Ypres, as my well-informed reader knows, is in Belgium and is now more generally and correctly known by its Flemish name, Ieper. But why is a Belgian city being featured in A Bit About Britain? Well, I am sure the Belgian Government and the good citizens of Ypres will forgive me for saying that, spiritually, Ypres sometimes feels like a little bit of Britain. And, if you follow the logic of Rupert Brooke’s poem, ‘The Soldier’, a good proportion of the surrounding countryside is very much a part of Britain, and other countries too: “If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” In fact, at least 185,000 British and Commonwealth servicemen died in this part of West Flanders and about 120,000 of them remain there, a small fraction of the hideous human cost of the Great War of 1914-18, buried in land given in perpetuity by the Belgian people.
When Britain declared war on Germany at 11pm on 4th August 1914, no one could possibly have foreseen what this medieval cloth town would come to represent. The tide of the German invasion that swept almost to the gates of Paris was reversed at the battles of the Marne and the Aisne. The invaders were pushed back and in October, at the northern end of the line, the two sides came to face with each other around Ypres. Here, the tiny British Expeditionary Force found itself, with the Belgians entrenched to the north and, to the south and as far as the Swiss frontier, the French. The Germans took up sensible defensive positions on the slightly higher ground surrounding the town on three sides, creating a bulge in the line, or salient. The lines around the salient were fought over by hundreds of thousands of men for the next four years, but Ypres remained in British hands. At the end of it all, very little was left: it is said that someone on horseback on one side of Ypres could see clear through to the other, so few buildings were left standing. Throughout the Salient, communities that had existed for hundreds of years had disappeared; they were just names on maps. The land was a desolate muddy lunar landscape, pockmarked with craters, a few splintered remains of trees showing where woods had once grown. In parts, during the second phase of the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917 (sometimes known as the Battle of Passchendaele), even the infamous and appalling trench system ceased to exist, a combination of concentrated shell-fire, rain and a high water table combining to create a ghastly hell of mud and water in which men lived, fought and died – often drowning in the glutinous mess.
After the war, the civilians – who had largely vacated Ypres by 1915 – gradually drifted back to their homes and businesses. And it was rebuilt, more or less as it had been. Today, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ypres is just a very pleasant, affluent, Flemish town; a good place to sample some excellent Belgian beer - as well as the ubiquitous frites and mayonnaise. It is all of that - but you cannot escape what happened hereabouts just a short century ago. It seems almost indecent to wonder not simply at how it has all superficially recovered, phoenix-like, from the ashes of destruction, but also to what extent the area owes its current wealth to those that died; income from war tourism must be enormous. But before you begrudge anyone a reasonable Euro, remember that they help us not to forget – which we must never do – and that the scars of the war that changed the world forever are all around the places where people live and work today; in fact, the old war still kills people sometimes.
The first thing that strikes you as you get close to the Ypres Salient is the sheer number of war cemeteries. There are more than 100 British and Commonwealth cemeteries in the area, all beautifully maintained by the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), varying in size from a few dozen burials to almost 12,000 at Tyne Cot. The distinctive green and white signposts are everywhere. Many of the cemeteries grew from burials at dressing stations; some are even battlefield cemeteries, though most of those disappeared during the fighting. All, except possibly the larger ones, have a familiar well-tended country garden atmosphere; light and restful, they are places of peace. It is hard not to stop at each grave and read the inscriptions; hard not to weep; they were just boys, from all parts of the United Kingdom, from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies, India (including Pakistan) and China. 40,000 are unidentified; their headstones inscribed ‘A Soldier Of The Great War, Known Unto God.’. There are two French cemeteries with the remains of almost 9,000 men and one German, Langemark, containing the remains of almost 45,000. The sombre, dark, atmosphere of the German cemetery contrasts greatly with the Commonwealth sites.
Every now and again, you spot a concrete bunker or pill box, some accessible, some not. At Hill 60, you get an idea of the war that was fought underground, as each side laid mines under the opposing trenches. Then there are the memorials, from the national to the individual, large and small: they are along roadsides, on corners, walls and in churches. Each one tells a story. Some are breathtakingly beautiful; some are very simple. The memorial to the 1914 Christmas truce near Ploegsteert (known to the British as ‘Plugstreet’) is a plain wooden cross.
There are, of course, museums. One of the largest is in Ypres itself, the impressive and thought-provoking In Flanders Field museum inside the beautifully rebuilt Cloth Hall. There are smaller museums adjacent to preserved trenches, such as at Sanctuary Wood and Hooge Crater Museum. If you’re minded to, these are the most obvious parts of the battleground to walk on; the reality, though, is that the battlefield is all around you.
The museums mainly display exhibits picked up from the battlefields. Some items look almost new, certainly hardly used – no doubt the condition they were found in when lost or discarded. There is, understandably, an impressive arsenal of weaponry of one sort or another – mainly small arms – helmets, shells – and so on. But then there are all the other things, thousands and thousands of them: shrapnel balls; spent bullets; unused cartridges; grenades, rusty coils of unused barbed wire; pumps; shovels; domestic items, such as razors and combs; bits of uniform, belt buckles, badges; in short, the detritus of war. But the sheer volume of it is breathtaking – further evidence of the intensity of the conflict in this relatively small area over those four years.
And it still turns up. The ‘Iron Harvest’ as it is called still reaps relics from the battles of 1914-18, often in the form of unexploded ordnance. Just before my last visit, in 2014, two workmen were killed by an unexploded shell in Ypres. The archaeology of the Great War also continues to reveal abandoned trenches and complex command-posts. Sadly, the remains of soldiers continue to be found too, year after year.
The nature of the First World War produced a phenomenon that no one knew how to handle: the missing. Most of the Commonwealth dead, some 100,000 men, have no known grave. Whilst many of their bodies were recovered, they could not be identified and the majority were lost without trace - they just disappeared. At 7.30pm every evening, the traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate in Ypres and at 8pm the Last Post Ceremony is held. It has taken place every night since 11th November 1929, except for the four years of German occupation during the Second World War. It attracts crowds, young and old, and it is intensely moving – particularly as the Menin Gate is a rather special place. It was here that troops left Ypres to march up to the front and here that the massive Memorial to the Missing was built, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield. On its walls are recorded the names of 54,000 men from the UK, Australia, Canada, undivided India and South Africa. The numbers mean nothing unless you can picture that many people: it only really hit me the first time I saw the names engraved on the Menin Gate; each one a life with hopes and dreams, parents, perhaps a wife or lover. A further 35,000 men from the UK and New Zealand are commemorated on the walls of Tyne Cot, on the Passchendaele battlefield. More Kiwis are commemorated at Messines and Polygon Wood and more British and South Africans at the Ploegsteert Memorial.
Remember that these figures are just for the Commonwealth. No one knows for sure how many died, allied and German, in the Ypres Salient; but it was probably somewhere between 450,000 to 500,000 men; maybe half were never found or identified.
So that’s a bit about Ypres, known as ‘Wipers’ to the British Tommy. It is not in Britain, but Churchill said of it - “A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world”.
There are a lot of myths about the First World War: it was not a futile war (though it was certainly unnecessary); the generals were not all idiots or cowards; we did not lose an entire generation. All war is brutal, but the nature of this one was particularly disgusting. Personally, I think it should be mandatory for everyone to visit places like this, and understand how it happened. It may not make any difference to our petty little hang-ups and insecurities, and it probably won’t stop bullies or lunatics; but surely most of us can learn from it. Ypres is just a short hop from South East England – 35 minutes through the Channel Tunnel from Folkestone to Calais and it’s about an hour’s drive from there.As usual, I’m happy to answer any questions I can and there are heaps of websites you can visit. You may want to checkout: