With the commemorations for the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War just around the corner in 2014, there is set to be increased interest from British visitors in making the trip across the Channel to visit the battlefields of France and Belgium. We sent RHYS GRIFFITHS to Ypres to find out more about what UK visitors can expect to see and learn in this Flemish frontline town.
For anyone who has ever attended a service of remembrance, whether at home or abroad, the haunting refrain of the Last Post will be instantly recogniseable. But the surrounding less so. For here, under the soaring arch of the Menin Gate, is a memorial like few others. Gazing up your eyes pass over name after name, engraved into the stones of the Memorial to the Missing. The names of more than 54,000 men - many little more than boys - are listed at the Menin Gate, a simple yet powerful reminder of the huge price paid by both sides here in Flanders Fields.
After the buglers fall silent and the wreaths are laid at the foot of the memorial, the crowd of hundreds who have come to remember on a chilly October evening slowly thins out and the traffic once again flows in and out of the pretty town of Ypres through the Menin Gate.
But the ceremony they have just witnessed is not an annual act of Remembrance, nor a commemoration of an anniversary. The people of Ypres - a town central to the First World War stories of both Belgium and Britain - stage this act of remembering each and every night, at 8pm, under the Menin Gate. Remembering, in perpetuity, the terrible fate which befell their town and the continent of Europe almost a century ago.
The war came to Ypres in the autumn of 1914 as the German army swept across neutral Belgium, heading for Paris with the aim of defeating France before turning its guns on Russia. But the advance was stopped close to the North Sea in Flanders when the Belgians flooded the low-lying coastal areas and brought the previously mobile war to a standstill.
And so the opposing armies dug in for what was to become four long, hard years of trench warfare in the countryside of Flanders, fields in which more than 600,000 men would be killed as the two sides fought bitterly for small gains of territory along the frontline of the Ypres salient. But the cost was not simply counted in human lives lost. The town of Ypres - which centuries earlier had flourished as an important centre in the cloth trade - was almost entirely destroyed by years of bombardment from the German guns. After the war ended the town was painstakingly rebuilt, with historic buildings such as the cathedral and the Cloth Hall rising from the rubble as symbols of the rebirth of Ypres.
Today the Cloth Hall, which flanks the town’s attractive market square, is home to the In Flanders Fields Museum which is an important place to come if you want to learn more about how Ypres found itself at the heart of some of the most bitter fighting of the First World War. The museum’s new permanent exhibition, which was opened in June 2012, tells the story of the war from the invasion of Belgium, through the years of trench fighting, to the end of the conflict and the permanent remembrance which has been a characteristic of Ypres and its people ever since.
Close by to the In Flanders Fields Museum is St Martin’s Cathedral which, like the Cloth Hall alongside it, was also destroyed during the fighting of the First World War. A former Episcopal church in Gothic style, it was reconstructed after the end of the 1914-1918 conflict and is the burial site of Bishop Jansenius and Court Robert of Bethune, the ‘Lion of Flanders'.
Another religious site that will be of interest to British visitors to Ypres is St George’s Memorial Church, an Anglican church built in 1928-29 and designed by London architect Sir Reginald Blomfield. Everything found at St George’s - right down to the furniture - was donated by British associations, regiments or individuals and this makes the church an enduring symbol of the bond between Britain and Belgium forged in the fighting in and around Ypres.
But perhaps the most powerful reminder of the depth of the sacrifice made by the people of the town of Ypres and the two sides who fought here comes every night, shortly after 8pm, when crowds of men, women and children - in their hundreds, sometimes in their thousands - fall silent in the shadow of the Menin Gate. This simple, solemn act that has become part of the fabric of life in this small Flemish town gives true meaning to the words of the exhortation spoken here nightly: ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.’
Ypres - which is the town’s French name, it is Ieper in the local dialect - is located just across the border with France in the Flemish province of West Flanders. It is easily reached by those taking the cross-Channel ferry to France as it is less than 90 minutes drive from the ferry port at Calais.
MyFerryLink offers up to 16 sailing between Dover and Calais every day and you can book your crossing from £29 one way by visiting our booking page on the website or by calling 0844 2482 100.
Where to stay
The Hotel Ariane is Ypres’ only four-star hotel and is ideally located for those wanting to visit the historic sites and wander through the pretty heart of the rebuilt town. The hotel’s large and well-equipped rooms start from €99 per room per night for doubles.