More background info:
Ypres had a long history prior to WW1
going back to antiquity. In the Middle Ages, Ypres became prosperous in the textile industry and back then had a population that was larger than London
’s – or that of Ypres in the present day! The town had seen war before too, and in fact changed hands a few times between France
, and the Habsburg Empire (Austria
) until Belgium
became an independent state in the 19th century.
In the 20th century, however, Ypres was put on the dark history map – primarily by being mostly wiped off it – in World War One
. The town was as good as obliterated by shelling in the war. The key parts of the centre, especially the historic Cloth Hall were faithfully restored after the war, however.
The Battle of Ypres was actually a series of separate battles around what in military lingo became known as the Ypres Salient
, an low ridge in the land south and east of the town itself that provided good vantage points that were relatively easy to defend.
Only a rough summary of events has to suffice here; those who are after the detailed minutiae of the battles should look elsewhere.
In the First Battle of Ypres
, which followed and partially overlapped with the Battle of the Yser
, was part of the larger Battle of Flanders which stretched from the coast down to Arras in France
. In and around Ypres from 19 October 1914, German troops fought not only their Belgian and French counterparts but also the British Expeditionary Force. At the very beginning, the Germans briefly held Ypres but were soon expelled again. In the end the battle was inconclusive and after November 1914 both sides dug in and the so-called war of attrition
set in. Trench warfare and use of heavy artillery characterized the next four years.
After a winter lull, combat resumed in spring, with the Second Battle of Ypres from late April to late May 1915. It was during this phase that the German side for the first time used poison gas (chlorine) … but later the Allies also resorted to chemical warfare; and so a horrible new form of warfare was established. This battle ended with an Allied retreat by a few miles, but the intended German breakthrough was prevented.
While the war intensified along the Western Front further south, especially at Verdun and the Somme
in France, no larger offensives were undertaken at Ypres for a while (though that doesn’t mean the shelling ceased!), until the Third Battle of Ypres
, in particular the Battle of Passchendaele
, which raged from August to November 1917. It was preceded by the Mine Battle of Messines
, in which huge amounts of explosives were set off in 19 tunnels dug underneath German lines by special tunnelling companies. This left several deep craters in the landscape, some of which can still be seen today. The subsequent above-ground battle was an offensive by the British and Commonwealth troops and was by far the deadliest period of the war in the Ypres Salient, with the hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed or maimed on both sides. Such figures are always contested, but estimates range between 400,000 and over 800,000 casualties. And all that for the Allies gaining as little as a few miles (8 km) of ground. In short: it was quite a disaster, a mostly senseless bloodbath. It was also during this battle that the Germans first used the even nastier mustard gas.
After another winter lull – with no offensives but continued shelling and machine-gun fire exchange, the Fourth Battle of Ypres
was the German Spring Offensive
of March and April 1918. This followed the withdrawal of Russia
from the war in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, and hence the German side was able to relocate soldiers and hardware to the Western Front. The Spring Offensive centred on the Somme, but the Ypres Salient was also affected, especially in the Battle of the Lys
in April 1918. While the Germans did manage to take more ground than ever before on the Western Front in the Spring Offensive it was a pyrrhic victory, as they could not maintain the momentum and the necessary supply lines, and the ground conquered was of little strategic benefit.
In the following months, with the USA
now also taking part in the war, the Allies regained strength and launched another counteroffensive in which they defeated the exhausted German side and regained all the ground previously lost in September and October 1918 as part of the so-called Hundred Days Offensive that ended the war. Most of the action took place in various battlegrounds outside Ypres, but the Flemish part is still sometimes referred to as the Fifth Battle of Ypres
. In the end, the German lines collapsed, as did the whole Empire, with mutinies, the Kaiser abdicating and fleeing, and the declaration of a republic. An armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, followed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
Ypres, meanwhile, lay in ruins. Refugees returned but rebuilding took time – though it was helped by money from the high reparations defeated Germany was required to pay. Also the battlefields had to be “cleared”, and war cemeteries were established. At the same time, an early battlefield tourism of sorts began, mostly in the form of pilgrimages to places where families had lost their sons and fathers. But the treeless muddy post-war wastelands interspersed with rubble from where villages and towns once stood, also became a kind of early dark-tourism attraction for some.
Various war monuments were soon erected, including the most significant one in Ypres itself, the famous Menin Gate
. Reconstruction of the Cloth Hall
wasn’t finished until 1967!
The legacy of the Great War
goes beyond the museums, memorials, monuments, war graves and so on, but also includes real dangers, namely in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXO) that can be found to this day. In 2007 a farmer was killed by accidentally stepping on an old WW1 shell that was still live.
What there is to see: Not only does the town of Ypres make for an ideal base for exploring the region, it also has two important WW1-related sights of its own:
For further sites outside the town see under:
Within Ypres, the topic of WW1
is hard to escape, especially around the Grote Markt, which is the central kernel of the town. Various shops sell all manner of WW1 souvenirs, red-poppy-T-shirts and whatnot. At times you can encounter (re-en-)actors in period clothing or uniforms, as well as veteran vehicles.
Ypres even has its own WW1 war cemeteries, a small one at the southern ramparts near Lille Gate, and the larger Ypres Reservoir Commonwealth Cemetery in the north-west of the Old Town.
in the west of Belgium
, some 65 miles (100 km) from Brussels, but only 17 miles (28 km) from Lille across the border with France to the south.
Access and costs: not too difficult to reach; nor overly expensive
Details: You can get to Ypres by train (ca. two hours from Brussels, via Ghent), but since it’s a good idea to have your own vehicle (unless you’re travelling by bicycle or rent one locally) for exploring the area, it’s better to drive in. The A19 motorway ends just north-east from Ypres with connections to Brussels, or, if coming from the north, use the N8 road that goes all the way down from the North Sea/English Channel coast to Ypres
Getting around within Ypres itself is easy enough on foot. For the places outside you need your own means of transport if you’re not on an organized tour.
Accommodation options are plentiful enough in Ypres, with some good mid-range options. If coming by car, parking can be an issue within the Old Town, though, so factor that in when looking for accommodation. Other than hotels there are also several holiday apartments for self-caterers.
For just the town of Ypres itself and the sites within it, a single day could suffice, but if you’re using Ypres as a base for exploration of the various WW1-related sites in the vicinity
, then you should factor in at least three or four nights’ accommodation.
Yet more WW1 sites behind the former front line can be visited, including the ‘Long Max’ Museum in Koekelare, which focuses on the German side and takes its name from the largest cannon of the time. Also in Koekelare is a Käthe Kollwitz Museum, about this artist and campaigner against war and poverty.
In Poperinge you can find the Talbot House, a former British soldiers’ ‘club’, as well as the memorial in the courtyard of the town hall, which was a ‘shot at dawn’ site, i.e. where the British executed their own soldiers court-martialled for deserting. Adjacent to this are restored ‘death cells’, even featuring graffiti left behind by those condemned to death.
Of course, the WW1 sites to the south across the border in northern France
, especially the Somme
, are also within fairly easy reach from Ypres.
Also just in France and not related to WW1 but to WWII
is Dunkirk, some 30 miles (50 km) to the north-west of Ypres, with its Dunkirk 1940 Museum
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Ypres is a pleasant little town in its own right, and even though you’re never far from references to WW1 that’s not all there is to the place. I particularly liked walking along the old ramparts and the moat along the southern parts of the Old Town. And not least, as in many places in Belgium
, you’re also never far from good food and good beer.
- Ypres 1 - quite pretty town
- Ypres 2 - in the centre
- Ypres 3 - church
- Ypres 4 - ramparts
- Ypres 5 - moat and canal
- Ypres 6 - small war cemetery by the ramparts
- Ypres 7 - re-enactor
- Ypres 8 - souvenir
- Ypres 9 - heavy metal chocolates