Conflict had revolved in and around the Flemish city of Ypres for centuries. During the Great War it was laid-waste by four years of bombardments and this once ‘medieval gem’ was reduced to rubble. Rebuilt using the original plans in the 1920s and 30s, the city had literally risen from the dust. Life had returned to normal and the beauty of the city had been restored, although some buildings like the Cloth Hall had not entirely been finished by 1939.
It is hard for us to imagine what the people of Ypres must have felt therefore when war ravaged the city once more in May 1940. As fighting took place around Ypres between British and German forces, shells landed in the city centre. Buildings were not being particularly targeted but troop movements drew shell-fire, just as they had done in the Great War. And as such shells struck the buildings where those movements were taking place.
This image was taken by a German soldier just after his unit entered Ypres in May 1940. It shows the north side of the main square with the Hotel t’Zweerd on the right and a building that today is a bank. It is typical of some of the punishment meted out to Ypres at this time. Below the same German soldier photographed the exit from Ypres towards Poperinghe, which in WW1 had been ‘Bridge Number 10’. The moat bridge over the Ypres-Comines canal had been blown by British engineers, leaving quite a mess.
Several Great War battlefields were fought over once again in May and June 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg broke in the West and the Nazi war machine overwhelmed country after country ending with the Battle of France. Flanders became a battlefield once more when German troops engaged British units around the city in May 1940, as they pulled back to the coast and Dunkirk.
During WW2 many German soldiers carried their own cameras off to war. Camera ownership was very high in Germany in the 1930s and many German soldiers had grown up with photography. During the conflict they took millions of images, often right on the ground where the fighting was taking place.
This photo shows a crew from a German Pak 36 anti-tank gun set up on the Menin Road in May 1940 at what during the Great War had been called ‘Clapham Junction‘. Beyond the hedge just behind the crew was ‘Stirling Castle’. Just over twenty years before this whole area had been a moonscape, resounding to the sound of shell-fire. Once more guns roared on the Menin Road and one of the German crew had a minute to stop and photograph the 18th (Eastern) Division Memorial that was close to the same junction (below).
As some readers of my work will know I lived on the Somme for a decade. Aside from being surrounded by a wealth of history and battlefields, during that time the Old Front Line was literally on my doorstep as every time I tilled the kitchen garden shrapnel balls and bullets came up. In the village people brought us items unearthed by their ploughs and one day someone turned up with the remains of a Canadian soldier who had been found in the sunken lane behind our house. The archaeology of Great War was very vivid during that time and for six months of this year I found myself reliving some of that as I once again explored beneath the battlefields of the Western Front with my old friend, television producer John Hayes-Fisher.
This time our work brought us to Messines in Flanders, part of the Ypres Salient. Here for four years the front went from a war of movement to static trenches, gas, tanks and mine warfare: Messines was almost a microcosm of the whole Great War. Here we followed a project being undertaken by a group of professional archaeologists from Belgian Ordnance Clearance Company ADeDe. Headed up by Simon Verdegem, a young archaeologists with a passion for the Great War who had previously worked on digs such as the A19 Project, his team planned to work one step ahead of a major development: the placement of a massive water pipe and drainage system around the village of Messines. This would take them across several square kilometres of battlefield, making it the biggest professional dig on the Western Front in many years, perhaps ever.
We spent our six months in Flanders Fields following Simon and his team unearth a whole array of different trench systems: from communication trenches, to fighting trenches to infantry shelters and even concrete bunkers. This included one of the deepest intact trenches ever found in Flanders and along with it an amazing array of personal artefacts. The work was not without its dangers and a team of bomb disposal experts were continually on-hand to remove dangerous ordnance prior to its recovery.
The upcoming series on Channel 5 entitled ‘WW1 Tunnels of Death’ will give people an insight into what this fascinating and unique project has uncovered, and the story is assisted by numerous Great War experts such as Alex Churchill, Professor Peter Doyle, Josh Levine, Major Alexander Turner and David Whithorn. Two other versions have been made for BBC Worldwide and Arte, and there is also a US Version for the PBS Channel. The Channel 5 version will be shown at 20.00 on 8th and 15th November 2012.
It was a fascinating year back on and beneath the Old Front Line; we found ourselves in trenches, dugouts and tunnels, and looking at items that had not seen the light of day for nearly a century. But it wasn’t just about artefacts; during the dig the remains of a Commonwealth soldier was found and he will later be buried in one of the nearby cemeteries. He was one of thousands who lived and died in those trenches and dugouts we explored; voices now silent, and it is only the landscape and what lies beneath which can still bear fresh testimony to the story that was the First World War.
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.
Motorised transport was an essential part of any army in 1914, but very much in the minority compared the much greater amount of horse transport each nation put onto the battlefield. The British Army of 1914 lacked a great deal of it, so following the outbreak of war and by the time of the First Battle of Ypres, the War Office had commandeered a number of London motor buses along with their drivers, who became part of the Army Service Corps. These buses – which soon became known as ‘Old Bill Buses‘ with a reference to Bairnsfather’s Old Bill character – were photographed during First Ypres still painted in their London colours but by 1915 they were army green, with boarded up windows.
This image shows British troops waiting to board a series of buses to take them to a rest area somewhere in Flanders in 1915. The two men with their backs to the camera are officers, and their kit and the fact they are carrying rifles, reflects the changes that wartime conditions were enforcing; officers now had to try and look like the men to avoid being sniped. The ‘MT ASC’ white signage can be seen on the bus showing how they had now become standard equipment for some of the Mechanical Transport units of the Army Service Corps. One of the crew stands in the rear door, perhaps as he had done as a conductor in the days of peace.
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.
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.
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.