In the years following the end of the Great War the civilian population that had once lived in the towns and villages on the former battlegrounds began to return. In the immediate area around Ypres the villages were uninhabitable for the first couple of years, so people lived in Ypres at night and went to work on their former homes during the day; clearing detritus and rubble in preparation for a rebuild.
This image shows one of the temporary communities for such people. The provisional wooden housing was put in place until permanent residences could be rebuilt, in most cases at least 3-4 years after the war was over.
This aerial image dates from 1916 and shows the centre of Ypres around the ruins of the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral as it was at that point in the war – but in this case covered in a thick blanket of snow. The main square is in the centre of the photograph and towards the centre top is the road leading up to the Menin Gate and the Ypres Ramparts. It offers a very different and compelling image of Ypres, only half way through the conflict, but yet already very much in ruins.
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.
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.
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.