In mid-September Erich von Falkenhayn, German Chief of the General Staff, considered his options for pursuing the war. Still believing that a successful conclusion was possible on the Western Front more rapidly than against Russia, he planned to threaten Britain by securing Belgian ports for use by German submarines and possibly capturing the British army embarkation cities of Calais and Dunkerque. He therefore moved the Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria’s Sixth Army from its initial positions in Alsace and new Fourth Army, under command of Duke Albrecht of Wurttemberg, into the open German right flank.
Général Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, and Sir John French, commander of British Forces, agreed that the BEF should relocate from the Aisne to Flanders. Two French territorial divisions completed the line between Bikschote and the Belgian Army at Diksmuide.
The Ypres Salient is one of the more heavily commemorated battlefields of the world due to the enormous sacrifices endured by both sides during four years of the most exhausting trench warfare. From Armentiéres to Nieuwpoort, opposing forces suffered one million casualties. Over 145 military cemeteries dot the countryside, memorial stones to units and individuals appear everywhere, and even a few permanent fortifications in the form of concrete blockhouses remain. Since the fighting raged back and forth over the same ground, memorials to units and battlefield sites become intermixed.
A ‘Virtual Battlefield Tour’ from Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium
On 7 October 1914, advance parties of German cavalry and cyclists (reconnaissance troops using bicycles) entered the city and levied a large fine on the townspeople. They occupied the city for three days before moving elsewhere. Although threatened during the German Lys Offensive in 1918, German troops would not enter the city ramparts again until 1940.
Major damage occurred in the spring of 1915, when the Germans moved up their super heavy artillery, including the 420-mm gun known as ‘Dicke Bertha’ (Big Bertha) in preparation for the Second Battle of Ypres. By the end of the war most of the city’s buildings had received substantial damage; many were completely destroyed.
The Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) stands on the café-lined central square (Grote Markt) and still commands a central place in the life of the city’s inhabitants. Although the original was started in 1201 by Baldwin IX, Count of Flanders, the massive Gothic structure was not completed until 1304. It was used as a warehouse and auction centre for the local textile industry, which converted English wool into fine cloth. At that time, the Ieperlee River extended directly to the hall where the loading and unloading of material took place. Used as a billet for British army troops and possibly as an observation point, it hence attracted German artillery fire. The first bombardment of the Cloth Hall took place in October 1914, with incendiary shells igniting the building on 22 November 1914. The shelling continued sporadically for the next four years. The hall was almost completely destroyed, with only sections of the exterior wall surviving. The townspeople insisted upon reconstructing the hall to its original design, but with the interruption of the Second World War, the building was not completed until 1958. It now houses some municipal offices, a very helpful tourist office, and the main Ypres battle museum called ‘In Flanders Fields.’ The 70-meter belfry houses a forty-nine bell carillon.
Cloth Hall (50.85096,2.88551)
Grote Markt 34
B - 8900 Ieper
Tel: +32 (0)57 239 220
Open weekdays from 09:00 to 17:00; weekends from 10:00 to 17:00.
A Memorial Plaque to French Soldiers who died in the defenses of the region of Ypres is attached to the Cloth Hall near the entrance door. (50.8511,2.885609)
Besides presenting memorabilia of the Great War, In Flanders Fields brings the experiences of the combatants alive with audiovisual displays, short movies, and the unique assignment of a real wartime identity to each visitor. The museum reopened in 1998 after a complete renovation and it is the logical starting place for Ypres battlefield tours. All materials are in four languages.
In Flanders Fields Museum (50.85096,2.88551)
Lakenhallen - Grote Markt 34
B - 8900 Ieper
Open every day from 1 April to 15 November from 10:00 to 18:00; and from 16 November to 31 March every day except Monday from 10:00 to 17:00. The museum is closed during the first three weeks following the Christmas holidays. Fee.
The metal and stone Memorial to Belgian Soldiers commemorates those who died in defense of their country in both World Wars. (50.850806,2.884348)
Directly behind the Cloth Hall is Sint-Maartenskathedraal, which was started as a fortress chapel for the Count of Flanders’ residence. Some of the existing piers around the ambulatory date from 1251. Although almost completely destroyed during the war, it was rebuilt to original specifications (although the original square tower was converted into a spire). The church is wonderfully colored with plaques that bear the coats of arms of various organizations adorning the walls, and its rose window is a British memorial to Belgian King Albert I. St-Martin is marvelously maintained and decorated with wood engravings and artwork. The cathedral holds plaques to the memories of French soldiers (north transept) and British soldiers (south transept) who died in the war. (50.851705,2.884303)
Open except during Masses and between 12:00 to 14:00.
The Celtic Cross dedicated to the Royal Munster Fusiliers stands in a square behind the cathedral. The cross was erected shortly after the war by the people of Munster and especially its capital city, Cork. (50.852238,2.885378)
Across the street and on Elverdingestraat is the smaller, more modern St George’s Church. After the war the town was flooded with British visitors hoping to find remains of lost loved ones, ex-soldiers revisiting the fields of their memories, and workers constructing memorials and cemeteries. The British community constructed their own church, and over time the walls became lined with plaques dedicated to the memory of units or individuals who fought in the salient. Every chair has a cross-stitched kneeling pad with emblems of the fighting units, forming a colorful array across the church. (50.852259,2.88286)
Open daily April through September from 09:30 to 20:00; October through March from 09:30 to 16:30.
The Menin Gate was originally a gateway through the Vauban-designed fortifications, but by the nineteenth century its military importance had been reduced by modern artillery. The gate was replaced with a road opening marked by two stone lions through the ramparts, which were gradually converted into public gardens. Through this passage marched many of the soldiers who participated in the Ypres battles. After the war, a triumphal arch 25 meters high and 41 meters long was constructed with the intent to inscribe the names of the thousands of soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies were never found. The arch now presents the names of 54,896 of the missing on panels completely covering its interior walls and stairways. The designers ran out of space, and all those missing after 15 August 1917 are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
At 20:00 every evening since 1928 (except during the German occupation of the Second World War), the local fire brigade’s buglers have presented a tribute to the missing by blowing ‘The Last Post.’ The brief ceremony is usually heavily attended by visitors and schoolchildren, who frequently read short poems and present wreaths of poppies in one of the most moving commemorations on the Western Front. No admission charge. (50.851988,2.890802)
The Ramparts Museum must be unique in the history of museums as it is entered through an English pub; it appears to be inhabited by ex-Rugby players who ask visitors for the latest scores as they enter. Pay the admission fee to the bartender, walk through the pub, across the back courtyard, and the bartender allows admission into the museum. The displays are a recreation of life in the trenches during WWI with various manikins and displays behind glass. You walk over duckboard between walls that are lined with wooden timbers and sandbags. (50.844531,2.890161)
Lille Gate was a major route out of Ypres toward the battlefields to the south. This exit was more secure than the Menin Gate as it was not under observation by German gunners until the troops enter Shrapnel Corner visible to the south. The doorways on either side provided access to the rampart casemates, which were more protected dugouts during German artillery shelling. (50.844352,2.890249)
Ramparts Cemetery is located atop the old city ramparts near the Lille Gate. The cemetery was started by French soldiers, but soon taken over by British burials dating between 1915 and 1918. The cemetery now contains 198 Commonwealth burials. The French graves have been removed. (50.844481,2.889681)
Le Leeuwentorn, or Lion Tower, is a medieval tower dating from 1383 with the top half blown away. The stone and brick tower was a much used observation point during the war. (50.844306,2.887395)
Ypres Reservoir Cemetery originally was the burial ground for the Advanced dressing Station located near the town prison. The cemetery was expanded after the war to accommodate burials from the western sections of Ypres. The large grounds now hold the bodies of 2,613 Commonwealth soldiers; slightly over one thousand of the burials are unidentified. (50.853468,2.876672)
Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium