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IN FLANDERS FIELDS

The Cloth Hall and Belfry at YpresYpres is a small town with a big history that is closely linked to Britain. Most family memories go back three or more generations to relatives who served in Flanders during World War One, with Ypres - spelt Ieper in Flemish - as the centrepiece. 

A visit is like a pilgrimage, trying to visualise on-the-spot where awesome battles took place. Short-break coach tours arrive with British Legion groups, or people who have a personal family interest or want to see the setting of those TV historical documentaries. Almost a quarter million UK visitors come each year.

Ypres is a city of 35,000 inhabitants, which had strong ties with Britain even in medieval times. From the 12th century onwards, Ypres was a major cloth-weaving centre - a big rival of Bruges and Ghent - importing cargoes of wool from England.

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there: 

Ask your travel agent for programmes of coach tours with local departures. 

By car from the port or Channel Tunnel, take the motorway for Dunkirk and then the A25 motorway towards Armentieres and Lille. At Exit 13 follow the D948 for Ieper (Ypres). 

During a short break in Bruges there are daily coach-tour packages to the battlefields.

By rail, Eurostar to Brussels in 2 hrs 20 mins from St Pancras and then a one-hour service to Ypres. By air, numerous flights to Brussels, with easy rail connections. 

More information: Tourism Flanders-Brussels, The Flemish House, 1a Cavendish Square, London W1G OLD. Tel: live operator   0207 307 7738  Brochure Line: 0800-9545-245.

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A river and canal system connected Ypres to the North Sea coast, enabling raw wool to be shipped right into the city centre for unloading at the Market Square. 

The business created enough wealth to build the city's greatest monument - the Cloth Hall, where trading took place. At that time, Ypres had a larger population than today. For centuries it kept its medieval appearance, complete with city walls, guild houses, a moat and a cathedral 100 metres high.

Then, in 1914, the river and the canal network formed the last defence against German invasion. Control gates were opened, turning all that area of Flanders into a sea of mud. 

Here the German offensive was halted, at the so-called Ypres salient. It was a bulge that curved just north, south and east of Ypres, forming a major kink in the straight line that ran from the coast to the borders of Switzerland. 

The pendulum had swung in favour of defence, and the stalemate turned into a war of attrition. Attack after attack by each side failed or had limited success during four years of carnage. When WW1 ended, Ypres was just a heap of ruins. 

There were two viewpoints on what should be done with the site. Winston Churchill suggested that Ypres should remain as a ruin - an eternal monument - with a new Ypres to arise near by. 

But supporters of reconstruction won the day. They argued whetEntrance to the Town Hall on the Market Squareher the town should keep its medieval style and layout, or go modern. The decision was that all the public buildings - the very essence of Ypres' history - should be reconstructed, stone by stone, brick by brick. 

Dominating the Market Square, the medieval Cloth Hall called the Lakenhallen looks unchanged from its appearance on old paintings and prints. It is used for civic functions and includes a fine concert hall

 
The rebuilt Cloth Hall housed a Remembrance Museum, which was replaced in 1998 by today's 'In Flanders Fields Museum'. This is not just a tourist attraction, but a permanent exhibition to carry a message of peace. The museum is closed for part of 2011 and 2012 for renovation. See web site for details.

Modern museum techniques are used to give a personalized account of individual experiences - not about generals but about ordinary people, soldiers and nurses, who took part. One third of visitors are school groups - mainly Belgian and British - who come as part of their education in the human realities of war. 

Several coach tour operators feature a range of battlefield tours - not just for Flanders and the Somme, but also for the battles of World War II. 

Outdoor cafes on Market Square are overlooked by the spire of St. Martin's Cathedral Mostly they are 4-day or 5-day circuits, to include the Normandy D-Day landings, Dunkirk and Hitler's Atlantic Wall, the Battle of the Bulge or the airborne drop on Arnhem.

Battlefield tours are normally conducted by specialist guides. They are knowledgeable about the terrain, helping you understand the grim events that took place in such peaceful-looking settings.

Typically, touring the battlefields around the Ypres Salient reveals how the front line moved back and forth over the four-year period. Each mile or two of land was gained or lost at enormous expense of human life on both sides. The huge but well-tended cemeteries testify to the sacrifice. 

Historians record four mammoth battles that separated those stalemate periods when it was "All Quiet on the Western Front" - which in military language meant 'not many dead today'.

Constantly more dugouts, support trenches, concrete bunkers and pill-boxes were built, and mines tunnelled. Today you can visit the preserved trenches at Sanctuary Wood, or the 'Trenches of Death' at Dixmude which was held by the Belgians - a reminder that troops from 30 countries were involved in the Ypres sector, though the majority were British.

Among the silent memorials are over 170 military cemeteries - some huge, like Tyne Cot; or smaller, like Essex Farm. That was an Advanced Dressing Station, where the surgeons' dug-outs can still be visited. 
Visiting the cemetery at Essex Farm, where the poem "In Flanders Fields" was written.
There, during the second battle of Ypres in 1915, the Canadian Army surgeon John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields". Visitors can read the full words of the poem - possibly the best-known of all the war poems - engraved on a bronze plaque beside the bunker. 

As you look at the ranks of white gravestones alongside, it makes poignant reading: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row..." It's a reminder of why November 11 is Poppy Day. 


 

Read what else to see in Belgium

BELGIUM - Flanders in a nutshell

ANTWERP for Rubens and rocks

BRUGES - fast track to the Middle Ages

BRUSSELS - visiting a Grande Place 

GHENT - A central base for Belgium's art cities


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

World War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others (Dover Thrift Editions) - If you are buying any other of the suggested titles, add this one at minimal cost for the poets' version of what war is like. 

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp -- If you are visiting the other major highlight cities of Flanders, here's an excellent book to take with you. 

Major and Mrs.Holt's Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient (Battlefield Guides)  - written by experts with long experience of guided tours, with maps and commentaries of locations visited.

Walking the Salient: Ypres - by Paul Reed - In the "Battleground Europe Series", this book is helpful with a number of guided walks that give a deeper understanding of the battles.


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