The final item on the itinerary for the first day of our tour was an extended visit to the small city of Ypres.
Ypres was briefly captured by German forces in the first months of the war, but they were soon driven out by the Allies during ‘The First Battle of Ypres’. From late 1914 onwards, Ypres functioned as the main Belgian stronghold for Allied forces, with a secure passage westwards to the coast. However, it was surrounded by German forces on the other three sides and much of the town was destroyed by continuing artillery and aircraft bombardments. You can read more about the history of Ypres and what happened in the town during the war here.
From our tour coach, we entered the old heart of the city through what is called the Menin Gate. This structure – a triumphal arch opening to a passage through a vaulted mausoleum, serves as a memorial to nearly 55,000 Commonwealth troops who died in and around Ypres during the war and whose bodies were never identified. It stands on the site of one of the gates within the city’s old fortifications, through which many Allied troops would have passed on their way to front, some never to return.
I will tell you more about our experience of the Menin Gate below. A more detailed explanation of the site can be read here.
Ypres was once a bigger city and, based on a thriving and renowned textile industry, a very prosperous one. The grand building on the left, below, is the Cloth Hall, completed in 1304 and one of the largest commercial buildings of its time. It was severely damaged during WW1 and painstakingly restored over three decades. It now houses a museum and study centre about WW1.
The other large building in the photo was a cathedral for more than 200 years, until 1801, when Ypres ceased to be the seat of a diocese. It was reduced to ruins during the war and was completely rebuilt in the 1920s, largely according to the original plans.
The old heart of the city is quite compact, easily explored in less than an hour of gentle walking. We came upon a rather quaint restaurant, ‘De Ruyffelaer’. It offered a menu called ‘Old Ypres’, which you can find here with some images of the quirky interior. Our hosts were very welcoming, the food was delicious and the portions were generous. Maggie felt that all her Christmases had come at once when the creme caramel arrived in a dish that was a good 15cm wide!
We dined quite early, as we were due to return to the Menin Gate by no later than 7pm, to witness a famous ceremony, first held there in July 1928 and and held EVERY evening since 11 November 1929, other than when Belgium was occupied by Germany during the Second World War.
The key elements of the ceremony are contributions by visiting choirs or musical bands; the laying of wreaths; and the playing of the ‘Last Post’ by buglers from the local volunteer fire brigade. Ordinary citizens can apply to lay wreaths, it is not just for ‘officials’. You can learn more about this remarkable and poignant tradition here.
We really had little idea what to expect and, in a way, that made even more special.
The first two photos were taken before the memorial was filled with a large crowd of viewers and participants. You can see examples of the panels that carry names of those thousands of personnel whose bodies were never identified.
On the evening of our attendance, the British Ambassador to Belgium was there to lay a wreath. Her participation also marked the presence in Ypres of the Grenadier Guards, one of the most famous army regiments in the English-speaking world. The entire regiment had spent several days in the region and, as we looked on, their brass band performed for an extended period to commence the evening’s program, concluding with some very solemn music as the many wreaths were laid.
Then, at the appointed time of 8pm, four buglers arrived at the outer end of the memorial, to perform The Last Post; it was a powerfully poignant moment. It was also the beginning of our education as to the deep respect and gratitude felt, to this day, by citizens and communities in Belgium and France for those service personnel from other countries who fought and died here.
As you would appreciate, we did not have any plans to purchase ‘souvenirs’ associated with this catastrophe of a war. However, we did find a small ‘poppy’ brooch, which Maggie brought home to wear in the lead up to 11 November, known in Australia as ‘Remembrance Day’. She will maintain this tradition for the balance of her life, and it will always remind us of what we experienced at the Menin Gate in Ypres.