From the time the Romans conquered the Belgae people, the area has been invaded by successive armies and has suffered from the ravages of war. Yet, Ypres has managed to grow and by the 13th century had gained the status of an independent city-state.
Ypres main claim to fame was its misfortune during the First World War, from 1914-1918 the city became the focus of fighting between the German Armies and the Allied Armies of Belgium, France and Great Britain. The First Battle of Ypres began in mid October 1914. It was the first of four long battles fighting over possession of this ancient city.
The first serious damage to the buildings occurred during the First Battle of Ypres (19 October - 22 November 1914). German artillery fired onto the city from its positions in the north-east, east and south-east. On 22 November 1914 the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) was set on fire by an incendiary device.
A few months later, in the spring of 1915, an intensive German bombardment was started up on the town. This was carried out by long range, heavy German artillery, which included a huge 42cm howitzer nicknamed 'Dicke Bertha' (Big Bertha). This bombardment was the start of a German gas attack on the Allied front line in the Ypres Salient on 22nd April 1915. It was the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres and the beginning of the total destruction of the Flemish city.
By the end of the war in 1918 there was no buildings left untouched. The city had been demolished.
In the utterly ruined "Cat Town"of Ieper the allied forces were our only source of hope !
Hope to give our Youth a future in freedom.
This monument is a gift of CCMP to its patron town.
In de tot ruines herschapen "Kattestad" Ieper waren de geallieerden onze enige bron van hoop !
Hoop om onze jeugd een toekomst in vrijheid te schenken.
Schenking van het CCMP aan haar peterstad.
Reduit à un tas de ruines "Ville des chattes" Ieper, les allies furent notre seul source d'espoir !
Offrons à notre jeunes un avenir en totale liberte.
Don du CCMP à sa ville marraine.
In der vollig zerstorten "Katzenstadt" Ieper waren die Alliierten die einzige Hoffnung !
Hoffnung um unseren Jugend eine Zukunft in Freihet zu schenken.
Stifftung vom CCMP an seine Patenstadt.
1917, mines battle of Menin
On the 7th of June 1917, 19 underground mines were detonated (the trembling was felt in London and it was the heaviest conventional explosion in history). It blew enormous holes in the German defensive lines, but one cannot speak of a break through. After months of fierce fighting the allied forces reached Passendale. The attack however stranded in the mud and 170.000 British lost their lives in the battle of this village only 12 kilometres North East of Ieper.
spring 1918, the German attack
In April the Germans take such hard barrage on the allied forces at Kemmel, that they have to retreat. The hill at Kemmel is taken by the Germans at the cost of 120.000 souls. The allied loose more then 80.000 men.
autumn 1918, last days of war
In September the allied forces, strengthened by the fresh American soldiers, advance forward and bit by bit throw back the Germans. The Ieper Saillant was left as a smoking pit, villages disappeared completely, rivers of blood were running and the frontline was one huge burrial ground where hundreds of thousands lay with ... or without name. Ieper itself was empty, only ruins where once was a beautiful town.
1914, the world threw itself fanatically into a war to end all wars. It will be over in a few weeks, maybe months and no doubt ... WE will win. This was the general spirit and nobody could imagine the hell that would follow in the next four long years. When in autumn 1914 the centrals (Germans and Austrians) and the allied (French, Belgian and English) once dug in across one another the frontline would be fixed for the whole war. The tranches became a whole almost unpenetratable network in which death was something you met every day.
1914, first battle of Ieper
This battle was a German assault in which young students were massively send into their death. The Germans approached Ieper very close and the town was damaged heavily and set afire (paintings of the Lakenhal en Belfort in flames are famous). The British however did not give up their strongholds and the frontline kept being the Ypres Saillant. Only the English already lost 58.000 of their men. Germans lost over 100.000 most inexperienced young soldiers.
1915, second battle of Ieper
Hill 60 was the start of a allied campaign that however was of short success. Somewhat later the Germans experimented on large scale with gas, but they didn't use the unexpected success of their attack to gain terrain. Several thousand Canadians died. In total these attacks costed almost 60.000 lives.
Favorite thing: After the medieval power of Flanders, that saw the early light of the renaissance, the economical strength of "laken" (cloth / textile) slowly faded or the art of making it was spreading throughout other parts of Europe, destroying the monopoly in Flanders. The basic material "wool" got scarser too and with all that, the wealth and growth of Brugge, Gent and Ieper also tumbled, strengthened in their fall by the horror of the plague that ran over Europe. The population was decimized, something that would never be restored completely. However, the rapid decay of it's power also was a form of preservation of the rich historical buildings the wealthy centuries had brought. No monumental parts were torn down to be replaced by other buildings, just the old were - with the little money there was left - kept up shape like in Brugge.
Ieper - as said - is called after the Germanic word "Ipara", which was the name that was given to a river with on both sides elmtrees (in Dutch "Iepen"). Near the river a castle aroseand surrounding that a village. Ieper soon grew out to be more then just a village and got rights from the castle. It got an own city governement, existing of "Schepenen".
Already in early medieval times, Ieper belonged to the largest towns in Europe. With over 40.000 inhabitants it was one of the important cities in Flanders that produced "laken" (linnen) which was exported throughout the European continent. It competed with local other towns like Brugge and later also Gent, which lead to the war in which Ieper withstood both the English and the Gent-army, that joined forces. After that battle was overcome, Ieper took up the plans for it's centre, which should show the power.
Favorite thing: Thanks to the rebuilding of Ieper in the way it was, but adding the dramatic events in style by the Menin Gate and the In Flanders Field museum, this town has now-a-days an strange attraction for tourists that hold history and culture close to their hearts. The beauty of the medieval past, combined with the heavy burden that Ieper holds on it's shoulders, yet shares in a way that tells us all this should never ever happen again.
Favorite thing: 1918, the battle was over and one started to burry the many victims of the awful war. Around Ieper some 200 cemetries were made, later brought back in number to 147. Towards a million men lost their lives in the Flanders Fields and it pressed a dramatic atmosphere on this surrounding. The British that lost over half a million soldiers first decided to keep Ieper as it was left. Blackened ruines and intens tragic scenery as a permanent reminder of what happened here. The Belgians however did not agree in this as for them here they lived before and here they will live again. Ieper would arise exactly as it used to be, a medieval beauty, but ... remembering what happened in these dreadful years of war.
Favorite thing: When in 1914 the Germans invaded Belgium as a means to conquer France, all hell brooke loose in Flanders. At first the Germans advanced so quickly that Belgium and larger parts of France were run over in an instance. Then however the French and Belgians, helped by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) got the front line to hold and even on various places threw the Germans back. At Ieper the BEF was fighting at the frontline and here a saillant was formed around the town (wide curved frontline from North over East to South). This and the fact that the front would get stuck for almost four years, became disasterous for Ieper and many many men that were killed in Flanders Fields. Ieper was completely destroyed after the grimm horrific Great War.
Favorite thing: Flanders was, in contrast to the growing industries in "the" other part (Wallonia) of now finally independant Belgium, not having an industrial drive. The main wealth was here the soil itself and agriculture the drive of it's inhabitants. Flanders economy slwoly but steadily followed the giant steps the rest of the more industrial regions took. It suffered also under the more priviliged French speaking parts that were practically everywhere keeping power to themselves by friends politics. This to growing irritation of the Flanders people. At the turn into the 20st century, the split in Belgium became painfully clear by movements within Flanders. And then ...
This is a photo of the Cloth Hall. It is also in this building that there is a museum and also the tourist information centre.
I visited the library on my return from Belgium and looked at books which had photographs of how Ypres had looked during and after WW1, the destruction was devastating.
Thankfully as I said the buildings are now back to their original condition