Ypres: A forgotten battlefield

Ypres: A forgotten battlefield

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

Once a quiet city in the southwest corner of Flanders, Ypres hides a complex history beneath its traditional Belgian facade. From a first glance at the stunning architecture of the Cloth Hall, the towering Menin Gate and the ornate gothic spires of St. Martin’s Cathedral, it looks much like it did in its heyday. Once part of a flourishing textile and linen trade with England, the third largest Flemish city was also a strategic target during wars.

World War I

Seen as a speedbump on their quest to conquer France, German forces invaded Ypres in October 1914. What ensued was a five-year battle between the British allies and German army. Five major (and several smaller) battles left the city all but destroyed. Artillery fire decimated buildings and took civilian lives. In 1915, it became the site of the first chemical attack when the Germans unleashed chlorine gas along the trenches. Two years later, it became ground zero when mustard gas was used for the first time in war. Casualties skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands before the fighting was done.

After the war, local leaders used war reparations and proudly rebuilt the city center as it once was. The Cloth Hall is almost an exact replica and has been converted to the In Flanders Museum. Dedicated to sharing the trials and often horrifying tribulations of conflict, this museum has artifacts and exhibits on display. Visitors can also climb to the top of the belfry and take in spectacular panoramas of the Belgian countryside.

Photo by Stacy Roman.

Sanctuary Wood

A few kilometers southeast of Ypres, hiding in the densely wooded hills is Sanctuary Wood. When the farmers came back to reclaim their land following the war, many discovered unusable fields. Pocked with shell craters and deep trenches snaking through the area, most of the locals covered the pits and plowed over the remnants of the scarred land. However, one farmer did the opposite. He cleared his land, collecting the discarded gear, weapons and munitions and refused to fill in the trenches cutting through his fields. Over the years, the family converted the farmhouse into a museum and allowed curious visitors to walk through the hallowed ground.

On the day we visited, there was a thick, blinding fog that enveloped the woods. As we descended into the reinforced trenches, the swirling mist lent a foreboding calm. Recent rainwater puddled into the hollow craters and created a bit of realism to what soldiers must have gone through more than 100 years ago. Just up the road from the museum is Hill 62. Perched at the end of the road is a memorial erected in honor of the Canadian forces who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the Battle of Mount Sorrel, as well as those who perished in the first gas attacks.

While this beguiling Belgian town offers quintessential European charm and flair, its storied past is well worth remembering and paying tribute to.

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