Photo: "Phot-Express"/Vise Paris
Map of Ypres
The city of Ypres, at the heart of the Salient, was involved early in the First World War. The British were associated with Ypres throughout the war, and involved in all four battles which bear the name of the town. During the war, the town was almost constantly under bombardment, and was reduced to ruins.
Canadian troops passing the ruins of the Cloth Hall. Image from Library and Archives Canada.
After the War there was a proposal to preserve the ruins of the town as a memorial to the British and Empire soldiers who had fought and died in the salient. This was then modified to preservation of just the ruined Cloth Hall and cathedral. However, the town was eventually fully rebuilt, including the Cloth Hall and cathedral and today, standing in the town, you would hardly believe that most buildings are at most 80 or so years old. By the time Sir William Pulteney and Beatrix Brice published a battlefield guide in 1925 they recorded: 'We step from the train to a brightly new and very complete town. We make our way through the streets to the Central Place, and here a square of of hotels, shops, houses stare with strange incongruity to a mutilated thing rising stark and jagged against the sky'. This was the ruins of the Cloth Hall, still not then rebuilt.
The Cloth Hall at night
This page covers sites to be seen in Ypres, and a separate page covers the cemeteries that can be found in and around the city. For battlefield touring in the area ,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.
Starting in the centre of Ypres, which is the best base for a visit to the salient, on the wall of the Cloth Hall are two plaques, one commemorating the French soldiers who died in defence of Ypres and the surrounding area (shown below), and the second to Polish soldiers who liberated Ypres in the Second World War.
The Cloth Hall also houses the In Flanders Field museum, which is a good place to visit to gain some background on the battles around Ypres, although my own preference is for some of the smaller museums suach as those at Hooge and at Zonnebeke. There is a website for the In Flanders Field museum which gives opening times, prices and other information.
Just around the corner from the Cloth Hall is a Belgian memorial to those who fell in both World Wars.
Church and Cathedral
One of the most interesting sites in Ypres is the British church, which has so much to see that I have covered it on a separate dedicated page: St. Georges Memorial Church.
The cathedral of St Martin and St. Nicholas was rebuilt after the war, and it is very hard to believe, when looking at this magnificent structure today, that it is only around 80 years old.
A plaque inside commemorates 'One Million Dead' of the British Empire: one of several similar plaques that were placed inside a number of cathredrals in Belgium and France after the War. There is also a plaque in memory of the French soldiers who fought and died.
Around the side of the cathedral stands a memorial to the Munsters. The memorial is in the form of a Celtic Cross, with the three crowns emblem (which from a distance appears to resemble a smiling face), and the inscription at the base reads 'In memory of those men of Munster who died fighting for freedom. A tribute erected by the people of the Province and Cork its capital city'. An old postcard I have shows the memorial with the cathedral still in ruins behind it; the view today is seen underneath.
The Munster Memorial in front of the ruins of the cathedral shortly after the War
The Munster Memorial in front of the rebuilt cathedral today
The Menin Gate and the Last Post
It is well known that every evening at 8 pm, the Last Post is played at the Menin Gate in Ypres. The Menin Gate is the site of the memorial to the missing of the Salient, designed by Reginald Blomfield with construction completed in 1927. It lists the names of 54,332 men who fell in the Salient and who have no known grave. Consider this figure for a moment. It is equivalent to the population of a small town, and this is just the men who have no known grave. The names represent the fallen of Britain, Ireland, and what were then the Dominions (apart from New Zealand) up until 16th August 1917. Those with no known grave after that date are recorded at Tyne Cot. The names are inscribed on panels arranged by Regiment, and within that by rank.
The Last Post is a moving ceremony held every single night. The traffic through the Gate is halted, and the Last Post is played, a haunting experience in a sombre setting. There are always large crowds to respect the ceremony, and in recent times it has become common for those present to applaud at the end of it.
The three photographs below show the site of the Menin Gate over time: firstly immediately after the War, then in the 1920's before the construction of the Memorial, and lastly the interior of the Gate in the 1930s.
The Menin Gate site just after the Great War. Photo from Michelin Guide to Ypres
The Menin Gate site in the mid 1920s. Photo: Weeninck & Snel
The Menin Gate between the Wars. Photo: NELS
One of the many names on the Menin Gate is that of my father's great-uncle: Private William Bertie Goody. His name is on Panel 34. William was a professional soldier; he had originally enlisted in the Worcestershire Regiment in 1901 at the age of 19 and after serving with them for several years had left the ranks in 1913. When war broke out, however, he immediately re-enlisted, and was with the 'Old Contemptibles', the original British Expeditionary Force that went to War in 1914. The Second Worcesters were involved in one of the most famous early heroic stands against the German Army, at Gheluvelt on October the 31st 1914. However, William Goody was not one of those who fought there; he had been killed ten days earlier near Poelcapelle and was one of many who died in the early days of skirmishes and movement before the trenchlines became permanentand have no known grave.
Private William Bertie Goody: one of many names on the Menin Gate
A recent memorial located just to the right (as you look out of the town) of the Menin Gate on the ramparts is the memorial to Indian soldiers. The inscription reads "In memory of those from the Indian Army who fought gallantly in Flanders. Ieper 10th November 2002".
Near this is a small brass model of the Menin Gate with information in braille.
It is a pleasant walk along the ramparts south from the Menin Gate. A short distance past the Indian Memorial on the left is a brick built stand with two poems in Flemish and English; one by Edmund Blunden and one by Herman de Coninck who was not born until the Second World War. Old air shafts, some of brick and some of metal rise up through the ramparts. There is an old brick-built icehouse, where food and medicines used to be stored. They were kept cold by blocks of ice, which were cut from the moat in the winter and covered with soil and tree branches.
The ramparts after the War. Photo: NELS
There are a number of viewpoints on the ramparts, and also information boards about the history and also the flora and fauna. At the right times of year there are wild flowers; in early spring snowdrops and crocuses are in abundance. Even when it is raining, fishermen sit on the opposite bank with oversized umbrellas. It is just a few minutes walk along the ramparts to the Lille Gate.
The Lille Gate
The Lille Gate leads out of Ypres to the south, and from the top of the Gate you can look towards Messines and the higher ground. A dangerous crossroads known to the soldiers as Shrapnel Corner was located to the south of here.
Inside the Lille Gate itself signs to several Cemeteries can be seen. These show IWGC, rather than CWGC, and as the name was changed from "Imperial" to "Commonwealth War Graves Commission" in March 1960, the signs must have been at least 45 years old. At some point in about 2005/2006 however, they were removed, and seem now to have been replaced with replicas. The originals were showing their age, whilst the signs that can be seen today are in very much better condition (see photos below).
The Lille Gate itself is an impressive structure, which just about survived the war (see images below), and just beyond the Lille Gate is Ramparts Cemetery.
Lille Gate during or just after the War. Photo Realistic Travels
The Lille Gate today.
On the ring-road just east of the city is a bunker at the side of the road. This is just a little south of the Hellfire Corner roundabout on the road leading to the roundabaout by the Lille Gate. Parking near to it is not easy, but it is possible to look inside the interior and see how cramped the conditions must have been in there.
Because of the flat landscape, the town can be seen from several miles away in most directions. The view below shows Ypres from a distance - a location near Frezenburg and on the approximate position of the front lines in June 1917.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient
Paul Reed: 'Walking the Salient' and other information