the fortified city was that there were gates in and out of the town. Each of the gates was on a major route from Ypres to one of the nearby four towns of Dixmuide to the north, Menen to the east and Lille to the south. The British maps and soldiers named them the Dixmuide Gate, the Menin Gate and the Lille Gate. At the Menin Gate, every evening at 8 pm, 4 buglers play the Last Post, in honour of the young men who fought in the bloody battles just outside the gate.

Just outside the Menin Gate, Ypres. (courtesty of Hellfire Corner)

 When the Germans left Ypres in 1945, the plaintive notes of the Last Post rang out under the Menin Gate that same evening and have continued every evening since.

The 4 bugles ring out through the ramparts.

Ieper (Ypres) Today

Cafés and restaurants on the market square of Ypres (Ieper).

I was amazed by the way in which the medieval city has been rebuilt. My first visit was to the museum where they show footage and photos of the original Ypres, then the history of war and fire. Ypres (leper) stands almost exactly as it was prior to its destruction and it is almost impossible to believe that there was hardly a building left standing when the Great War war ended in November 1918.

Lest we forget. One of the many Commonwealth War Graves near Ypres.

In the area around Ypres - including Hill 60, Passcendaele, Lys, Sanctuary Wood etc. - over 1,700,000 soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded and an uncounted number of civilians. Read more...

I don't usually include youtube videos as they slow some people's computers down, but I'm including the trailer from the powerful film, Beneath Hill 60, which is based on the true story of the Australian miners who worked below the trenches here in Ypres. My husband and I visited this hill (several of the trenches have been preserved so tourists can see exactly how it was for the troops.) We were very excited when they made a film of it. It shows the age-old rivalry between the Brits and the Aussies with the larrakin Aussies coming out on top as usual...

If you watch it, tell me what you think...


Susan Kane said...

I just read down through W, X, and Y. Ypres and WWI are seldom mentioned in the States. I must find Beneath Hill 60. It was a horrible war, and didn't end any other wars. Thank you for reminding me about those brave young men.

Melissa Bradley said...

This is one of the most moving travel pieces I've read. I read anything I can about WWI and indeed it was perhaps the most horrible war in terms of loss of life and destruction. We forget WWI because there is no one left to talk about it like there is WWII. However, I feel it is even more important because the issues that brought on that conflagration were never resolved and sparked the outbreak of WWII. In the Middle East we are dealing with old problems that were created in part by the division of countries after WWI.

I must see Beneath Hill 60, the trailer moved me to tears. Thanks you for sharing your trip and this for bringing this film to my attention.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm always on the lookout for information on WWI, and what happened during the war--as Susan mentioned, it's not talked about much in the USA.

Excellent post!

Dawn Embers said...

Nicely done. Is one of those poems "In Flanders Fields"? It is a beautiful one and the song we performed in choir when I was in college from it was one of my favorites. But I know very little about the memorial and the locations in general.

notesfromnadir said...

I'm so glad you wrote this because it's very meaningful & touching. I admit that I hadn't heard of this film before.

L'Aussie said...

Sounds like this is new to most of you so I'm pleased I did it for Y.

Al said...

Thanks for a thoughtful post Denise.
You walk the line between remembering and glorifying very well!
I haven't seen beneath Hill 60. I have been worried it would be more jingoistic than anything else.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Incredible history. It's true, you don't hear much about WWI, and I never heard about this in my school years.

You really are quite the historian, Denise. WELL DONE!

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