Ieper (Ypres), Belgium
When the First World War was declared in August 1914 the town was known by it's French name of Ypres. Now the town is formally known by the Flemish name of Ieper and Flemish is the local spoken language. Being close to the French border, nevertheless, like many places in this locality the town is known by both names and visitors will find it signposted in both Flemish and French.
Ieper (Ypres) is an ancient city located in the Flemish province of West Flanders (West-Vlaanderen) in the Westhoek region of Belgium. The municipality of Ieper includes the city itself and a number of villages, namely Boezinge, Brielen, Dikkebus, Elverdinge, Hollebeke, Sint-Jan, Vlamertinge, Voormezele, Zillebeke and Zuidschote. Ieper and these villages count a population of around 35,000 inhabitants.
Soon after the outbreak of The Great War of 1914-1918 the peaceful way of life in this part of Flanders was shattered by the arrival of massed military forces and their destructive weapons of war.
German Army Arrives in Ypres
On one day of 7th October 1914, and overnight into the following day, about 8,000 soldiers of the Imperial German Army arrived in Ypres. They ordered thousands of loaves of bread to be baked, raided the town's coffers and left the following day, having “passed through” Ypres.
Allies Block a German Return to Ypres
As events developed at that time as a result of the so-called “Race to the Sea”, within three weeks of the German Army's brief visit to Ypres on 7th October the Germans had to carry out a major offensive operation, very costly in German casualties, to try to make their way back into Ypres. Although outnumbered, the British soldiers held their line against the odds. The British defence east of Ypres, including a crucial, successful counter-attack at Gheluveld on 31st October 1914, put a stop to the possible return of the German Army into Ypres before the onset of the winter weather.
With the defence of Ypres blocked by the British, and with the situation on the German Army's Western battlefront quickly turning from a war of movement into a static situation of siege warfare, the senior German commanders must have bitterly regretted having been in possession of Ypres and having voluntarily left it. The town would become the focus of German attention to recapture it over the next three years. During the massive operation of the 1918 German Spring Offensive (Operation George at Ypres) the German Army advanced to within a few kilometres east of Ypres, but was still not successful in capturing it. The town never fell into German hands during the war.
French and British soldiers arrived in the town from 13th October to put up a defence and to block the route for the German Army through Ypres to the ports on the French and Belgian coast. Soldiers in the British Army quickly turned the name of Ypres into a much easier word to pronounce. They called it “Wipers”. The British Army remained in “Wipers” for four years from October 1914 to the end of the war in November 1918.
Civilian Population Evacuated
Up until the spring of 1915 the civilian population was living in the town. From May 1915, however, the local Ypres population was evacuated due to the increased severity of the German artillery shelling onto the town. The shelling not only caused destruction of buildings and seriously endangered civilians sheltering in them, but the constant damage to the drainage and sewerage system made it irrepairable and it was decided to evacuate the remaining civilians who had been determined to stay in their town.
Activity at Night
Thousands of British troops spent time in the town or passed through it, making their way during the hours of darkness to and from the Allied Front Line in the Ypres Salient battlefields. Veterans of the Ypres Salient told of how the shattered town appeared empty during daylight hours, but after darkness had fallen the town and the surrounding area behind the British Front Line came alive with thousands of men, horses and wagons moving about to carry out reliefs for troops in the line or carry forward supplies and ammunition. They also used to say that the winter months were preferable to the soldiers, in spite of the bad weather, because the long winter nights provided them with more hours of darkness and the protection from being seen by the enemy.
A Vital Strategic Landmark
The defence of Ypres, or Wipers, was key to the British hold on this sector of the Western Front. The town was an important strategic landmark blocking the route for the Imperial German Army through to the Belgian and French coastal ports. Many thousands of Allied troops died to maintain the Allies' possession of this place. They died in the rubble of its buildings and the shattered farmland around it, fighting in ferocious battles and living in inhuman conditions. On the German side of the wire, many thousands of German lives were also lost in the landscape around Ypres during the German Army's four years of offensive and defensive battles. The German Army carried out major offensive operations in an attempt to gain possession of the town in the autumn of 1914, the spring of 1915 and the spring of 1918. The British carried out two major offensives to push the Germans off the dominating high ground around the north, east and south of the town in 1917.
By the end of the war the entire town lay in ruins, with only a handful of buildings left standing. Visitors coming to Ypres for the first time are usually astonished to think that the busy, vibrant town with its medieval and renaissance buildings was completely flattened and that virtually the whole of the town was reconstructed from scratch, stone by stone, brick by brick during the 1920's and 1930's.
Despite the devastation of Ypres by the end of 1918 many of the famous historic buildings in the reconstructed Ypres were built as a close likeness to their original architecture. There are many sites of First World War interest to see in and around Ypres, not least of which are the many buildings of special historical significance which were destroyed by the war and which were rebuilt as a result of it.
The Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle)
The Cloth Hall, called the Lakenhalle in Flemish, is situated in the heart of the city on the market square, the Grote Markt. As a result of German artillery shelling onto the town beginning in November 1914 the magnificent medieval building was eveuntually reduced to piles of rubble by the end of the war.
Rebuilt stone by stone the Cloth Hall now houses the city's official function rooms, the Visitor Centre for Ypres and the Westhoek (formerly called the Tourist Office) and the award-winning In Flanders Fields museum.
For more detailed information on the Cloth Hall see our page at:The Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle)
The Market Square (Grote Markt)
The market square is surrounded by buildings, including the Cloth Hall, in the medieval and renaissance architectural style typical of Flanders. There are shops, hotels, restaurants and cafés, making it a busy and attractive centre for locals and visitors alike in the heart of the city.
For information about the Grote Markt see our page at:The Market Square (Grote Markt)
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is one of four British and Commonwealth memorials to all the overseas British and Commonwealth forces who fell in the Ypres Salient and who have no known grave. The Menin Gate commemorates 54,896 officers and men killed in the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917.
Every evening at 8 o'clock (20:00 hours) members of the Ieper volunteer fire brigade, the Last Post Association, sound “Last Post” and “Réveille” under the arch of the memorial gate.
To read about this famous memorial, why it was located here and about the sounding of “Last Post” every evening, see our pages at:The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing Hear Last Post and Réveille at the Menin Gate
Ypres' Fortifications: Ramparts and Moat
The early settlement of Ypra was protected by the Ieperlee river on the west and by earthworks on the north, east and south. As the town developed over the centuries its people experienced numerous changes of rulers. Fortifications grew in size and feats of engineering to keep out the invaders.
At the end of the 17th century major work was carried out by Sebastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban (1633-1707), the famous French military engineer. Before the First World War some of the Vauban fortifications had been removed. Those that remained on the eastern and southern boundaries of the town were used by the French and British Armies to provide protection against German artillery shelling.
During the war a lighthearted view of the fighting in the Ypres Salient was produced in a journal called the “Wipers Times”. It was produced on a printing press set up in the ramparts by soldiers of the British Army.
Lille Gate (Rijselpoort)
The round towers of the Lille Gate are the oldest surviving part of the stone ramparts, dating from 1385 and the Burgundian period of the city's history. The bridge over the gateway was added during later modifications to the city's fortifications.
The Lille Gate is also a water gate, as the river Ieperlee springs from a lock gate under the western round tower and flows under the city from south to north through a vaulted waterway.
The Lille Gate still bears five original Imperial War Graves Commission direction signs to 13 British and Commonwealth military cemeteries in the southern Ypres Salient.
Ramparts Cemetery, Lille Gate
Ramparts Cemetery is located on the ramparts to the west of the Lille Gate. The cemetery can be accessed from the Rijselsestraat along a short path named “Rose Coombs Walk”.
The late Rose Coombs was a First World War historian who worked at the Imperial War Museum in London. Her father had served in the First World War and the city of Ypres was very special to her. In the 1970s Rose wrote the guidebook to the First World War battlefields entitled “Before Endeavours Fade”. This guide has been reprinted and updated several times since and is perhaps the most well known and easy to use guidebooks for the Western Front (see Further Reading at the bottom of this page). It has been the first introduction to touring the battlefields for many thousands of visitors over the last thirty years.Ramparts Cemetery, Lille Gate
Ypres Markets: Fish, Butter and Cattle
There are several buildings and sites reflecting the activities of various food markets which were carried on in the town before the Great War. In addition to the trade of wool and cloth, there was a fish market, a covered and an open cattle market, and a vegetable and butter market. The names of three of the streets located within a short distance from the market square are Vissmarkt (fish market), Boterstraat (butter street), Veemarkt (cattle market)
St. George’s Memorial Church
St. George's Church was built after the First World War to serve the needs of the many pilgrims who came to Ypres looking for the final resting place of a relative who never returned from the war. A community of British people was established in Ypres after the war which included those men and their families who were working with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.St. George's Memorial Church
St Martins Cathedral (St. Maartenskerk)
In the 11th century the church of St. Martin's was one of three parish churches within the town. A larger church was built to replace the original early church of St. Martin during the 13th century. In 1433 the tower collapsed. It was rebuilt as a 175 feet high tower the following year and was to have had a spire on top, which would have doubled it's height again. However, the spire was not completed. St. Martin's church became a cathedral in 1559. Major restoration work was carried out on the building during the 19th century.
The cathedral was demolished by German artillery shelling in the Great War of 1914-1918. Interestingly, with the post-war rebuilding of the original cathedral, the spire which had never been added to the old building was included in the new design.
The rose window in the south transcept was a gift to Albert I, King of the Belgians, by the British Army and Royal Air Force in 1935.
Ypres Reservoir Cemetery
Three military cemeteries were established during the war close to the city's waterworks and prison. The Ypres Reservoir Cemetery is now the only one of these three cemeteries now in existance. 2,613 Commonwealth servicemen are buried in this cemetery.Ypres Reservoir Cemetery
History of Ypres
Find out more about Ypres' history from the origins of the town to the part it played in the First World War in our pages at: History of Ypres to 1914
Battles of the Ypres Salient
For an overview of the battles which took place in the battlefields around Ypres see:
Visitor Centre for Ypres
For information about the Visitor Centre for Ypres and the Westhoek, it's location and contact details go to our page at:
Shopping in Ieper
In addition to the local shops serving the Ieper community, visitors are offered the opportunity to buy gifts and souvenirs in the form of books, postcards, Belgian chocolates, local cheese and beer:
Before Endeavours Fade
by Rose E B Coombs
The first modern guidebook to the Western Front battlefields, first published in 1976, by the late Rose E B Coombs. Regularly updated this is a highly recommended guidebook for the first time visitor. Using illustrated Michelin maps the guidebook takes the visitor on routes through the major battlefields from the Belgian coast to Verdun, passing all the important sites and including many of the not so well known landmarks and battle monuments.
Ypres in War and Peace
by Martin Marix Evans
Published by Pitkin Guides, English edition (June 1992); ISBN-10: 0853726108 & ISBN-13: 978-0853726104
Major and Mrs.Holt's Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient (Major & Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide) (Paperback)
by Tonie Holt and Valmai Holt
Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Pap/Map edition (14 Feb 1997); 272 pages. ISBN-10: 0850525519 & ISBN-13: 978-0850525519
Walking the Salient: Ypres (Battleground Europe) (Paperback)
by Paul Reed
Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd. (12 Jan 1998); 208 pages. ISBN-10: 0850526175 & ISBN-13: 978-0850526172
The Pathe Collection -The Battle of Ypres (DVD)
Format: PAL. Regions: All. (Release 8 November 2010); ASIN: B0045U3B0W
(1) Photograph believed to be from a private collection.
(2 - GWPDA) Photograph with grateful thanks to the Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War.