I have always had a fascination with the First World War and I am very drawn to books and TV shows set around that time, so when we decided to visit Belgium, one of the top priorities for me was to visit Ypres. The grainy old images of the destruction of Ypres are iconic. Not a single building was left standing in Ypres by the end of the war.
It saw some of the most intense and bloody fighting of the whole of the war. The fact that the people of Ypres who were forced to become refugees as a result of the war not only then returned but re-built the town so beautifully is a real testament to the spirit of the Belgian people.
And it has been re-built beautifully. The town appears to be another charming and quaint medieval town.
This is because at they made the decision to re-build it exactly as it was before. Apparently Churchill was against this decision and believed that the town should be left in ruins as a permanent reminder of the Great War. But the reminders remain, and for anyone with an interest in the War, this is what we did:
1. In Flanders Field Museum
This is one of the best museums I have ever been to. I find it difficult to believe that there is any better museum dealing with World War One.
Housed in the Cloth Market, the museum is right in the centre of the town. The entry fee is €8 and you pay an additional €1 for a wristband to allow you to access the wifi exhibits. You can have your €1 returned when you hand the wrist band back in at the end, or like Jim & I you can keep the wristband as a souvenir. If you enter your details on the computer at the top of the stairs using your wristband, you can find out how many people with your surname died during the war, and personalised stories will be shown to you at wifi points which you can choose to have emailed to you at the end. I must have done something wrong, because none of my stories were that personal and I never did find out how many Lawsons had died in the war, but it worked for Jim – he was shown stories of people from his local area.
The museum is incredibly informative and also very moving. Some parts of it are shocking. It is all set out over one level, but for an additional fee you can also climb the bell tower.
There was so much to see within the museum, we really took our time going round all of the exhibits and spent about 2 hours there in the end. I think that was about the right amount of time needed and luckily, it was quite quiet when we were there.
2. Menin Gate
The Menin Gate is the permanent memorial for British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. It is breathtaking for the sheer number of names carved into the wall.
There are 54,896 names inscribed in the Menin Gate, and a further 35,000 that wouldn’t fit are on a separate memorial at the Tyne Cot cemetery. It was nice to see that some of the names on the wall had poppies pinned against them with little messages – they will have been left by a generation that never knew the relative that fought and died, but it is touching that they have never been forgotten.
At 8pm every evening, the traffic is stopped and the Last Post is sounded at the Menin Gate as a tribute to those who died.
3. The Ramparts and the Ramparts Cemetery
From the Menin Gate, you can walk up onto the ramparts. We followed the ramparts around to the Ramparts Cemetery.
This is by no means a large cemetery – but it is very peaceful with all of the neat white graves facing towards the canal.
Some of these graves had personal messages and markers left by them. All of the graves of soldiers from New Zealand had silver feathers placed on top, and the Canadian graves all had little flags with messages on them created by school children.
For the first time in Belgium, Jim & I were a little inhibited by the fact that we decided not to drive. Outside of Ypres there are numerous other sites and cemeteries that we would have liked to visit. In particular, I would like to have visited Tyne Cot cemetery, which is the largest and is so named by the Northumberland Fusiliers who said that the German bunkers on the opposite trenches looked like Tyneside cottages. I think with a bit more time and forward planning, we probably could have incorporated a visit to the sites outside Ypres. Tours are available from the town, but we arrived too late to join one.
Is there anything else to Ypres?
If anyone who is actually from Ypres reads this post, I imagine that would be quite frustrated with me at this point. After all, I do get frustrated by the general view that there is not much more to Newcastle than binge drinking and football, and I’m sure that there is much more to Ypres than WW1.
The fact is that Jim & I went to Ypres because of my interest in the war. I don’t think we would have made the 90 minute journey from Brussels otherwise. But Ypres is also a real town in which real people live their lives in the 21st century and so for that fact alone it is more than just a war memorial. Right outside the Cloth Hall, the fair was in town. Although we tucked into frites for a quick lunch, there seemed to be some really nice bars and restaurants facing out onto the lovely re-constructed medieval square. We also found a nice park for a picnic (though we couldn’t find any food shops so we had to abandon that idea). Even if you don’t visit the cemetery on the ramparts, following the ramparts path around the town is a really easy walk with some good views.
I would urge everyone visiting Belgium to go to Ypres – In Flanders Field Museum makes it worth the journey alone. But if I went back, I would definitely try to spend more time looking for the “modern” Ypres. After all, the fact that generations of people have lived, worked and loved in Ypres since it was so utterly destroyed is surely the best memorial of all.
- Ypres and the battlefields of the Salient (thegreatescapesblog.wordpress.com)
- Ypres (July 29) (caseygoestoeurope.wordpress.com)