The Yser front north of Ypres is a forgotten sector of the Western Front. It linked the Ypres Salient with the Belgian coast and for most of its length the front lines straddled the Yser Canal; with the Belgian Army dug in on the west bank and the Germans on the opposite bank. Nearly 30,000 Belgian soldiers were killed on this front which remained pretty static for most of the Great War until the final offensives of 1918.
This photograph, from a series of stereocards, shows Belgian troops in a typical trench on the Yser front in early 1917. It is a fairly basic straight trench, not zig-zagged for extra protection, and with a basic duckboard floor. The trench is also more of a breastwork than a trench dug in the ground, as this pretty much reflected the flood conditions that prevailed on this part of the front where digging in on the surface was impossible. High sandbag walls protect the trench occupants, two of whom are seen here in typical Belgian uniforms of the period.
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.
While for many Canadians the CEF attack at Vimy Ridge in April 1917 is Canada’s defining moment in the Great War, in many respects the more important period was the final Hundred Days from the Battle of Amiens on 8th August 1918 until the Armistice came into effect on 11th November 1918. During this time four Canadian Divisions fought more than 50 German divisions in the field, and were in action almost every day of that hundred day period, including the last moments of the war when the final British and Empire casualty was a Canadian; George Lawrence Price, who died at 10.58am. Commanded by Sir Arthur Currie the Canadians exemplify the changes in the whole British Expeditionary Force of which they were a part and showed that by 1918 commanders in the field were able to fight and win modern battles, using all arms of service working together in a modern and innovative approach. But while there was success on the battlefield casualties were high; more than 45,000 soldiers of the CEF were killed, wounded or missing at this time.
This image shows an 18-pounder field gun from the Canadian Field Artillery parading through Liege just after the end of the war. After the Canadian capture of Mons on 11th November their forces moved through several Belgian towns and cities and the local population, as this image shows, often came out to greet them.
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.
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.
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.