The city of Ieper (official name) or Ypres comprises today the towns of Biezinge, Dikkebus, Elverdinge, Vlamertinge, Voormezele, Zillebeke and Zuidschote, covering 130km². The population is 37,087 (as at 1st January 2013).
The city was first settled by the Romans in the first century BC. During the Middle Ages, Ypres was a prosperous city renowned for its linen trade with England. The famous Cloth Hall was built in the thirteenth century. During this time also, cats, then the symbol of the devil and witchcraft, were thrown off the Cloth Hall to get rid of evil demons. Today this act is commemorated with a triennial Cat Parade through town (the 41st one was held on 14 May 2006). Ypres was further fortified in the 17th and 18th centuries while under the occupation of the Hapsburgs and France. Major works were completed at the end of the 17th century by the French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban.
During WWI, Ieper/Ypres was the centre of intense and sustained battles between the German and British Commonwealth forces. The town was all but obliterated by the artillery fire. After the war, the town was rebuilt with the main square, including the Cloth Hall and the Town Hall, being rebuilt as close to the original designs as possible. Part of the Cloth Hall is today a museum dedicated to Ypres’ role in WWI.
Ieper/Ypres these days has the title of “City of Peace” and maintains a close friendship with another city on which war has had a profound impact, Hiroshima.
In Flanders Fields Museum - Ieper/Ypres
The museum takes up a large part of the first floor of the Cloth Hall, which was virtually destroyed during World War 1. After closing for an extensive refurbishment, the In Flanders Fields Museum reopened in June 2012. The renovation aims at providing visitors with a richer experience and to build on it being a museum with a message of peace. As well as presenting a general introduction to WWI in Flanders, the museum contains personal witness accounts of hundreds of ordinary people and encourages visitors to view the actual sites for themselves. The museum also includes a new WWI research centre.
Short historical facts about WWI in Ieper/Ypres
Ieper/Ypres was a in a highly strategic position during WWI, standing in the path of Germany’s planned sweep across the rest of Belgium and into France from the north. The German army formed a salient around the city, bombarding from nearly all sides throughout much of the war. To counter-attack, British, French and allied forces made costly advances from the city of Ypres into the German lines on the surrounding hills.
By the time the diggers reached Ypres and the surrounding villages, it had been the scene of two huge battles; all the diggers saw was ruin and rubble. The Germans bombarded the place continuously early in 1915 and fire reduced it still further. The massive and sturdy ramparts, designed by the French military architect Vauban, withstood the bombardment. The troops built pathways, tunnels and dugouts into the ramparts and many Australians, mostly gunners, pioneers, engineers and headquarters\' staffs, worked and slept there in 1917. Field dressing stations and casualty clearing stations also operated within the ramparts. AIF men entered the town from the direction of Poperinge or Kemmel and often formed up in the spaces of the battered city before leaving for the front through the Menin Gate.
Menin Gate (Menenpoort)
The Australian war artist Will Longstaff understood the sentimental and symbolic significance of this eastern entrance of Ieper/Ypres and painted \'Menin Gate at Midnight\' which hangs in the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra. It shows the figures of soldiers on their way to the frontline and suggests, by their ghostly nature, that many did not return. Long before the outbreak of war, the actual town gate had disappeared but its site was marked by two stone lions, one on either side of the road. They are now in Canberra, a symbol of the friendship between the region and Australia. The gateway was exposed to enemy artillery and the ramparts here were severely battered. After the war, a great marble archway designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield was erected over the roadway as a Memorial to the Missing of the Salient. It was inaugurated on 24th July 1927 by Field Marshal Plumer who, as commander of the British Second Army, had much to do with the destiny of Australians serving in the Salient. He was among the most highly respected senior British commanders.
The \'Hall of Memory\', the central passage of the Menin Gate, is 66 metres long and 36 metres wide. It is covered by an arch in a single span. At either end of the hall is an archway 16 metres wide and 26 metres high. In the centre of both sides of the hall, with broad staircases leading to the ramparts and to loggias running the length of the edifice. The names of 54,896 soldiers are engraved in Portland stone panels fixed to the inner walls of the gate, up the sides of the staircases and inside the loggias. There are 6,176 Australian names.
The playing of the \'Last Post\' at the Menin Gate is the most important experience of any visit to the Salient. It is sounded by buglers of the local fire brigade; there are usually two buglers, although up to six take part on special ceremonies such as ANZAC Day. The simple but moving ceremony takes place every evening of the year at 8.00 pm, whatever the weather.
Ypres is on the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium and more information about the municipality be found on the Australians on the Western Front 1914-1918 website. The Remembrance Trail website contains interactive maps of the 1917 battles in Belgium, photographs, films and panoramas. It also has three distinct stories about Australian experiences of Ypres, Zonnebeke and Ploegsteert Wood during World War One.