The second day of our tour began with a walking tour of this beautiful medieval city. Perhaps I need to fill you in on a bit of history of this place first.
Ieper is an ancient town located in the Flemish province of West-Flanders (or Vlaanderen). When World War I was declared in August 1914, it was known by its French name, Ypres.
Soon after the declaration of war and the German mobilization, more than 8,000 German soldiers passed through Ypres on the 7 and 8 October 1914, on their ‘push to the coast’.
Within a few days, French and British soldiers arrived in the town to set up a blockade to stop the full-on German offensive, as they realized the strategic importance of the town.
It was the British soldiers who first called it ‘Wipers’, which was a much easier name to pronounce. They were there for four long years from October 1914 to November 1918.
This town was the focus of German operations in the north-west, as they tried to recapture it. However, despite major offensives and severe artillery shelling, which reduced the town to rubble, the town never fell into German hands during the war.
This town was also the main staging post for allied forces before they went out to fight in the surrounding area, known as ‘ the Salient,’ which is a battlefield feature that projects into enemy territory.
Every allied soldier fighting in Belgium most likely would have passed through this town, at some time.
I can imagine several of our family heroes marching out at night, to their positions in the trenches, batteries and observation posts. Most of the troop movements were at night, because there was some advantage to traveling under the cover of darkness, in such an open and flat country. The enemy was not easily able to observe the size and position of troops, and then bombard the area with artillery and bombs.
With the centenary of World War I, there is so much material on-line that literally ‘puts you there’, such as this film.
The film deals with the participation of the Australian troops in the Third Battle of Ypres during the autumn of 1917. The scenes include Australians preparing for the attack; being reviewed by Sir Douglas Haig before going into action; shells falling amongst the ruins of Ypres and then shows the battlefields over which Australians fought and incidents connected with the fighting.
Today it is difficult to image there was so much destruction here, and how everything was painstakingly restored after the war, right down to the cobblestoned streets. In fact, the whole city is a memorial to World War I
From the moment we got off our bus at our hotel, we could feel a special atmosphere about the place. It took me a while to work it out. There was a busyness, but not the loud brashness of many tourist places. The people we met were welcoming, but not patronizing. In many places on our travels throughout Europe, the people smiled and rushed out to greet us, but we knew they were looking for our ‘tourist dollar’.
At Iepers it was different. There was a quite respectfulness as if they knew why we were there, especially as our Australian accents soon announced us. Everyone we met wanted to help us understand and to know, what had happened there all those years ago.
However, I must point out the place was not silent and morbid. In fact, when we arrived in the hotel restaurant for our dinner, there were obviously several celebratory parties in progress, including a large school group.
Perhaps you could say there was a certain ‘joyfulness’ about the place too. I don’t really know why, but maybe it is an appreciation of the sacrifice of all those thousands of soldiers, from all over the world, all those many years ago, so that their city could remain in existence, and be reclaimed and rebuilt.
After a wonderful dinner and a good nights sleep, we were ready to begin our walking tour of the city.
We started our tour not far from the hotel at St Jacobs Church. (below).
If you look carefully you can see the original doorway and footings of this medieval church which survived the war, but everything above the door was rebuilt.
We then proceeded to a section of the city wall ramparts, where actual shops had been built into the earthen bank. This area was also used as allied headquarters during the war.
We then visited the Menin Gate. Nothing I can write can do it justice, but I will try, with a separate blog or two soon.
After a very emotional visit to the Menin Gate, we proceeded along the main street until we arrived at the Great Market Square. It was a huge cobblestoned area, surrounded by beautiful Gothic buildings faithfully and painstakingly restored after World War I. The Gemeentehuis, or Town Hall is one such building. (Below).
The weekly markets were taking place in the Square and it was interesting to wander through the stalls. We found them similar to what we could expect to find at city markets back home, and it gave us a comfortable familiar feeling, as the grey over-caste sky gave way to warm summer sunshine.
We headed for the huge inspiring Gothic building, which took up nearly half the square itself. It was the Lakenhalle or Cloth Hall.
So much about the history of this building can be found at-
This beautiful restored and refurbished building is the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, for the city for the World War I Anniversary celebrations. Lots of information can be found here.
Within this building is the In Flanders Fields Museum. This museum is spread over two floors and is an incredible place. It uses all the modern technical equipment to tell the story of the war, not only from the city’s perspective but all those who endured those terrible times. Although the history was well told and illustrated, I found it crowded, gloomy and very oppressive, as it is painted all black inside with little light, except for a cold reflected light from the display cabinets and strategically place down-lights..
A large shop can be found on the ground-floor, where I was able to purchase many gifts and books, which will add to my knowledge and understanding of this very special city, and its surrounding villages.
I was pleased to get outside and have a quick morning tea at one of the many pavement cafes, on the edge of the Square, before we returned to the hotel to join our group to begin our bus tour of the Ypres Salient.
As we boarded the bus the sunshine had deserted us again. Our next stop would be the 5th Australian Division Memorial at Polygon Wood.