Flanders is a region in Belgium, the name deriving from a medieval state that encompassed parts of what are now Belgium and Northern France. However, the soldiers in the First World War would often refer to their service on the Western Front as "France", whether it was in France itself or Belgium. The principal town around which the fighting in Flanders revolved was Ypres, and the area around the town of Ypres was also known as the Salient (see below). This region was fought over from October 1914 until practically the end of the war in November 1918.
Ypres Cloth Hall ablaze, November 1914. Photo: Antony dYpres
Ieper Cloth Hall today.
Maps and Guidebooks
The map below shows the location of many of the locations in the Ypres area, with the modern roads marked.
The area around Ypres
The Holt's Guide to the Ypres Salient is the guidebook I would reccomend to visitors; it contains specific itineraries covering the relevant sites, and I still carry my copy on every visit I make to the battlefields. There is also now a pocket version available. For reviews on these and other guidebooks that may be of use, see the Reviews section.
If you plan to walk or explore the battlefields in detail, then large-scale maps are essential. I have used the NGI (Nationaal Geografisch Instituut) series, sheets 28/1-2 (Poperinge-Ieper), 28/3-4 (Geluveld-Moorsele) and 28/5-6Nieuwkerke - Mesen). For reasons I can't explain, two of these are 1:20,000, and the other is 1:25,000. They cover pretty much all the sites of interest, but note that the names are the modern Flemish versions (such as Mesen rather than Messines above). The recent Linesman system adds another dimension, allowing comparison of trench maps with modern maps plus a GPS facility.
Whilst there is still an awful lot to see in Flanders, the region, when compared to the Somme for instance, is much more developed and therefore changed from when the Great War finished. Nevertheless, Flanders is an attractive region, mainly flat but with undulating hills. There can be pleasant walks to take, and by car there are a lot of sights to see. Please see the Section content links for areas of interest within the battlefields of Flanders.
Ypres Today and Visiting
Ypres (now known as Ieper) is an ancient city which can be traced back to origins around a thousand years ago. Despite being almost totally destroyed in the Great War, it has been largely rebuilt now, including the Cloth Hall (see picture above). It is a pleasant and interesting city to visit in its own right, as well as the perfect base for battlefield exploration. It is a walled city, and to stroll around the ramparts after a days touring or walking is a very pleasant way to finish the day.
There are an increasing number of tour companies which offer guided tours of the battlefields, including local day or half-day trips from Ieper itself, or longer tours starting from the UK. These can be a good way to get an introduction to the battlefields, but if you really want to explore and spend time at the locations you want to see, then it is easy to travel by yourself or with friends or family. Ypres is only a short drive from Calais, and the Channel tunnel means that you can make the trip from the UK with relative ease.
There is a very useful town website which gives information and guidance on the town, details of hotels and other tourist information, plus a map. Personally, I have stayed at and would recommend the Albion hotel - reasonable price, very friendly and they helped me out when I had a problem with my car exhaust during a visit! I have also stayed at the Ariane hotel; similar prices and again very comfortable. It has it's own restaurant which the Albion doesn't, but there are many options for eating out in Ypres, so this is not a problem. The Ariane also has displays in the foyer of items recovered from the battlefields and other First World War material. For bed and breakfast, it would be very hard to beat the warm welcome at Varlet Farm, where Charlotte Cardoen-Descamps and her family offer superb accomodation plus a wealth of knowledge on the local area and the Great War.
In terms of eating out, as stated above there are numerous restaurants around the town to suit various budgets, and there are also friteries (chipshops) and bakeries in Ypres and in many of the villages you will travel through if you are touring the battlefields. From recent personal experience I would reccomend the de Ruyffelaer on G. de Stuersstraat, which serves a variety of dishes and where folk music plays in the background because of the rather unlikely story of a flemish bagpiper! I also enjoyed pizza at La Luna.
Battlefield tours are not by any means new: the flyer below shows tours offered in 1928. The first guidebooks to the battlefields appeared in 1919!
Tours of the battlefields advertised in 1928
Ypres and Flanders During the First World War
Ypres was a town of relatively little strategic importance, but of great significance in that it was fought over practically throughout the whole of the war. Once again, there was high ground which dominated this battlefield, out to the north, south and east of the town. After the retreat from Mons, the First Battle of Ypres was fought in October/November 1914. Following this brief period of warfare of movement, trenches were dug in and the area around Ypres ended up in late 1914 as a large salient, or part of the line where the trenches of one side (the British here) jutted out into enemy territory. Salients were difficult to defend, as they were vulnerable to fire from three sides.
A German soldier by a shellhole between Langemarck and Bixschoote
There was fighting around the town for the next four years, until at last during 1918, firstly the Germans pushed forwards in their Spring Offensive (operation Michael), and then the British drove them back. During their advance, the Germans never quite reached Ypres, as the various Demarcation stones around the region show. The one pictured is at Hellfire Corner, just outside Ypres on the Menin road. Throughout the War, the Allies were determined to hold onto Ypres, and despite fierce attempts to take it, they did.
Following the devastation wrought by four years of war, Ypres was practically destroyed. In Rose Coombe's Before Endeavours Fade, there is an aerial photograph, showing the devastation wrought. Hardly a wall of a building is left standing, and it looks like a ghost outline of a town. However, after the War, Ypres was rebuilt, and in such a way that you would never guess that the buildings date from less than a century ago.
One of the Demarcation stones in the 1930s. Photo: NELS