Ypres was a renowned medieval town that had once thrived as a centre for textiles. In World War One, Ypres became synonymous with destruction, trench warfare, poisonous gas and military stalemate. The Germans swiftly advanced through Belgium in their drive to Paris (the Schlieffen Plan) but failed to take the Ypres Salient. It was in this area that three Battle of Ypres took place and nearby the Battle of Passchendaele. What now appears to be a medieval town belies the fact that most of Ypres was rebuilt after World War One had finished.
In the late C17th the fortifications of the town had been modernised by Vauban. He reduced the number of fortified gates into the town from six to four. However, as a result of the major changes that had occurred in society, by 1914, these fortifications had become redundant. Road widening schemes and a new rail line meant that the old gates as designed by Vauban had been reduced to one and many of his ramparts had been pulled down.
On October 13th 1914, German troops from the 3rd Reiter Division, part of the German IV Reiter Korps, entered Ypres. After holding the town’s Burgomaster to ransom, they took 75,000 Belgium Francs. The next day, the British Expeditionary Force entered the city – the men from the 3rd Reiter Division swiftly withdrew in the face of much greater numbers confronting them. The town stayed in the hands of the Allies for the rest of the war.
However, the Germans could not allow a major enemy force to hold land behind the advances of its army. The Germans continued to advance to the north and south of the Ypres Salient and the bulge of Allied men between both represented a major threat to the Germans.
On November 22nd 1914,the Germans started a huge artillery barrage against the town. The old Cloth Hall, which dated from 1260, was set on fire and large parts of the medieval town were destroyed. Civilian casualties were high and may have been worse had it not been for the work of Abbé Delaere and Sister Marguerite who both did what they could to help the homeless and wounded. Despite the devastation of the town, some civilians remained. However, many went to the comparative safety of nearby Poperinge.
Between April and May 1915, there was a second German barrage against the town. The Cloth Hall was destroyed during this attack along with the historic Collegiate Church of St. Martin. On May 9th, a decision was taken to compulsorily evacuate all civilians from the town. After this date, Ypres was left to the military.
In 1916, fighting around Ypres quietened (when compared to 1914 and 1915) and some civilians returned to their town. However, the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 once again made it exceptionally dangerous to live in the town. In 1918, as a result of a major spring offensive, German forces got to the outskirts of the town on its eastern and southeast flanks. However, British forces held firm and the town was not taken. Ypres was only finally safe in late September 1918 when the last German troops withdrew from the Salient.
The rebuilding of the Cloth Hall started in 1920 and took until 1962. The architects (J Coomans and P A Pauwels) had plenty of pictures of the hall’s external appearance but fewer of what the inside of the building looked like. The appearances of the great halls on the first floor were known and were copied but few knew what many of the other rooms (used by council leaders etc) looked like.
The most important post-war construction in Ypres was the Menin Gate. Before World War One this was the site of the Hangoart Gate, which was later renamed the Antwerp Gate. There was no actual gateway here during the war. However, the route, which the Menin Gate covers, would have been the one that tens of thousands of men would have taken as they moved to the front line. As they passed where the Menin Gate now is, they would have passed the statues of two lions sitting at guard. These two statues are now in Canberra, Australia. It was felt that a fitting tribute to the men who were classed as missing and with no known grave at Ypres was to top the Menin Gate with a lion, now at rest, looking out in the direction that the men would have taken.
The casements that existed below the ramparts between the Menin Gate and the Lille Gate were used by soldiers as places of safety. Areas beneath these fortifications were used as signals headquarters, stores and one, in Houten Paard, housed the presses that published the ‘Wipers Times’.
Allied troops would also have been very familiar with the Lille Gate in the south of the town. Built in 1384, the Lille Gate was more sheltered (though not totally safe) against German artillery than the Menin Gate and less dangerous and was also used by soldiers to get to the front line. Its vaulted chambers were used as a signals office.