Belgium 1917: Third Battle of Ypres
Ieper, A walk around Ieper
Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) Grote Markt
This is Ieper’s best–known building, work on which began in 1200 and the huge ‘campanile’ clock in the belfry makes a magic sound as it strikes the hours and quarter–hours. The destruction of the Lakenhalle began on
18 November 1914 when the First Battle of Ypres was raging outside the town and the Germans shelled the buildings. At that moment, a small group of Irish Benedictine nuns from their monastery in nearby St–Jacobbstraat were making their way towards the Grote Markt in search of a workman to help them move their Abbess out of the besieged town:
With a shudder, we started on our errand. We had not gone a hundred yards when, whiz … bang, another – then another – and another. Half way down the street a British officer on horseback cried out to us: Mes Soeurs … à la maison’! [Sisters, go home!] … we hurried on. While crossing the Grand Place [Grote Markt] a perfect hail of shells and shrapnel came down on all sides. Explosion followed explosion. The soldiers and civilians crouched down by the side of the house whenever a shell burst but we, ignorant of the risk we were running, walked bravely on.
Dame M Columban, OSB, The Irish Nuns at Ypres: An Episode of the Great War, London, 1915, p.71
By September 1917, when Australia’s first official war photographer, Captain Frank Hurley, arrived in Ieper the town was a ruin after three years of war and shelling. He described the ‘Lakenhalle’ as a ‘remnant of torn walls and rubbish’:
The fine tower is a pitiful apology of a brick dump, scarred and riddled with shell holes. Its beautifully carved facades are ‘small–poxed’ with shell splinters, not a vestige of the carving having escaped. The figures are headless and the wonderful columns and carved pillars lay like fallen giants across the mangled remnants of roofs and other superstructures. Oh, it’s too horrible for words.
Frank Hurley diary, 3 September 1917, National Library of Australia, www.nla.gov.au/apps/cdview?pi=nla.ms–ms883–1–5–s23–v
During the war hundreds of thousands of British and British Empire troops marched across the Grote Markt and past the ruins of the Lakenhalle, down the Meensestraat and out the Menin Gate to the front line:
It was most eerie passing through Ypres by night. Everywhere were the gaunt skeletons of houses and the impressive ruins of the once splendid Salle des Drapes (Cloth Hall) towered over the empty square … the only sound being the echoing footsteps of the troops in the deserted streets and the low murmur of subdued conversation … it was with feelings of profound relief that the town was left behind.
Walter Belford, ‘Legs–Eleven’, Being the Story of the 11th Battalion (AIF) in the Great War of 1914–1918, Perth, 1940, p.339–340
After the war the British, in pursuit of the idea of turning Ypres into a memorial, declared the ruins of the Lakenhalle area, which also included St Martin’s Cathedral, as ‘Holy Ground’. In this they had the support of Brussels architect, Eugène Dhuicque. The British Town Major, responsible for the administration of Ypres before the return of Belgian civilian rule, stationed a sentry beside the ruins and even erected a sign declaring – ‘This is Holy Ground. No stone of this fabric may be taken away. It is a heritage for all civilised peoples. By Order, Town Major’. The implication was, doubtless, that the Germans had been distinctively ‘uncivilised’ in razing such an architectural treasure to the ground. Local objections to these British plans eventually saw them dropped and the Lakenhalle rebuilt under the supervision of the great rebuilder of Ypres, architect Jules Coomans.
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010