Made rich on the proceeds of the Cloth Trade, the city of Ypres fortified itself in the seventeenth century by engaging the military architect Vauban to build a huge star-shaped defensive wall around the city. The exits from the city were all so-called ‘gates’; gaps in the wall on roads leading to particular towns elsewhere in Flanders.
On the eastern side of Ypres was the Menin Gate, which lead to the town of Menin. Guarded by two lions, symbols of Flanders, by 1914 there was a pub built into the walls here much frequented by the locals. There was no physical gate or barrier, just a bridge across the moat.
In 1914 British troops came to Ypres and marched through the gate and up to the Menin Road to take part in the First Battle of Ypres. It became a main thoroughfare throughout much of the next four years and like the Cloth Hall, for men who served in Flanders it was one of their landmarks.
The Menin Gate’s landmark status continues to this day as post-war it was selected as the site for the Menin Gate Memorial, which originally commemorated nearly 55,000 soldiers who have no known grave. Unveiled in 1927 the memorial became a focus of remembrance as each night from the summer of 1928 the Last Post was played here; and it is still played here today at 8pm each night by the Last Post Association.
The Cloth Hall was, as one guidebook described it, ‘one of the medieval gems of Europe’. Located in the centre of the city of Ypres, as a building it echoed back to the period when Ypres was the centre of the European cloth trade and merchants from all over the continent came here to buy and sell their goods. By 1914 Ypres was a city in decline, located in a quiet backwater.
War came to Flanders in October 1914 when a German cavalry patrol entered the city of Ypres as the advance of the German Army that was making it’s ‘race to the sea‘. Stopped outside of Ypres but Belgian, British and French troops, the city found itself on the frontline for the next four years.
The Cloth Hall was never deliberately targeted but shells struck it during the First Battle of Ypres and in November 1914 it caught fire. As the war moved on gradually more and more of it was reduced to ruins or collapsed, so that by the end of the war this magnificent building was a shell of its former self. A landmark to the troops who served in Flanders, the Cloth Hall became a great symbol both during and after the war of the destructive hand that had swept across the crater zone of the Western Front. Rebuilt in the 1920s and 30s, it was not complete when another war came and the reconstruction was only finished in 1962.
This image of the Menin Gate in 1917 comes from an illustration done by an officer from the 9th (Scottish) Division in the summer of 1917. The division had been on the Western Front since 1915 and lost so heavily at Loos that one of its Brigade was replaced with South African troops. It had taken part in the bitter struggle for Delville Wood on the Somme in 1916 and in early 1917 made one of the longest advances in the opening phases at the Battle of Arras in April.
By the time it came to Ypres in the late summer of 1917 the rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and for the men of the division this was their first encounter with the infamous city. By then the Menin Gate – a gap in the city walls and a main route out of Ypres to the front line – had become legendary and the wartime phrase, no doubt soon familiar to the Scots was ‘will the last man through please close the Menin Gate’.
To the rear are the shattered remains of Ypres and the outline of the Cloth Hall; in ruins after three long years of war.
The Menin Road was the old Roman road which ran between Ypres and Menin in Flanders. During the Great War much of the fighting revolved around the area where the road passed and as such it was turned into a virtual moonscape by the close of the war in 1918.
This image from 1920 shows an area which appears to be north of the Menin Road close to Hooge. The houses in the background could well be those on the Menin Road, then being rebuilt and the large crater could be a smaller mine crater, one of many in this sector. Again the photograph gives a vivid insight into the desolation of the Great War battlefields just a few short years after the war.
The village of Ploegsteert – ‘Plugstreet’ to the British troops during the Great War – was at the southern end of the Ypres battlefields and was dominated by a huge expanse of woodland: Plugstreet Wood. The area saw fighting in the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 but then settled down to static trench warfare and rapidly became known as a ‘nursery sector’ where units fresh from England could acclimatise to the conditions of trench warfare. Many famous people served here in WW1: author Henry Williamson in 1914, war poet Roland Leighton in 1915, and Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden in 1916. The wood was overrun in the Battle of the Lys in April 1918 and finally taken by the Hull Pals in September 1918.
This image – another of the Nightingale stereo-cards – dates from 1920 and is taken on the Ploegsteert-Messines road, just south of Hyde Park Corner. The trees on the left are the western side of the wood and show what state it was in by the end of the war. The buildings ahead are close to the site of Hyde Park Corner (Royal Berks) Cemetery, opposite which today is the Ploegsteert Memorial. The rising ground in the distance is Hill 63, beyond which was Messines and the Messines Ridge. Although not a lunar landscape like the ground immediately around Ypres, the photo once again gives an insight into the desolate state of the battlefields at this time.
I recently purchased some more of the George Nightingale & Co Stereocards, produced in Britain around 1920 and sold in aid of ex-servicemen. They give a real insight into the Aftermath of the Great War and they will feature on the site over the next few weeks.
This image shows Hooge Crater Cemetery around 1920. This cemetery had been started by burial officers in October 1917 and there were less than a hundred graves by the end of the war; however it was chosen as one of the sites to become a main concentration cemetery and burials were moved in from 1919 creating a burial ground with more than 2300 graves.
Given the angle of the photograph, it is taken to the rear of the cemetery looking up the slope of the Menin Road Ridge towards Hooge itself. Among the standard wooden crosses with their metal ‘ticker-tape’ name tabs are numerous individualised graves brought in from other cemetery to form the neat rows visible here. Great War period duckboards form the walk way and the gentlemen in the photo is likely to be an early Imperial War Graves Commission gardener.
Aerial imagery of the Great War gives a fascinating insight into the battlefields of WW1 and this week on the site we will feature three German images showing different locations on the Western Front. While it is likely they were originally taken for intelligence purposes these images had been transferred to postcard as souvenirs for soldiers at the front. Some of these were later re-sold to British soldiers during the occupation of the Rhineland from 1919.
This image dates from 1915 and shows the city of Ypres from above. By this stage of the war Ypres had seen two major battles – First and Second Ypres – and the buildings come under a terrible hail of shells of every calibre up to 420mm: one account of a commander based at nearby Potijze in early 1915 recalled watching 420mm shells descend on the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral and take huge chunks out of these buildings: both part of what pre-war guidebooks called a ‘medieval gem’.
And it is indeed these two buildings that feature in the centre of this image; the Cloth Hall on the right, by this stage a shell, and St Martin’s Cathedral above it still recognisable but also a shell. Modern visitors find it incredible to gaze on these two buildings today and think that not only were they once in this state by they were almost just rubble by the end of the war. Post-war they were rebuilt using the original medieval plans along with the rest of the city, but to give some idea of how long it took – the Cloth Hall was not finished until 1962.
The final Aftermath image this week comes from the same collection of stereo cards and the caption for it states the photograph was taken at Langemarck, one of the Flemish villages heavily fought over near Ypres during the Great War.
On close examination of the image it is clear the tank is a Mark IV Female – armed with machine-guns – and the legend ‘B4’ is painted on it which identifies the tank as being part of the 2nd (‘B’) Battalion Tank Corps.
Research online at the Landships website shows that tank B4 was lost in the fighting north of Inverness Copse on 23rd August 1917. Commanded by 2/Lt P.C.Chambers it first broke down, was repaired, and then moved up only to be hit and burnt out – evidence of the battle damage is clear on the photo. Chambers got out and survived Third Ypres only to be killed on the Somme in 1918.
This tank formed part of the famous ‘Tank Graveyard‘ close to Clapham Junction, which remained a tourist attraction well into the 1920s and 30s. Here the hulks of tanks knocked out in 1917 littered the ground where they had bogged, been disabled or knocked out.
Nearly a century after the Great War it is hard for modern battlefield visitors to imagine what a desolate wasteland the battlefields were immediately after the war. In areas like Flanders and the Somme nothing was left after four years of war; buildings were dust, ground was polluted by gas and the battlefields overgrown with war detritus scattered everywhere.
The journey made by the unknown photographer who took these stereo card images featured over the past couple of weeks was quite something in 1920 and this image shows the sort of landscape he had to deal with. His car has paused on an old battlefield trackway. These paths were created by men of the Labour Corps to allow movement across the devastated zone and were usually made of wood planking or railway sleepers. The sleeps were often covered with hessian material so that those using it had some degree of traction. By 1920 many were still in use as the only ways to cross areas where the fighting had been at its greatest.
The caption for this image reads ‘Mametz Wood‘ – one of the key areas of fighting on the Somme in both 1916 and 1918 and where in July 1916 the 38th (Welsh) Division suffered heavy casualties in their first major battle of the Great War.
Continuing with the series of post-WW1 stereo cards showing the battlefields as they were in the early 1920s
The Ypres Cloth Hall was one of the medieval gems of Europe prior to 1914. It has once been the centre of the European cloth trade and home to numerous stalls selling cloth from across the globe. This trade had made Ypres rich, wealthy enough to fund its own Vauban designed defences during the long periods of conflict that followed.
During the Great War the Cloth Hall came under fire during the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 and then caught fire the same November. Some, but not all, of its many treasures were saved and gradually by 1918 it was reduced to rubble as every shell from 77m up to 420mm naval shells fell on it at some point. Only the central tower stood proud, but that in ruins and two years after the end of the war we see it in this photograph pretty much in the same state it was at the end of the conflict. The howitzer was one of several war trophies on display in the main square at this time and appears to be a German 150mm howitzer. The photographers son is once again used for scale, as he sits on the gun.
Ypres was gradually rebuilt, using the original medieval plans, but it took time – the Cloth Hall was not finished, for example, until the early 1960s. Today it houses the council offices and the In Flanders Fields Museum.
This post-war stero-card shows some of the ruins of central Ypres in 1920. In fact it shows some of the rubble and walls of the Cloth Hall with one of the Menin Gate lions in front. The sign among the rubble reads:
THIS IS HOLY GROUND.
NO STONE OF THIS FABRIC MAY BE TAKEN AWAY,
IT IS A HERITAGE FOR ALL CIVILISED PEOPLES.
It was at this time that the future of Ypres was still under discussion; Winston Churchill put forward the idea of preserving it in its wartime state and foresting the old battlefields. The people of Belgium rightly wanted their land back and did not want to reside inside a museum so this never happened, but the rebuilding of the city was not complete until the 1960s.
Aerial images of the Great War give an insight into the conflict only matched by the panoramas taken at ground level by the Royal Engineers. Aerial imagery was made by the Royal Flying Corps using cameras normally fixed to the side of the aircraft and developed with the print being the same size as the very large glass negative, giving it incredible resolution. Such images are often so clear that even human beings can be picked out on some photographs.
This image taken of the Bellewaarde Ridge in July 1917 – just prior to the Third Battle of Ypres – shows the level of destruction in the Ypres Salient by this time. Part of the old Menin Road is visible cutting across the lower part of the image, along with a massive network of trenches and thousands of shell craters. In the top left-hand corner the mine craters on the ridge can be seen; many of these date back to tunnelling operations here in 1915 and 1916, and some still survive today.
More than another year of war was to come after this image was taken so that by the end of 1918 the whole landscape around the city of Ypres was a vast wilderness of shell holes and smashed ground where no-one lived again until well into the early 1920s. Only from the air can that true level of destruction really be grasped.
Yesterday we saw the Menin Gate as it was before the Great War; the Menin Gate was by far the best known exit from the centre of Ypres during the war but in fact arguably the most used was in fact the Lille Gate, pictured here in a British stereo image in 1919.
The Lille Gate dates back to the 14th Century and was so named as it was on the main route to Lille. During the Great War the Ramparts close by were used as headquarters – at one stage for Tunnelling units – and there was also medical facilities and a cemetery grew up on the Ramparts itself – one of several on the city walls. After the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915 the Menin Gate was in direct observation from the high ground around Ypres and so the Lille Gate became the main route to get to the front line for troops passing through Ypres.
Today the Menin Gate is world famous as one of the most important British and Commonwealth memorials to the missing; here each night the Last Post is sounded in memory of all those who fell. But few have seen images of what it looked like before the war.
This unusual view is taken from where many modern visitors take photographs of the memorial; across the moat and looking back. In 1913 the Menin Gate was a gap in the Ramparts guarded by two Flemish Lions and took the traveller out of Ypres and onto the Menin Road; thus the name. Little known is that there was a pub set in the gap that was the Menin Gate (sadly civilians were killed in it by shell fire in the early years of the war, their bodies not found until the memorial was built in the 20s) – and the roof of it is just visible. The two lions can be seen to the right of the moat bridge; both of these survived the war but were given to Australia in 1936 and today are in the collection of the Australian War Memorial.
It is hard to believe that within a year of this photograph being taken Ypres was on the front line and the Menin Gate became one of the most famous – infamous – locations on the Western Front. The peace seen here would be lost forever and the name the Menin Gate would take on a new meaning as a place of remembrance and sacrifice.
Polderhoek was a small hamlet north of the Menin Road close to the village of Gheluvelt and not far from Polygon Wood. It saw fighting during the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 and then remained in German hands until after the end of Third Ypres in 1917; by that time the whole area was a lunar landscape.
Polderhoek Chateau was a medium sized chateau for this area. Little is known about it’s pre-war history but it appears to have been taken over as a headquarters and later a dressing station. This image dates from 1915 when the building had come under British shell fire – the amount of shrapnel damage to the building is evident by the impact marks on the walls.
During the Third Battle of Ypres it had been captured but then re-taken. Men from the New Zealand Division fought a tough and often forgotten battle here in December 1917; most of the dead from this battle are commemorated on the memorial at Buttes New British Cemetery. After the war the owners of the château never returned and thus it was not rebuilt. Today the whole area is covered in an industrial zone.
We had a Somme week last week and we begin this week with a Flanders themed series of posts.
This image shows men of the 1/5th Battalion London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade) on the eve of leaving for Flanders in November 1914. They are already in the winter garb that would serve them well in the trenches of Flanders. Their war would take them first to the village of Ploegsteert – ‘Plugstreet’ to the British Tommy. In a typically flat lying area of Flanders, the trenches here were half trenches and half breastworks – positions built above ground level – and they soon became clogged with water and mud as winter set in. A brief respite came on Christmas Day 1914 when the men of the London Rifle Brigade took part in the now famous Christmas Truce and came out of their trenches into No Man’s Land for the first time since they had arrived at Plugstreet.
All but one of the men in this photo survived Plugstreet but the 1/5th Londons were very much a Middle Class battalion and several were commissioned and died as officers. But caught in time these ‘mud men of Flanders’ about to enter winter quarters south of Ypres looked relaxed, calm and prepared – at least for the weather.
In the years between the First and Second World Wars thousands travelled to the battlefields in France and Flanders. Many were the families of those who had fallen, but some were also veterans of the war, going back to make sense of their past and perhaps pay their respects to an old comrade who hadn’t come home. Several of the veterans I interviewed had gone back in the 20s/30s and said it was hard even then to find some of the places they had known. Two veterans expressed their feelings in the poem The Road To La Bassée:
You’d never think there’d been a war, the country’s looking fine –
I had a job in places picking out the old front line.
You’d never think there’d been a war – ah, yet you would, I know,
You can’t forget those rows of headstones every mile or so.
This photograph from the 1930s shows one such veteran, at New Irish Farm Cemetery, close to Ypres. He looks down on a row of graves of two Royal Welch Fusiliers, a Machine-Gunner and an Irish Rifleman. Which one was the grave he had come to see? Was it a family member or a comrade he had left behind on the battlefield? We will never know, but it was clearly a defining moment for him, and one he wanted to recall by having the visit photographed. This is not a tourist snap; it is an insight into loss, regret and no doubt a little guilt, at having survived when this man did not. What was passing through his mind as he looked down on the white stone? The beauty of a simple image that poses more questions than it answers.
The 8th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment was a Pioneer battalion raised in Sussex in 1914. While many Pioneer units were raised in the Midlands and North of England where the male population was often used to hard physical labour and made excellent army Pioneers, those that lived and worked in Britain’s rural communities were found just as suitable. The men who joined this battalion in September 1914 were largely drawn from the rural towns and villages of West Sussex and were older than the average recruit; men in their late 20s and into their 30s. They trained at Colchester and then went to France in July 1915 as Pioneers to the 18th (Eastern) Division.
This photograph was taken in Belgium in the autumn of 1917; it is one of a number I have all with the same farm buildings in the background which were typical of the sort of structures found in the area around Poperinghe. The 8th Royal Sussex spent some time here in 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres and it appears they invited a local photographer to take pictures of the whole battalion platoon by platoon, judging by the different examples I have. Unfortunately these images were not named, so while we know when and where the photo was taken, and what unit it was, we have no idea who these men were: a frustratingly common problem with Great War images.
When the early pilgrims to the Ypres battlefields in Flanders began to arrive from 1919, with a war shattered town and landscape finding accommodation for them was something of a problem; many stayed in nearby Bruges, Ghent or Ostend and motored down.
A testimony to the huge influx of visitors is shown in this image which is of the Hotel Excelsior in Ypres from around 1922. The ruined city was in its early stages of being rebuilt and this became one of the first substantial temporary buildings constructed, close to the railway station.
Battlefield pilgrims could stay here in basic rooms and as can be seen from the front of the hotel, it became a hive of activity for taxis and other touring vehicles who from 1920 onwards began to offer guided tours of the battlefields. Another reminder that the modern battlefield tour industry is far from new.
When the civilian population returned after the Great War the villages, towns and landscapes they had known were reduced to rubble or a mass of shell holes. In the immediate post-war period no-one lived in any of the villages around Ypres; during the day the people returned to their communities to salvage and begin the rebuilding process and at night they slept in Ypres. One writer described the ‘ghostly silence’ on the battlefields after dark, in stark contrast to the war years.
This image from 1921 shows an old railway sleeper track running through what had been Chateau Wood, close to the hamlet of Hooge on the Menin Road. The overgrown by devastated nature of the ground is obvious, and the destritus of war not far away; several shells are visibile, all minus their copper driving bands and brass fuses – quite likely removed by civilians like those in the photo trying to make a small living from the scrap.
In most battlefield areas the serious rebuilding did not begin until 1922/23, which meant that the people in this photograph lived a very primitive existence, often in old wooden army huts, for several years until their shattered communities rose from the ashes.
The Chinese Labour Corps were formed in 1916; by this stage of the war the British were running low on manpower to provide labour work behind the lines – everything from building to unloading/loading stores and equipment. Manpower was found in every corner of the British Empire but it was still not enough, so following the example of the French, the British government recruited men direct from China under a form of contract to provide the labour required. More than 100,000 served in the Chinese Labour Corps, the first men setting sail from China in January 1917. Before the Armistice they only served off the battlefield, with a handful of casualties caused by shell fire. They suffered badly with Influenza in 1918/19 but were kept in France and Flanders to help clear up the battlefields once the war was over. The last men of the Corps returned to China in 1920, although some took their discharge in Europe and descendants still live close to the some of the old battlefields. Nearly 2,000 men of the Chinese Labour Corps died and are buried in WW1 Cemeteries.
I bought this image along with several others at a street market in Kemmel, Belgium, back in the early 1990s. They were in a box of old postcards found in a Belgian house. This image shows a group of NCOs sitting in front, with some workers from the Corps behind. It gives a good idea of the uniforms and badges worn by the Corps, and the setting is a ruined building in Flanders where this team is helping to clear the battlefield of munitions and the detritus of war, along with recovering the dead for burial in the cemeteries.
When I was buying the postcards an elderly Belgian gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the images. “Chinese.”, he said, “Very dangerous!” They certainly look a very tough group!
Welcome to Great War Photos, a new Blog/Website by Paul Reed. The site opens in January 2012 in the countdown to the Great War Centenary in 2014 and I will be using it to showcase some of the thousands of Great War images I have collected over more than 30 years. For many of them it will be the first time they have been published.
The site will be regularly publicised via my Twitter feed and you can also subscribe to it. Over the next couple of years at least one new photo will be added each month, and then between 2014 and 2018 the site will be much more active.
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