Read more guide to exploring and visiting the battlefield city of Ypres, Belgium and World War I

Ypres, Belgium and World War I

Ypres (Ieper in the local Flemish dialect) has long been a popular destination for English tourists interested in visiting First World War battlefields. The town was only briefly entered by German cavalry early in the war, but the Germans did occupy much of the surrounding high ground with Ypres forming a salient, or bulge, into their front lines. The most intense fighting occurred along a ridgeline east and south of the city. During the next four years the war saw the first use of poison gas, tunneling operations to explode mines under enemy positions, tanks struggling through impassible mud, and the most horrific trench warfare culminating in the Battle of Passchendaele only 7.5 miles to the northwest.

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The battlefield has been restored to the pleasant farms and villages so characteristic of this part of Belgium; however, the monuments, memorials and scores of military cemeteries are a reminder of the tragedy of the war.

The city was almost totally destroyed by enemy bombardment. Ypres was rebuilt, following much of the original design, thriving on tourists visiting the numerous battlefield sites surrounding the city.

The Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle)

This impressive building stands on the cafe-lined central square (Grote Markt) and still commands a central place in the life of the city’s inhabitants.

Although the original was started in 1201 by Baldwin IX, Count of Flanders, the massive Gothic structure was not completed until 1304. It was used as a warehouse and auction centre for the local textile industry, which converted English wool into fine cloth. Used as a billet for British army troops and possibly as an observation point, it hence attracted German artillery fire. The shelling continued sporadically for the next four years and the hall was almost completely destroyed, with only sections of the exterior wall surviving.

The townspeople insisted upon reconstructing the hall to its original design, but with the interruption of the Second World War, the building was not completed until 1958. It now houses some municipal offices, a very helpful tourist office, and the main Ypres battle museum called ‘In Flanders Fields.’ The 70-meter belfry houses a forty-nine bell carillon.

Besides presenting memorabilia of the Great War, In Flanders Fields brings the experiences of the combatants alive with audiovisual displays, short movies, and the unique assignment of a real wartime identity to each visitor. The museum reopened in 1998 after a complete renovation and it is the logical starting place for Ypres battlefield tours. All the materials are in four languages.

Saint Maartens Cathedral

Directly behind the Cloth Hall is Sint-Maartenskathedraal, which was started as a fortress chapel for the Count of Flanders’ residence. Some of the existing piers around the ambulatory date from 1251. Although almost completely destroyed during the war, it was rebuilt to original specifications (although the original square tower was converted into a spire). The church is wonderfully colored with plaques that bear the coats of arms of various organizations adorning the walls, and its rose window is a British memorial to Belgian King Albert I. St-Martin is marvelously maintained and decorated with wood engravings and artwork.
guide to exploring and visiting the battlefield city of Ypres, Belgium and World War I

St. George Church

Across the street and along Elverdingestraat is the smaller, more modern St George’s Church. After the war the town was flooded with British visitors hoping to find remains of lost loved ones, ex-soldiers revisiting the fields of their memories, and workers constructing memorials and cemeteries. The British community constructed their own church, and over time the walls became lined with plaques dedicated to the memory of units or individuals who fought in the salient. Every chair has a cross-stitched kneeling pad with emblems of the fighting units, forming a colorful array across the church.

The Menin Gate

Originally a gateway through the eastern side of the city’s fortifications, by the nineteenth century its military importance had been reduced by modern artillery. The gate was replaced with a road opening marked by two stone lions. Through this passage marched many of the soldiers who participated in the Ypres battles.

After the war, a triumphal arch 25 meters high and 41 meters long was constructed with the intent to inscribe the names of the thousands of soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies were never found. The arch now presents the names of 54,896 of the missing on panels completely covering its interior walls and stairways. The designers ran out of space, and all those missing after 15 August 1917 are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot Cemetery.

At 20:00 hours every evening since 1928 (except during the German occupation of the Second World War), the local fire brigade’s buglers have presented a tribute to the missing by blowing ‘The Last Post.’ The brief ceremony is usually heavily attended by visitors and schoolchildren, who frequently read short poems and present wreaths of poppies in one of the most moving commemorations on the Western Front. No admission charge.

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Robert Mueller is a retired scientist and businessman who developed a love of travel and an enthusiasm for visiting historic locations. He served his military service in the US Army Signal Corps during the Vietnam era. After five years of on-site research, he completed Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium, which has received three national book awards including First Prize in the Travel category. He is a member of the Midwest Writers Association and the Military Writers Society of America.
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Photos by Robert Mueller

Updated: August 23, 2016

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