Belgium 1917: Third Battle of Ypres
Ieper, A walk around Ieper
A sacred place for the British race
At two minutes past eight on the morning of 4 August 1914, soldiers of the Imperial German Army began pouring across the Belgium border near Gemmerich, 50 kilometres from the city of Liège. By late 1914 only a small part of Belgium was unoccupied by Germany. It was an area of countryside stretching southwards 55 kilometres from the North Sea coast at Nieuwpoort to the town of Ypres (Ieper), where the front line bulged out in a great semi–circle enclosing an area known as the ‘Ypres Salient’, and south from there to the French border. The invaders briefly entered Ypres in October, but for the rest of the war the town was defended by thousands of soldiers from Great Britain and the British Empire. For the nations of the Empire, Ypres became a symbol of British determination to win the war for it was ostensibly to defend Belgium neutrality that Britain had declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Captain Walter Belford, the historian of the 11th Battalion AIF, caught the importance of Ypres in his description of the battalion’s first entry into the town in September 1916:
The 11th Battalion was now in the famous Ypres Salient, a part of the Western Front that was regarded by the High Command as being of the highest importance to the Allies, not only from a strategical point of view, but also from the moral effect that the successful defence of Ypres, territorially at least, had upon both sides.
Walter Belford, ‘Legs–Eleven’, Being the Story of the 11th Battalion (AIF) in the Great War of 1914–1918, Perth, 1940, p.332
During the war Ypres itself was almost completely destroyed by shellfire and all the inhabitants had been evacuated from the town by late April 1915. Thereafter it was a place of ruins lived in only temporarily by British units supporting the fighting in the Salient. After the war it was seriously suggested by Winston Churchill that the town not be rebuilt but that the ruins remain as a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of British and Empire soldiers who had died in the great battle in the Salient or who had served there and survived – I should like us to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres. A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.
The best way to gain a sense of the significance of Ypres, and how the memory of those events has been recorded in the town, is to visit the key sites associated with those years of war. We begin in the main square – the Grote Markt – in front of the Lakenhalle (the Cloth Hall).
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010