Belgium 1917: Third Battle of Ypres
Ieper, A walk around Ieper
St Martin’s Cathedral Vandenpeerboomplein
What is left of the shelled ruins of St Martin’s Cathedral from Word War I can be seen at the side of the reconstructed cathedral just off the Vandenpeerboomplein in what is known as the ‘lapidarium’, place of stones. Here large pieces of masonry, some with their original decorative features, have been placed as physical reminders of the destruction of what Ypres historian, Vernon de Deyne, writing shortly after 1918 described as ‘one of the most important religious monuments of its period’. St Martin’s was begun in 1254 and built to completion over the next two centuries. During the war Captain James Dunn of the Royal Welch Fusiliers watched as some locals tried to make a dollar from the ruins:
A long search of the fallen masonry of the Cathedral for a volute or some such ornament was bootless … A party of Belgian troops, sent to salve a bell, armed with hammer and chisel offered chips at a price. I saw no buyers.
Captain J C Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew 1914–1919, original edition 1938, Abacus, 1998, p.411
The destruction of St Martin’s was widely reported in Australian newspapers and used for propaganda purposes. In the Sydney Mail of 5 May 1915 a large picture of the ruined cathedral carried the caption:
All that is left of the nave of the cathedral – Nothing but the bare walls is now left of Ypres Cathedral’s magnificent nave. The ruins remain as a disgraceful testimony to Germany’s petty policy of ‘frightfulness’ and vengeance.
Sydney Mail, 5 May 1915, p.17
In the cathedral interior are many echoes of war, ancient and modern. Photographs at the back of the altar display the cathedral in ruins and its rebuilding. And the tombs along the choir are originals saved from the shells. A side chapel is dedicated to the patroness of Ypres, Our Lady of Thuyne, a ‘thuyne’ being a sort of palisade fort. A lavishly carved wooden altar screen shows scenes from 1383 when the English Bishop, Spencer of Norwich, led an army to besiege Ypres in order to suppress the town’s rich cloth trade which was so competitive with English cloth from East Anglia. Our Lady is in the middle of the screen with the Christ child and protected by a ‘thuyne’, while other scenes portray the siege. Fervent prayers to Our Lady supposedly kept the town safe from spirited assaults by English and other Flemish troops:
It was believed in Ypres that the town had been saved by the intercession of the Virgin Mary, its patron saint. In the Cathedral Church of St. Martin the citizens set up an image of Notre Dame–de–Thuine, that is, Our Lady of the Enclosures, an allusion to the strong barrier of thorns which had kept the enemy at bay; and a kermesse [church mass], appointed to be held on the first Sunday of August every year in commemoration of the siege, received the name of the ‘Thuindag’, or Day of the Enclosures.
George W T Ormond, Bruges and West Flanders, 1906
On a wall under the organ in the north transept is a memorial to the million or so British and British Empire soldiers who died in World War I. This is one of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s ‘cathedral tablets’ placed in cathedrals in cathedral towns in France and Belgium where British troops were stationed in World War I and there are five in Belgium, at Brussels, Malines, Mons, Antwerp and Ypres. They were placed in these public spaces to emphasise to local people the contribution and sacrifice of the British Empire to victory over Germany. What is curious about the inscription in St Martin’s is that it is in English and Latin. In France, these memorials are in English and French, the French language being used, one assumes, with respect to the local language. As Belgium is officially a triple–language country – Dutch, French and German – perhaps it was too hard to consider having three translations!
© 2013 Department of Veterans' Affairs and Board of Studies NSW :: Last update - December 2010