- FRANCE AND BELGIUM -

YPRES Part 1

LINKS to pages in the France and Belgium site and to the Colin Day Travelling Days series:

     1 : Lille
     2 : Ghent
     3 : Ypres
     4 : Bruges

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Hellfire Corner (left) on the Menin Road at the entrance to Ypres (Ieper).

In WWI this was an important route junction under constant observation and fire by Germans on the high ground. Anything that moved across it was fired upon. Consequently canvas screens were erected beside the road in an attempt to conceal movement, much of which took place under cover of darkness, when the junction thronged with activity.

Today Hellfire Corner is a busy roundabout much used by through traffic. By the roadside is a demarcation stone - one of 12 surviving today in the Ypres Salient - marking the point of the Germans' closest advance to Ypres.

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Ypres had long been fortified to keep out invaders. Parts of the early ramparts, dating from 1385, still survive near the Rijselpoort (Lille Gate). Over time, the earthworks were replaced by sturdier masonry and earth structures and a partial moat.

Ypres was further fortified in 17th and 18th centuries while under the occupation of the Habsburgs and the French. Major works were completed at the end of the 17th century by the French military engineer Sebastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban.

Although the decision was made to demolish the fortifications of Ypres, which were thought to be stifling the town's growth, this was never fully carried out. In the late 19th century, the western sections of the ramparts were torn down, but the town did not grow, so the demolition was not completed.

This left roughly half of the main ramparts intact. These remains however, were to face one final assault; that of the German heavy artillery, which was trained on the town during the First World War. Most of the town was levelled, but the ramparts somehow survived.

After the war it was decided to rebuild the Menin Gate, previously known as the Antwerp Gate, (below) as a memorial to the British soldiers who died on the Ypres salient. The names of 54,896 soldiers with no known graves are inscribed on the walls of the gate.
See also Ypres Page 3 of this website.     Commentaries with acknowledgement to Wikipedia.

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Ypres is an ancient town, known to have been raided by the Romans in the first century BC. During the Middle Ages, Ypres was a prosperous Flemish city with a population of 40,000, renowned for its linen trade with England, which was mentioned in the Canterbury Tales. As the third largest city in the County of Flanders (after Ghent and Bruges)

Ypres played an important role in the history of the textile industry. Textiles from Ypres could be found on the markets of Novgorod in Russia in the early 12th century. In 1241 a major fire ruined much of the old city. The powerful city was involved in important treaties and battles, including the Battle of the Golden Spurs, the Battle at Pevelenberg, The Peace of Melun and the Battle of Cassel.

The famous Cloth Hall was built in the thirteenth century. Also during this time cats, then the symbol of the devil and witchcraft, were thrown off Cloth Hall, possibly due to the belief that this would get rid of evil demons. Today, this act is commemorated with a triennial Cat Parade through town.

After the destruction of Tharouanne, Ypres became the seat of the new Diocese of Ypres in 1561, and Saint Martin's Church was elevated to cathedral status.

On March 25, 1678 Ypres was conquered by the forces of Louis XIV of France. In 1697, after the Treaty of Ryswick, it came into the possession of the Spanish Crown. In 1713 it was handed over to the Habsburgs, and became part of the Austrian Netherlands. In 1782 the Austrian emperor Joseph II ordered parts of the walls torn down, making it easy for the French to take over the city during the first coalition war in 1794.

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The well known 'Vivaldis Restaurant' in the Grote Markt (right).





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Reminders of WWI are not hard to find (left)



The rebuilt Courthouse and other buildings around the Grote Markt (below).



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Ypres occupied a strategic position during World War I because it stood in the path of Germany's planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France from the north (the Schlieffen Plan).

The neutrality of Belgium was guaranteed by Britain; Germany's invasion of Belgium brought the British Empire into the war. The German army surrounded the city on three sides, bombarding it throughout much of the war. To counter attack, British, French, and allied forces made costly advances from the Ypres Salient into the German lines situated on the surrounding hills.

In the First Battle of Ypres (12 October to 11 November 1914), the Allies captured the town from the Germans. In the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April to 25 May 1915), the Germans used poison gas for the first time (they had used tear gas earlier at the Battle of Bolimov on 3 January 1915) and captured high ground east of the town.

The first gas attack occurred against Canadian, British, and French soldiers; including both metropolitan French soldiers as well as Senegalese and Algerian tirailleurs (light infantry) from French Africa. The gas used was chlorine. Mustard gas, also called Yperite from the name of this city, was also used for the first time near Ypres, in the autumn of 1917.

Of the battles, the largest, best-known, and most costly in human suffering was the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele (21 July to 6 November 1917), in which the British, Canadians, ANZAC, and French forces recaptured the Passchendaele Ridge east of the city at a terrible cost of lives. After months of fighting, this battle resulted in nearly half a million casualties to all sides, and only a few miles of ground won by Allied forces.

During the course of the war the town was all but obliterated by the artillery fire. The picture above is of the destroyed Cloth Hall.

English-speaking soldiers in that war often referred to Ieper/Ypres by the deliberate mispronunciation Wipers. British soldiers even published a wartime newspaper called the "Wipers Times". Ypres was at least one of the sites that hosted an unofficial Christmas Truce in 1914 between German and British soldiers.

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After the war the town was rebuilt using money paid by Germany as reparations. The main square, including the Cloth Hall and Town Hall, was rebuilt as close to the original designs as possible. The Cloth Hall today is home to In Flanders Fields Museum, dedicated to Ypres's role in the First World War.

Ypres these days has the title of "city of peace" and maintains a close friendship with another town on which war had a profound impact: Hiroshima.

Both towns witnessed warfare at its worst: Ypres was one of the first places where chemical warfare was employed, while Hiroshima suffered the debut of nuclear warfare. The city governments of Ypres and Hiroshima advocate that cities should never be targets again and campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

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The imposing Cloth Hall was built in the 13th century and was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages. The structure which stands today is the exact copy of the original medieval building, rebuilt after the war. The belfry that surmounts the hall houses a forty-nine bell carillon.

The whole complex was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.

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