In Flanders Fields

Their strategic location meant the Belgian cities of Ypres and Mons saw some of the bloodiest battles of the first World War, and became the resting place of many Irish soldiers

Ronan McGreevey travelled to Ypres in Belguim, which still bears the scars of the 'Great War'. Video: Ronan McGreevey

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 08:14

W ith its cheap wine, good food and beautiful Flemish architecture, the Belgian city of Ypres could be a standalone tourist attraction and it was before the first World War, but what draws people today is its bloody history as the setting for some of the worst battles of the 20th century.

The cities of Ypres and Mons are running events to mark the centenary of the war for the thousands of travellers expected over the next four years. Ypres has a long-established tourism infrastructure geared to the thousands of visitors who come every year. Mons is next year’s European City of Culture and is opening a new war museum.

Few places in the bloody history of warfare were fought over so fiercely and for so long as Ypres. Most of the fighting in the Somme and Verdun was confined to a single year, 1916, but in Ypres it continued for four years, punctuated by three terrible battles (though some historians claim there were five battles of Ypres).

At the close of the war, not a building or tree was left standing in an area as big as Dublin. The place had been so irredeemably destroyed that it caused Churchill to say, in January 1919: “I should like to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres . . . a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world”.

The redoubtable locals returned but at a cost. Hundreds have been killed in the intervening century by hidden explosives. Earlier this year two people were killed while working on a disused bus garage in the centre of Ypres. The iron harvest is a perennial feature in Ypres where the soil continues to yield its deadly secrets. Even now, 100 years on, you see shell and bullet casings along the side of the road.

An accident of geography and history pitched this pleasant Flemish market town, with its 13th century Cloth Hall, canals and ramparts, into the one of the worst conflicts the world had seen.

Ypres’ proximity to the English Channel made it a vital strategic point along the Western Front. The Germans believed taking the town from the British, which they never managed, would allow them to capture the French channel ports. Equally the British wanted to capture the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge, where the Germans kept their U-boats.

The British couldn’t afford to surrender Ypres, the Germans couldn’t afford not to take it. The British occupied the town, the Germans the high ground around it on three sides. Ypres became a vast slaughterhouse for both armies. Ypres was rebuilt mostly with German reparation money. Shortly after the war, it became a place of pilgrimage for the relatives of those who fought in Flanders Fields.

Visitors who come to Ypres expecting a place that will appropriately commemorate the dreadful events there 100 years ago will not be disappointed.

There are no less than 75 cemeteries in this compact area, all kept beautifully and orientated towards visitors who arrive nearly 12 months of the year.

One of the most unforgettable is the German cemetery at Langemark outside Ypres. In one mass grave, no bigger than a mid-sized swimming pool, some 24,917 German soldiers are buried. Many of them were just students – ill-trained reservists, who signed up in the first flush of excitement after the declaration of war. They were slaughtered in their thousands during the first Battle of Ypres.

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