By the 13th Century, Ypres  had grown from a small settlement on the Ieperlee River into one of the most important and prosperous cities in Flanders. Its wealth was based on the production of woollen cloth and, with the canalisation of the Ieperlee, which connected the city by boat to the River Yser and the sea, the city became a major centre of trade. By the 13th century, the population had grown to 40,000 people and Ypres was at the peak of its prosperity. A series of grand churches and other buildings boasted the wealth of the city. The most magnificent was the Cloth Hall, completed in 1304, where cloth was stored and traded. However, a protracted siege in 1383, conducted by a joint force from England and Ghent, marked the beginning of a decline in the city’s importance as a manufacturing and trading centre and a decline in its population.
Despite decline in Ypres’ prosperity, it retained its strategic importance in wars. The possession of the city changed hands on numerous occasions. In the 120 years prior to becoming part of the newly independent Belgium in 1838, the rulers of Ypres had included the French, the Austrian Habsburgs, Napoleon and the Dutch. Therefore, it is not surprising that Ypres once again became the focus of a major conflict as war swept through Belgium in 1914. British troops arrived in Ypres on 14 October 1914 and, as the only city in Belgium not in German hands, its defence gained an enormous symbolic importance. By 1918 Ypres was a complete ruin and over 200,000 British servicemen had died in the battlefields surrounding it.
Following the Armistice, the task facing the inhabitants of Ypres was colossal. Virtually every building was destroyed, along with the water, gas and electricity supplies. The roads surrounding the city, together with railways and the Yser Canal, all had to be reconstructed. Restoring farmland around the city was also a massive task, necessitating the filling in of trenches, the clearance of the debris of war, including unexploded munitions and human remains, and the restoration of drainage. A fund was established to finance reconstruction and the government provided prefabricated temporary housing. By 1920 5000 people had returned to the city. However, before any of this work could start some fundamental decisions were necessary relating to the nature of the renewed city.
 Ypres is the French spelling of the city’s names. This is a Flemish speaking area and locally the town is known as Ieper (pronounced Eeper).
A proposal was put forward during the war that the city be left as a permanent ruin in memory of those who had died in its defence, an idea supported amongst others by Winston Churchill. Although the scheme was later modified to just include the area previously occupied by the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral, not surprisingly, it did not meet the support of local people. A further debate surrounded the character of the new city; was this to be a new city, built on modern lines or was the old Medieval and Renaissance Ypres to be restored. The second of these options won the day and today visitors to Ypres find difficult to imagine that this is a town built in the twentieth century.
Although the plan to leave the ruined city as a memorial was rejected, the restoration of Ypres did incorporate a plan for a major memorial in commemoration of those servicemen from the British Empire who died in the Ypres.
 Servicemen fighting as part of the British Army came from countries which were part of the British Empire during World War 1. The largest contingent came from the Indian subcontinent, but others came from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Egypt, Burma and numerous other places. Tens of thousands of men also came from what is now the Irish Republic. The Imperial War Graves Commission was established in 1917 to create permanent cemeteries and memorials and this became the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960.
Salient. The site chosen for this memorial was the Menin Gate, from where the road to Menin leaves the historic walled city. By 1914, the actual gate had been removed and as the road passed through the city ramparts it was flanked by two carved stone lions. This was the most direct route to the battlefields and, although not the most frequently used due to its exposure to shellfire, was probably the best known to soldiers.
Today the Menin Gate is the site of what is probably the most visited and well known of the British World War 1 memorials. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the memorial is a colossal arch and the names of over 54,000 men from the Commonwealth and Ireland, who were killed in the Ypres Salient but have no known grave, line its walls. However, the wall space was found to be insufficient and a further 35,000, who died after 16 August 1917, are commemorated on the memorial at Tyne Cot. The panels of names at the Menin Gate are numbered, and registers are found inside the arch on the right as you approach the memorial from the town centre. Panels with even numbers are found on one side of the memorial and those with odd numbers are found across the road on the other side. A number of other memorials are found on the town ramparts above the gate, including one to troops from the Indian Sub-Continent, who were the first troops to arrive at Ypres from the Empire. Two lions stand on plinths just outside the gate and are replicas of those which stood here in 1914. The original lions, though damaged, survived the war and are now in the Australian war memorial museum in Canberra.
The memorial was unveiled in a ceremony in 1927 by Field Marshal Plumer, who had commanded the British Second Army at Ypres from May 1915. The Last Post was played as part of the unveiling ceremony and soon after this the local police superintendant suggested that the playing of the Last Post should become a daily ceremony. The Last Post Association was established in 1929 and the Last Post has been played at the Menin Gate every evening at 8.00pm since that time. The only break in the ceremony was during the four years of German occupation during World War 2. The ceremony continued at Brookwood Cemetery in England and continued at Ypres on the very day that the city was liberated by the Polish Armoured Division in September 1944. Today the ceremony attracts large numbers each evening and, although still an act of remembrance, has also become something of a tourist attraction.
Soldiers Commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial
These are the stories of some of the soldiers commemorated on the Gate.
Monmouthshire Regiment 8 May 1915
 The front line swept in an arc around the city during World War 1. A bulge of this kind in the line was known as a salient.
Following the German gas attack on 22 April 1915, British troops fought to prevent the advance of the German forces on Ypres. On the 8 May 1915, Three battalions of the Monmouthshire Regiment were in the trenches on the Frezenburg Ridge. During the height of the fighting, it became clear that the situation was desperate. Troops on their right had withdrawn and Captain Harold Thorn Edwards, of the 1st Battalion, attempted to lead his men along a trench to form a flank. They were soon surrounded and were offered the opportunity to surrender. However, Captain Edwards shouted the words, ‘Surrender be damned’, which became part of the regimental history, and fired his revolver. He is buried in New Irish Farm Cemetery, Ypres. The battalion had left their billets behind the Ypres Canal with 23 officers and 565 other ranks. At the end of the day their diary states that they returned with 3 officers and 126 men. Some of these casualties were wounded but a large number were dead. After the battle, all three Monmouthshire battalions were taken out of the line as their numbers were diminished and the survivors formed just one battalion.
The battalion commander, Colonel Charles Lawson Robinson organised a counter-attack but was killed. The second in command, Major Edward Williams was also killed. The Adjutant, Captain Charles Dimsdale, realised that with their right flank exposed due to the withdrawal of the adjoining battalion; the situation was desperate. He was killed when leading an attack on a nearby farm from where heavy machine gun fire was causing many casualties. He was the son of Baron Dimsdale and, along with Colonel Robinson and Major Williams, is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.
Panels 46-48 and 50
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Lawson Robinson
Lieutenant Colonel Robinson, aged 45, had been a professional soldier and had served in the South African Campaign in the Montgomery Yeomanry from 1899-1902. Born in Durham, he moved to Newport in 1898 as inspector of mines in South Wales. As the battle progressed, he realised that the situation was critical and he gave the order for the men to fall back in order to form a flank against the German attacks but he was shot in the neck and killed.
Major Edward Styant Williams
Major Williams was 39 when he died with his men attempting to repel the enemy who were penetrating the trenches. Born in Llanfrechfa, Monmouthshire, he attended the King’s School in Warwick where he excelled in sport. He joined the Monmouthshire Volunteers which later became a Territorial Battalion and was promoted to Captain. In September 1914, he attained the rank of Major. He is also commemorated on a stained glass window in his local church.
Rifleman Francis Cyril Taylor 1769
Francis was just 17 when he died. He was born in Rhiwderin near Newport and worked in the ironworks with his father, David. He was the eldest child and had three siblings. He had joined the Monmouthshire Territorial 1st Battalion and arrived in France in February 1915 when he was still 16.
Naik Laturia Panel 1
Naik (Corporal) Laturia was the first Indian soldier killed on the Western Front. At the end of September 1914, two Indian Divisions arrived in France to reinforce the BEF which had suffered heavy losses. The Indians were the first Imperial troops to arrive on the Western Front. On the night of 22 October the Indian troops began to arrive at Ypres in double decker buses and were immediately deployed in defence of the Messines Ridge in the First Battle of Ypres. Naik Laturia was killed on the same day. Of the 750 men in his battalion, the 57th Wilde’s Rifles, 300 were casualties by the end of the month. On the ramparts just above the Gate there is a memorial to the 130,000 Indian soldiers who served on the Western Front. In late September 1915 the infantry of the Indian Corps were transferred to Mesopotamia. By that date the Indian infantry battalions had suffered over 21,000 casualties.
Shot at Dawn
There are four soldiers who were executed by firing squad commemorated on the Menin Gate.
Private Herbert Burden 3832, 1st Bn Northumberland Fusiliers died 1st July 1915, aged 17, Addenda Panel 60
Herbert Francis Burden lived in Catford, Kent. His father worked as a groundsman in a cricket ground in 1911 and his brother worked in an iron mongers shop. Herbert’s service record shows that in 1914 when he enlisted with the East Surry Regiment, he claimed to be 19 and 240 days whereas he was still 16. He was 5 foot 3 inches tall and weighed just over 8 stone. He also had a number of tattoos on his arms. He appears to have deserted from the Surreys whilst still in Britian and joined the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers before arriving in France. He frequently seemed to wander off and reappear whilst in the front line and at the end of June 1915 he was ordered to the front and disappeared for some time. He was arrested for desertion. At the field court martial he said that he had gone to see a friend whose brother had died. At no stage did he tell them his true age and he was sentenced to death. He was executed on 21 July 1915. The other three men who were shot at dawn were:
Driver Thomas Moore TH/040862, 24th Div Train Army Service Corps 26th February 1916, Murder, Panel 56
Corporal George Povey 10459, 1st Bn Cheshire Regiment 11th February 1915, Leaving his post, Panel 19
Private William Scotton S/6922, 4th Bn Middlesex Regiment 23rd February 1915, Desertion, Panel 49
Soldiers awarded the VC
Private Edward Warner 7602 VC, 1st Bedfordshire Regiment
Private Warner was known as Ted to his friends. Born on 18 November 1883, he worked as a straw hat stiffener when he left school. He must have wanted a little more adventure in his life as he enlisted with the 1st Bedfordshires at the age of 19 in 1903 and went to India. He left the army but enlisted again at the outbreak of war, fighting during 1914 at Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne, Givenchy and Ypres. After a period of relative calm, the following April his battalion was involved in heavy fighting at Hill 60 for around two weeks and on the 1 May it was due to be relieved. However, at 6.30pm the Germans launched a gas attack. It was soon clear the many of Ted’s platoon were overcome by the gas, with the few survivors in a perilous position. However, Ted remained in the trench and fought off the German attacks with little help. When the attack ceased, he found some reinforcements and took them back but the prolonged exposure to the gas had taken its toll and he was carried to the regimental first aid post where he died. The Regimental History quotes his friend, Fred Brimm. ‘Ted was quite sensible to within half an hour of his death. He knew he was going and only wanted another chance to get at them again. His last words were, ‘They’ve gone and done for me, the cowards.’
Although he was buried after his death, the constant heavy fighting and shelling around Hill 60 resulted in his grave being lost. He is, therefore, commemorated on the Menin Gate.
Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher VC, 13th Bn Canadian Infantry. Awarded the VC for his actions on the 23rd April 1915. Died 24th April 1915, aged 22, Panel 24
Brigadier General Charles Fitzclarence VC, Irish Guards. Awarded the VC for his actions on the 14th October 1899. Died 12th November 1914, aged 49, Panel 3
CSM Frederick Hall VC, 8th Bn Canadian Infantry. Awarded the VC for his actions on the 24th April 1915. Died 25th April 1915, aged 28, Panel 24
2nd Lieutenant Dennis Hewitt VC, 14th Bn Hampshire Regiment. Awarded the VC for his actions on the 31st July 1917. Died 31st July 1917, aged 19, Panel 35
Lieutenant Hugh McKenzie VC, 7th Bn Canadian Machine Gun Corps. Awarded the VC for his actions on the 30th October 1917. Died 30th October 1917, aged 30, Panel 32
Captain John Vallentin VC, 1st Bn South Staffordshire Regiment. Awarded the VC for his actions on the 7th November 1914. Died 7th November 1914, aged 32, Panel 35
2nd Lieutenant Sidney Woodroffe VC, 8th Bn Rifle Brigade. Awarded the VC for his actions on the 30th July 1915. Died 30th July 1915, aged 19, Panel 46
The City Ramparts
The ramparts can be accessed from the Menin Gate and other points.
Ypres had been a walled city since the Middle Ages and during the period of French control in the 17th Century the defences were massively strengthened by the French military architect Vauban. Sections of the ramparts survive on the Eastern and Southern sides of Ypres. A series of casements (chambers within the ramparts) were utilised by the British during World War 1 and some of these can be found close to the Menin Gate along Bollingstraat. The second of these, about 200m from the gate, is now a brewery and was the location of the printing press on which the famous soldiers’ newspaper, The Wipers Times, was printed.
It is possible to walk south along the top of the ramparts from the Menin Gate to the Lille Gate, a walk of just over a kilometre. The Lille gate is still flanked by the towers of the medieval town walls and, as it faced South rather than directly facing the front line, this gate was the one most commonly used by troops. Next to the gate you will find the Ramparts Cemetery, which with its waterside setting, is undoubtedly one of the most memorable of all of the British war cemeteries.
The Cloth Hall
This is undoubtedly the most striking building in Ypres, which demonstrates more than any other the wealth of the town in the Middle Ages. Originally constructed between 1260 and 1304, the Cloth Hall was one of the largest buildings in Medieval Europe. The Hall was built as a place to store and trade cloth and the Yser Canal was originally extended into the town to give boats direct access. Over the centuries the Hall also served other purposes, including being the town treasury, armoury and prison. German shelling in World War 1 virtually destroyed the Hall, with the only surviving section being the base of the tower where the war damaged masonry is still evident. Restoration of the Hall, including the installation of a new 49 bell carillon, began in 1920 and was not completed until 1962
Today, the Cloth Hall houses the In Flanders Field Museum and the tourist office. It is also possible to climb the tower, from which there are magnificent views over Ypres and the surrounding countryside. The Hall is the focus of the triennial Kattenstoet, the cat parade, one of the most unusual festivals during which stuffed toy cats are thrown from the Cloth Hall tower to the crowd below. This is a massive event and attracts thousands to the city. The Medieval origins of the festival, when live cats were thrown from the tower, are obscure; two popular theories are that this was a means of culling feral cats breeding in the Hall or that it was a means of ridding the city of evil, cats being associated with witchcraft.
A number of memorials can also be found on the walls of the Cloth Hall, including one to French troops who died at Ypres in World War 1 and one to the Polish Armoured Division. After over four years of German occupation during World War 2, the city was liberated on 6 September 1944 by Polish troops fighting as part of the British Second Army.
St Martins Cathedral
The original 14th century cathedral was completely destroyed during World War 1. The present cathedral was completed in 1930 as a replica of the original, although a spire was added which did not exist as part of the medieval building. It is a truly magnificent structure and contains many original objects which were saved from the building in 1914. The huge rose window was donated by the British Army and the RAF and their crests can be seen in the glass. There are memorials to both the British Commonwealth and French dead within the cathedral. One fascinating item within the cathedral is a display case of items taken home as souvenirs by soldiers during the war. These were subsequently returned by them or their families, perhaps out of conscience and a desire to return these objects to their rightful owners. Amongst other items of interest is a painting depicting the siege of Ypres in 1383. Although clearly subject to artistic licence, the painting does give an impression of the medieval city.
There is an interesting area at the back of the cathedral, where the remains of the medieval cloisters are the only area of the city not restored after the destruction of the war. There is also a Celtic cross set in a garden which is a memorial to the Royal Munster Fusiliers, one of many Irish Regiments which fought in the Ypres Salient.
A large number of other points of interest and memorials exist within the City of Ypres and information can be found in the tourist office. Two which relate to World War 1 are:
The Ypres Town War Memorial: this is located on Coomansstraat at the far end of the Cloth Hall and commemorates men from Ypres who died during World War 1. Although virtually the whole of Belgium was occupied by Germany, Belgian troops manned the trenches north of Ypres and 38,000 of these were killed.
St George’s Church: St George’s is located on Vandenpeereboomplein, on the right hand corner, on the opposite side to the cathedral. This is an Anglican church which was built to serve the large British community living in Ypres following World War 1. The church still holds regular services and is a memorial to those who died in the fighting in the Salient. There are memorials to regiments and individuals lining the walls, filling the stained glass windows and covering the furnishing.