Today, the town of Ypres in Belgian’s West Flanders region is ultimately defined by a single event in its history – the First World War. Situated by the French border, Ypres saw some of the largest and most devastating battles of the war from 1914 to 1918. Visiting Ypres, it’s unlikely you’ll come across much that isn’t related to this bloody period in history. In many ways, the town has becoming a living memorial to the 185,000 Commonwealth lives lost during the Great War.
When planning my visit to Ypres, I was definitely overly ambitious. I had a grand plan to see everything the Belgian town had to offer but also explore its surrounding areas. In reality, my day trip to the town was full of fascinating sightseeing but simply not long enough. Now after visiting Ypres, or Ieper in Dutch, I know just how much there is to see and why you should in all seriousness allow a couple of days. To give you a start with your planning, here’s what there is to see in the town of Ypres.
Ypres and its History
First of all, let’s talk about Ypres’ history during the First World War. It only makes sense given how much the event shaped the town. As war broke out in Europe in 1914, Belgium elected to remain neutral. This decision did them little good when they were invaded by the Germans on August 4th. Having only started to develop a professional army in 1909, they provided little deference and soon relied on French and British assistance. By September the German advance had been halted, only after significance loss and destruction.
Unfortunately for Ypres’ sake, it would find itself wedged between fronts and in a precarious position. It was also an important strategic target that would enable the Germans to progress down into France. The town was shelled by German artillery from October 1914 onwards. Not a single building would be left standing by the end of 1917. By May 1915 the town had been completely evacuated and all of the local inhabitants had abandoned the town.
The First Battle of Ypres occurred form 22nd October to the 22nd November 1914, resulting in both armies getting entrenched across the area that would later be known as the Ypres Salient. The Second Battle of Ypres reignited the conflict in April and May of 2015 and led to gas attacks being used by both the Germans and British. With no real ground won or lost, the conflict stagnated until July 1917 with the Third Battle of Ypres. This time mine warfare was involved and while used effectively by the British, resulted in a devastating German offensive that took 400,000 British lives in 4 months! The final battle was the German Spring Offensive of April 1918, as the Germans were reinforced by men moved off the Eastern Front with Russia.
In the end, Ypres was never taken by German forces during the Great War. It did however get reduced to a pile of rubble after 4 long years of combat and shelling. It is said that by the end of the war, 185,000 Commonwealth lives were lost in the Ypres Salient. The bloody history of Ypres spanned the entire First World War and with so many soldiers laying down their lives to protect this patch of soil in West Flanders, it makes sense that Brits, Australians and New Zealanders would come to pay their respects.
It’s pretty likely that people’s first stop when visiting Ypres is going to be its main square. The Grote Markt, as it’s called in Dutch, is very much the heart and centre of the town. But perhaps that title should more specifically go to the immense and ornate Cloth Hall that dominates the square. When I arrived in the square it was pouring rain as it is want to do in Belgium, but that couldn’t distract me from the sight of the Cloth Hall.
Finished in 1304, the building served as a market and warehouse for merchants. Like a severe amount of the town, the Cloth Hall was nearly completely destroyed during the First World War. Over the span of 30 years the building was carefully rebuilt to mirror its pre-war appearance. Today the magnificent building houses both the Tourist Centre as well as the renowned In Flanders Field Museum.
In Flanders Fields Museum
Without any exaggeration, a trip to Ypres would be incomplete without a visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum. Simply put, it is one of the most engaging, informative and remarkable museums to which I’ve ever been. I spent over 2.5 hours within the museum and it easily would have been longer if I didn’t have other things to see in town. That it has pride of place within the town’s great Cloth Hall also says something about its importance.
It owes its name to the famous war poem by John McCrae, a Canadian doctor and soldier. The museum does a wonderful job of explaining the First World War in comprehensive, but accessible detail. It covers everything from the geopolitical alliances that existed before the war began all the way to its aftermath and influences. The exhibits of the museum were refurbished and modernised in 2012.
Access is given throughout the museum by a small wristband in the shape of a poppy. The wristband lets you interact with various audiovisual displays and if you register your nationality at the start it will try to tailor certain displays to that nationality.
The exhibits in the museum are broken up chronologically, first taking you through the wider events prior to the First World War, before delving into the specific battles that took place in Ypres. While there are displays that go through the series of events and battles that occurred, other displays focus on particular elements of the war including propaganda posters and military reconnaissance.
One display that particularly caught my eye was the section on chemical warfare, as Ypres was effectively a testing ground for the Germans’ Chlorine Gas. That the weapon’s sole tactical purpose was to create terror speaks to the true horrors of war. The museum does a respectable job at informing and detailing the events of the First World War without glorifying it in any way.
An obvious benefit of the modern refurbishment of the museum is the sheer volume of audiovisual displays on offer. This doesn’t mean they’ve traded style for substance however, because they are skillfully used to build up on the information provided. From stories about figures involved in the war to photographs from the time, the displays are done in a one-on-one manner. Additionally, each area has its own subtle but moving audio backdrop, which lends to the atmosphere of the exhibits.
One of the more engrossing parts of the museum are the recordings of actors portraying people across an array of roles and nationalities. These performances are downright haunting and captivating, with often over a dozen people watching them in dead silence. They were usually letters and journals being read aloud and there’s even a thorough look at the Christmas Truce from various perspectives. I really can’t commend the museum enough for these displays.
As if the permanent exhibits of the museum weren’t enough, there is also a wing dedicated to the museum’s temporary exhibits. When I visited they had a cleverly arranged exhibit called ‘The War in Writing‘. It examined texts that were created because of the war, but also ones that provoke contemplation on the role of war. Throughout the exhibit were tables and sofa areas with attached multilingual copies of literature, basically making one giant reading room.
At this stage my time was starting to run short, so I was only able to spend a short while here. As I understand, the current temporary exhibit is ‘1917 Total War in Flanders‘ which runs from June until the end of the year (2017).
Opening hours of the museum differ between peak and off-season, but generally is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am – 5pm (and longer in summer). Entry costs 9€ for adults, 5€ for young adults (19-25) and 4€ for children under 18. While I again didn’t have time, there is the possibility to venture up the Belfry tower which costs an additional 2€. Full information can be found on the Ypres Tourism site.
Cafes and Restaurants
After spending so long exploring the exhibits of the museum, you’re bound to be hungry and looking for a break. Stepping out onto the Main Square, you’ll find plenty cafes, restaurants and brasseries to choose from. Famished after the museum, I tried the Kollebloeme Brasserie on the Grote Markt and had a filling, but late lunch. Early in the day, I’d also visited the Old Tom Brasserie for a coffee and really enjoyed its atmosphere (and of course the coffee). I quite liked that the pendant lights were in the shape of bowler hats and its art choices felt oddly fitting for Ypres.
Given the nature of Ypres’ history, it’s no surprise that the city has a number of memorials to the fallen soldiers of Britain and the Commonwealth. Since the town was effectively evacuated by the locals, you’ll notably find mostly foreign remembrances. While there are statues and plaques scattered about, to me it is the Ypres Memorial on the corner of the Grote Markt that is the most touching and evocative, with the exception of the next landmark.
Ypres’ most famous memorial to the casualties of the First World War is the town’s Menin Gate. Built upon the site of a previous medieval gate, stands a giant Roman triumphal arch. The gate is adorned with the names of a staggering 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in the war up until August 15th 1917. Those missing after that date are memorialised at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
I spent quite some time looking through the names of the soldiers endlessly listed, including far too many Australians. For those that have visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, it will have a familiar feeling. Personally, I was trying to find the name of my great-uncle who had fought in Ypres, but later learned he was buried in one of the outer cemeteries.
The Menin Gate is also the location in which the Last Post ceremony has been held daily at 8pm since 1928. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to hear it, but it is an incredibly touching tradition.
An aspect of Ypres of that I was totally unaware, was the stalwart ramparts that protect and surround half the town. For centuries the town was protected by city walls, but in the 17th century things changed. Ypres became a vital defensive town along the French border and the ramparts were built up to make it an immovable and complex series of bastions. There is even a canal moat with islands that sits as a protective buffer before them. The ramparts are the best preserved in all of Belgium and you can learn more about them in the De Kazematten Visitors Centre.
The modern purpose of the ramparts has shifted from defense to recreation, with a long winding 2.6km park built atop them. This walking route along the ramparts is open to the public and wheelchair accessible. Even during the tail end of winter, the park and its bare trees have a welcoming atmosphere to it. The views from on top the ramparts also give you great views down into the moat and across the rooftops of Ypres. Occasionally you come across a clearing with flowers starting to bloom or the remains of towers that belonged to the 14th century ramparts.
A spot that certainly captured my attention was the small Ramparts War Cemetery sitting by the banks of the moat. This gated off cemetery holds graves of Commonwealth soldiers, including a number of maori tombstones. Unfortunately, there was a temporary issue with entry when I was there so I had to be content with peering over its low hedge. Yet another noble, dignified reminder of Ypres’ unfortunate history.
The Ypres Salient
The fighting in the First World War was not restricted solely to the town of Ypres but much of the surrounding countryside. Known as the Ypres Salient, this is where the frontline for the Commonwealth and German forces were and where much of the combat took place. Today, the Ypres Salient is home to a vast number of memorial cemeteries to those that fought and died in the region.
The most well-known is the previously mentioned Tyne Cot Cemetery, where 11,956 graves lie. The cemetery, one of the largest Commonwealth cemeteries in the world, stands where the German frontline once was. After Australian forces took it on October 4th 1914, the first bodies were buried there. Only 3,800 of the 12,000 bodies buried there between 1919 and 1921 were able to be identified. There are also a number of museums in the Salient area, including the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in the village of Zonnebeke and the Museum on the Yser.
My plan to explore the Salient in the afternoon had been to rent a bicycle and cycle out to a site or two. Unfortunately I never really had the time do this but really hope to visit the Salient next time. There are several places you are able to rent bikes in the city centre, the most central of which are Hotel Ambrosia, Chez Marie and Bikingbox Cycletours. Prices for bike rental are pretty even at 15€ for a full day and a little less for a half day.
Brochures on cycling routes can be collected at the tourism office for 2€, but there are a whole bunch of walking, cycling, driving route brochures that can be purchased at Westtoer. For more thorough and stress free trips to the Ypres Salient, you can also look at the many tours on offer. Of course, visits to the region of West Flanders can also look beyond Ypres and the Salient. While there is far too much to name, special mention is warranted for Vleteren and its world’s best Trappist beer.
Hopefully all this information will help ensure you don’t make the same mistake I did in underestimating how long you will need to have an in-depth visit.
- Plan in advance. There’s plenty of information available at the Ypres Tourism and Flanders Fields websites;
- Allow ample time for the In Flanders Fields Museum as it can take you by surprise;
- Remember that the Last Post happens at 8pm so factor that into your dinner/travel plans;
- Get out in to the Salient and drive or cycle to the surrounding sites and cemeteries.
What was your experience like if you’ve been to Ypres? What most appeals to you about this historic Belgian town? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
*Disclosure: I received free tickets from Ypres Tourism to the In Flanders Fields Museum. As always, opinions are my own.
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