The Rebuilding of Ypres
Many of you have been on a battlefield tour with Rifleman and stayed in the beautiful Belgian city of Ypres. People are amazed when told that the town was more or less completely destroyed during the four years of the Great War to the extent that by the end of the war, you could sit on horseback in the Grote Markt and see from one side of the city to the other such was the destruction. But what also fascinates visitors is that it has been completely rebuilt in its former image and these few paragraphs tell that story.
Ypres is a medieval city and in 1914 was made up of many small old buildings that complimented the Cloth Hall and the cathedral. The city’s official language was French and it was known by its French name ‘Ypres’. With a population of 18,000 many of the people were well off and those on smaller incomes still had, and maintained, a good lifestyle.
In 1895 a restoration project had begun to refurbish many of the city’s old historical buildings. In charge was architect Jules Coomans and by the summer of 1914 the project was complete. And then the war came!
The British and Commonwealth troops defended the town stoically for the duration of the war. But being situated in a salient, Ypres could be fired on from three sides and throughout this period the city was reduced to ruins. By 1918 houses, shops, municipal buildings, schools, the cathedral, churches, and the famous Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) were gone, they were nothing more than rubble.
But, people began to return and this created a need for new housing as well as the rebuilding of the infrastructure along with shops, schools and medical facilities.
In July 1919 a subsidy was offered to those who wanted to return. This was to help toward building basic accommodation. People were also paid war damages and this helped them make a start to rebuild again on the ground where their old property had once stood.
King Albert had set up a fund in 1917 with the aim of helping inhabitants of devastated regions to return. This fund was used for temporary housing in the form of prefabricated houses (prefabs) that could be assembled quickly and cheaply. In 1919 lots of these small housing units were assembled and used by the people returning to Ypres. The area of the Plaine d’Amour (Minneplein) in the north-west of the town was designated as safe for this type of housing. However it was only considered as temporary. The idea was for them to be used for a few years and then the inhabitants would move out and the prefab would be sold. But this idea was dropped as the amount of refugees was so great and people were still living in them well into the twenties. Eventually local authorities bought the houses and rented them out in much the same way the British Council did with a similar scheme after the Second World War.
Rifleman Tours visits the Passchendaele Memorial Museum regularly with its battlefield tours of the Ypres salient and here one of these King Albert prefab houses can be seen.
When Jules Cooman returned to Ypres after the war he was put in charge of its reconstruction. He was the right man for the job with his experience in the restoration work that had been carried out before the war. Probably because of this, Jules wanted to rebuild Ypres exactly in its original image. A meeting was held and although a number wanted to build a new modern city, those wanting to rebuild the city in the old style won. The King was one who promoted this style of reconstruction.
So in 1920 work began on building this replica city. Within five years most of the private buildings were completed and in the early 1930’s, public buildings had followed suit thanks to the many builders and craftsmen who flocked to the town that resembled one large building site.
The two main buildings that are always associated with Ypres took longer. They were the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Cathedral. The work on the Cloth Hall commenced in 1928 and by 1934 the western wing and the belfry tower had been completed. The eastern wing was not started and unfortunately Jules Coomans died in 1937 before work on it had begun. A new architect called P A Pawuwels took over the rebuilding of the eastern wing and the Nieuwerk and in 1967 the Cloth Hall was finally completed.
One change was interestingly made to St. Martin’s Cathedral and that was to its spire. The pre-war spire had been a square tower. During the period of restoration of Ypres’ historic buildings Jules Coomans had made plans to change the spire to a pointed one and so when the cathedral was completed in 1930 it now possessed a pointed spire.
As well as the complete re-building of the town a huge memorial was added – the Menin Gate, one of the most well-known war memorials in the world.
This triumphant archway bares testament to the sacrifice of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth troops who in defending this beautiful city made the ultimate sacrifice and have no known grave.
After its completion in 1927 the memorial became an important place of pilgrimage for visitors to the battlefields and every evening since 1928, at 8pm buglers sound the Last Post.
The ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ypres and traffic is stopped from passing through the memorial. Only during the Second World War was the ceremony interrupted.
For all of you looking for a guided battlefield tour, do pick one that includes this beautiful city and allow Rifleman Tours the opportunity to bring history back to life.
Lest we Forget
Our guided battlefield tours that visit Ypres are as follows: