This morning, Rod drove us about 70km in our hire car to Ypres. Ypres, or Ieper as the Belgians spell it, was a medieval town that was once reputedly larger than London and Paris. During the 1914-1918 War, the town was completely destroyed by heavy artillery shelling and fire.
Three major battles were fought in and around Ypres during the conflict. The first occurred early in the war when the invading Germans stormed through Belgium on their way to Paris. The second took place the following year, leading to major destruction of the town and an enormous casualty toll. It was during the Second Battle of Ypres that the Germans introduced a new weapon to trench warfare: gas. The gas didn’t always kill the soldiers who inhaled it, but those who survived it often suffered ongoing debilitation because of it.
But it was the Third Battle of Ypres, fought in 1917, that most interested me, because this battle, usually known as the Battle of Passchendaele, was fought by the Anzacs. It was a crucial battle towards the end of the war that was fought in appallingly bad weather over a long period of time, that led to much of the conflict taking place knee deep in mud. Britain and her allies were trying to break out of the Ypres Salient by taking one small village at a time and gradually pushing the German front line back to the sea. Once there, the British objective would be to attack the bases of the German submarines that were posing such a threat to British shipping.
We went first to the massive Cloth Hall, which was originally constructed back in the 13th century, destroyed during the Great War, and reconstructed once more after the war had ended. It now houses the In Flanders Fields Museum, where the exhibits recounted key events from the World War One history of the Flanders region of Belgium, supported by maps, photos, artefacts and interactive displays.
Just a short walk down the street we entered the massive Menin Gate, situated in a part of the town where soldiers of the British Empire marched through the town on their way to the battlefields during the war. Many never returned, and their bodies were either never found or never able to be identified. The Menin Gate pays tribute to these brave young men. Engraved upon its walls are the names of the fallen who did not receive a burial under their own name. Two lions, a very recent gift from the Australian government, guard the entrance to the gate. Only three days after Anzac Day, there were still many wreaths that had been placed, including one from the Australian government, one from the New Zealand government and one from the Australian Defence Force.
We took some time to read some of the names and reflect on the terrible cost of the fighting that took place in and around this town.