Reading about Ypres in World War 1 in Geert Mak’s book “In Europe” while actually in Ypres

(#07 – Top 10 Highlights from 2015 Tour de Travoy) The photo above shows the city of Ypres in Belgium shortly after World War 1 had ended in 1918. No other city on either the Eastern or the Western front suffered as much damage and destruction during World War 1 as Ypres. Many nearby cities such as Ostend, Bruges and Lille survived the war with very little damage but not so with Ypres as it was almost wiped off the face of the Earth by the 4 year conflict. Incredibly, the city has been restored so well since 1918 that there is almost no trace of any damage from World War 1 to be seen. On the 7th August 2015, I visited Ypres on my final day in Europe during the 2015 Tour de Travoy.  I had to catch a ferry that evening from Dunkerque to Dover so only had a few hours to spare to see the city and take in the sights. But apart from the Menin Gate memorial, there was no trace of World War 1 to be seen in any of the city’s streets or buildings.


Lille gate in Ypres. Ypres had long been fortified to keep out invaders. Parts of the early ramparts, dating from 1385, still survive near the Rijselpoort (Lille Gate). The moat around the town is known as the Kastelgracht and there were quite a few people fishing in it.


In Europe by Dutch journalist Geert Mak. I decided to stop for a few hours in the park beside the Lille Gate to give my phone and bike computer time to charge up using the solar panel. That gave me time to read some of Geert Mak’s book about the history of Europe in the 20th century. There is a whole chapter about Ypres in the book and it was a bit surreal to read about all the horrors the town went through during WW1 while actually in the town itself on such a beautiful day.

In Europe, the TV series. Dutch TV station ThreeNL produced a TV series about the book and episode 3, which covers Ypres, is linked to above. The program is introduced by Geert Mak himself and really brings his book to life.
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Screenshot from “In Europe” showing Geert Mak. Geert interviews the son of a farmer who was killed in 1986 from an unexploded mine on his farm in the Flanders, almost 70 years after the end of the war. We also meet the bomb disposal team from the Belgian army, who every day recover and destroy dozens of bombs and shells, some of which contain mustard gas.
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Anton Verschoot. He interviews Anton Verschoot, who for 52 years has been playing the “Last Post” at the Menin Gate memorial every evening at 8 o’clock. But the person who features the most is Piet Chielons, the coordinator of the In Flanders Fields Museum at the Cloth Hall who shows Geert some of the exhibits and also takes him to the Tyne Cot cemetery on the outskirts of Ypres. During WW1, the cemetery was beside a field hospital and for 3 years, graves were dug neatly beside each other until 1917 when the Battle of Messines started and there were so many bodies that the graves were just dug anywhere and everywhere.
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Piet Chielons at the Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres. In 2003, Piet organised a sit-down protest at the Menin Gate to protest British involvement in the Iraq war. At the time, he was criticized by the British press for desecrating their memorial but as he puts it Belgium has for almost 100 years being trying to clean up the mess left by foreign forces and he didn’t want the Iraqis to have to suffer the same fate.


Cloth hall in Ypres. The Cloth Hall was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages, when it served as the main market and warehouse for the Flemish city’s prosperous cloth industry. The Cloth Hall is, in fact, a series of buildings surrounding a rectangular courtyard. The first building work was started in 1200 and took over 100 years to complete, being finished in 1304. Until the mid 1840s the small Ieperlee river flowed through the town and past the Cloth Hall. Small boats with a low draft could make their way right up to the Cloth Hall to unload their goods into the halls. The original structure lay in ruins after artillery fire devastated Ypres in World War I as can be seen below.


Cloth hall in Ypres in 1918. The first damage to the the Cloth Hall and the Belfry occurred as the First Battle of Ypres drew to a close in mid November 1914.  A few months later, Ypres began to be shelled by long range German heavy howitzers from positions several kms east of the city. On Monday 19th April 1915, one of the German Army’s two huge “Big Bertha” guns joined in. It had been brought to the Houthulst Forest by rail and the bombing reduced the Cloth Hall to rubble. Yet within 50 years of the War ending, the Cloth Hall was meticulously reconstructed to its prewar condition between 1933 and 1967.


Menin Gate in Ypres. The Menin Gate memorial bears the names of 54,389 officers and men from British and Commonwealth Forces who fell in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917 and who have no known grave. The lion on the top is the lion of Britain but also the lion of Flanders. It was chosen to be a memorial as it was the closest gate of the town to the fighting, and so Allied troops would have marched past it on their way to fight. Actually, most troops passed out of the other gates of Ypres, as the Menin Gate was too dangerous due to shellfire.

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The “Last Post” at the Menin Gate. Following the Menin Gate Memorial opening in 1927, the citizens of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom. Hence every evening at 20:00, buglers from the local fire brigade close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the “Last Post”.


Sign at outskirts of Ypres showing the Flemish spelling only. The frontline during World War 1 north of Ypres was more or less where the N8 road between Ypres and Veurne is now located. This road is only a few km from Langemarck, where the Germans launched the first major poison gas attack in WW1 in 1915. The Germans gained about 3 km of territory during this attack and the N8 road essentially became the new frontline for the next 2 years between Ypres and the Belgian coast.


WW1 frontline in May 1915 after the poison gas attack. On 22 April 1915, the German Army released 168 tons of chlorine gas over a section of the frontline to the north of Ypres. The French troops in the path of the gas cloud sustained about 6,000 casualties. Many died within ten minutes, primarily from asphyxia and tissue damage in the lungs, and many more were blinded.  This was the first major poison gas attack during World War 1 and and it caused outrage in the British and French press but by the end of the war, the Allied forces would use treble the amount of poison gas than the Germans.


Soldiers blinded by a poison gas attack during World War 1. Initially, chlorine gas was used but this was followed by phosgene and in 1917, by mustard gas. But by the end of the war in 1918, the Allied forces would use 3 times as much gas on the Western front as the Germans. This was mainly because the prevailing wind direction was from west to east which meant the British more frequently had favorable conditions for a gas release than did the Germans.


Allied soldiers wearing P respirator gas masks. After the chlorine gas attack near Ypres, many British soldiers were issued with P respirator helmets shown above but these proved ineffective against the phosgene gas later used by the Germans.


Aftermath of a poison gas attack. About a year after the first poison gas attack at Langermark near Ypres, another gas attack took place at Hulluch in northern France, about 50 km south of Ypres. This section of the frontline was defended by Irish troops from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and other Irish regiments. The Irish divisions suffered heavy casualties, with over 1,000 casualties including 538 dead.  “I had the sad job of collecting and burying the dead, some of them holding hands like children in the dark” Lieutenant Lyon of the 7th Leinster regiment wrote. This was the same day that news reached the Irish troops that the Easter Rising had started back home in Ireland.


The GPO in Dublin after the Easter Rising of April 1916. Patrick Pearse had issued the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on the steps of the General Post Office (GPO) three days earlier. “Irishmen!/ Heavy uproar in Ireland/ English guns are firing at/ Your wifes and children!” read the German placards opposite the Irish trenches in Flanders. About 300 Irish people were killed the week of the Easter Rising in Dublin, about half of which were civilians. More Irishmen were killed in one day by poison gas at Hulluch than died all week during the Easter Rising. It is estimated that about 100,000 Irishmen enlisted in the British army during World War 1 and at least a quarter of them were killed. Those that did survive returned to an Ireland totally different to one they had left a few years previously. In the words of one of Ireland’s most famous poets, WB Yeats, “Ireland had changed, changed utterly”. But it was not just Ireland that had changed utterly as so too had warfare itself. The use of poison gas and machine guns to kill millions in Flanders and elsewhere and complete destruction of cities, such as Ypres, was unprecedented in any war that had ever happened before.  World War 1 would lead to revolution in Russia and later to dictatorships in Italy, Spain and Germany as monarchies and other royal dynasties that had ruled for centuries were swept away. It was not just Ireland but also Europe that had “changed, changed utterly”.


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