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.

The Ypres salient has three superb museums: In Flanders Fields in the town of Ypres, the newly restored Izer Tower in Diksmuide and the Memorial Museum Passchendaele in Zonnebeke.

In Flanders Fields tells the story of the entire war, from the perspective of Ypres, utilising the newest technology. The imposing Izer Tower overlooks the flat coastal lands that the Belgian army flooded in 1914 to stop the German coastal advance. Paving stones outside recount the numerous places in which the Germans carried out atrocities against civilians. The Memorial Museum tells the story of the Battle of Passchendaele.

It was this battle, with its claustrophobic mud, brilliantly captured in the photographs of Frank Hurley, and appalling slaughter that came to encapsulate, for many people, the pointlessness of the war.

Ypres’ most famous attraction is the Menin Gate. This sobering ceremonial arc was erected in 1927 and remembers some 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres salient and have no known grave. Every night at 8pm the Last Post is sounded. It never fails to move.

On the outside east wall of the gate are the names of 3,033 Irishmen who perished in the salient. This is more than the amount killed in the Easter Rising and War of Independence combined.

One of them is Private Michael Ryan from Hospital, Co Limerick, of the 2nd Munster Fusiliers. He died on August 12th, 1917, in the Battle of Passchendaele. He is my wife’s great-grandfather and my children’s great-great grandfather. Thousands of Irish families have similar connections.

In that dreadful month of August 1917 the 16th (Irish) Division suffered 4,200 casualties including more than 500 dead.

Irish visitors to Ypres will want to visit the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Messines. It commemorates the Battle of Messines in June 1917 when the 16th and 36th (Ulster) Divisions took the ridge overlooking Ypres in a single morning.

The peace park emphasises not the military triumph of that battle, but the reconciliation of North and South. It was opened in the hugely symbolic year of 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

Ypres will be the location for next week’s European summit just two days before the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. There can hardly be a more apt place to remind European leaders about why the European Union was founded.

At the other end of southern Belgium, deep in French-speaking Wallonia, the town of Mons is also preparing for the centenary of the war along with its status as European City of Culture in 2015.

Mons is not orientated towards war tourism in the same way as Ypres, but its involvement in the war is deeply significant. It was around Mons that the British fought their first battle of the war on August 23rd, 1914; it is also the place in which they fought their last. On both occasions there was significant Irish involvement.

Col Edward Thomas from Nenagh, Co Tipperary, fired the first shot on the Western Front from the British side and the first in western Europe since the Battle of Waterloo. The first Victoria Cross of the war was won by Lieut Maurice Dease from Coole, Co Westmeath. He continued to man a machine gun when most of his comrades had been killed and wounded, holding up the advance of two German battalions.

Col Thomas’s action is marked with a commemoration stone five kilometres outside Mons. By a remarkable coincidence the Canadian army, which captured Mons on the last day of the war with the help of Irish regiments, halted opposite the stone when the armistice came into force.

Another remarkable event occurred when Quartermaster Thomas William Fitzpatrick from Co Cork, with a crew of 50 cooks, drivers and store men from the Royal Irish Regiment, held up the advancing German army at a crossroads outside Mons. A Celtic Cross dedicated to their actions is at La Bascule.

Most visitors to Mons do so to see the beautifully secluded St Symphorien cemetery outside the town. The land on which this cemetery was built was donated by a Belgian farmer on the basis that British and German soldiers be buried together.

This cemetery contains graves of the first and last British soldiers to die in the war along with the last Commonwealth soldier, Canadian Private George Price, who was killed two minutes before the war ended.

It also contains the graves of Lieut Dease and dozens of other Irish soldiers killed in the Battle of Mons. The Royal Irish Regiment suffered 300 casualties that day, including around 100 dead.

Because of its status as the first and last, the British government’s main commemoration to mark the start of the war will take place at St Symphorien cemetery on August 4th. Given the extensive Irish involvement in Mons, it is appropriate that President Michael D Higgins will attend. THE DETAILS... GET THERE Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly to Brussels. Aer Lingus fly directly to Brussels Airport where they are trains directly to both Ypres and Mons which take about 45 minutes, Ryanair to Brussels Charleroi which is near Mons.

YPRES Stay: The Hotel Ariane in the centre of Ypres is a very well-located, modern hotel with a superb restaurant. The Hotel Alibon is a small family hotel near the New Menin Gate which also deals in bicycle rentals. With so many British guests every year, the Hotel Kasteehof ‘T Hooghe in a green belt around Ypres is built in the style of an English cottage. Eat: De Fonderie is a brassiere in the centre of Ypres which specialises in scallops. The Pacific Eilandje is set in a lake near the centre of Ypres. It is one of Ypres best known restaurants. The Kazematten is Ypres’ brewery, but it is also suitable for a light lunch. MONS Stay: Mons is gearing up for the biggest influx of visitors in the town’s history. St James in the centre of the city is an 18th century hotel. Le Terminus, near the train station, is suitable for the budget visitor and Le Monte Cristo is a family run hotel. Eat: Mons’ best known restaurant is the Vilaine Fille Mauvais Garcon near the Grand Place which is housed in a renovated 19th century house. Visitors can also try L’Ubiquité, a French restaurant with a Mediterranean touch.

GUIDES: In Ypres Simon Lougagie who runs the peace village hostel adjacent the Island of Ireland Peace Park, is superb on the Irish aspects of Ypres. He can be contacted on 00-32-57226040. Alain Kicq is a native of Mons and is available for guides. He too is superb on the Irish aspects of the battle. His contact telephone number is 00-32-485131201. Ronan McGreevy travelled to Ypres and Mons courtesy of Aer Lingus and Visit Flanders: visitflanders.com, visitmons.be. See videos from Ypres and Mons on irishtimes.com

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