Cities & towns

The Reconstruction of Ypres

“The Reconstruction of Ypres” is a fascinating book that also describes a history walk from the Cloth Hall to the Menin Gate

During the First World War the old medieval town of Ypres was the centre of one of the most notorious battlefields the world has ever experienced: the Ypres Salient. In the four years of the war, the entire town centre was virtually totally destroyed. By the time the war ended, a person on horseback could look right across the town. Not surprisingly, it was deserted: the whole population had fled or had been forcibly evacuated.

Yet just ten years after the Armistice, Ypres looked like the town had never experienced a war. Almost all the destroyed buildings had been rebuilt. Today, Ypres is generally considered one of the best examples of post-conflict reconstruction.

THE BOOK: THE RECONSTRUCTION OF YPRES

Dominiek Dendooven and Jan Dewilde – who work for the Ypres’ museum services – have written a fascinating book describing this incredible rebuilding of Ypres. But it’s no dry history book. They have created a 2-hour walk around the centre of Ypres. It takes you to 40 examples of Ypres’ post-war architecture.

Below is a map of their walking route. You can download it as a PDF to print and carry around with you. You can also get the GPX route from my RouteYou page. But to optimally experience the walk, you should buy the book and use it as a guide. Purchasing details are at the end of this post.

However, the publisher kindly agreed to let me reprint some of the photos from the book.

YPRES BEFORE 1914

The book sets the scene, describing the thriving market town of Ypres. It had a military riding academy and infantry barracks. Its centre was home to a number of affluent and influential residents. Around its outskirts were magnificent villas.

Pre-war Ypres
Panorama of pre-war Ypres with St Martin’s Church, the Cloth Hall with Belfry, St James’s Church, St Nicholas Church and St Peter’s Church

The town’s wealth was built on the production of flax, lace, cotton and soap. Ypres attracted many tourists, particularly to the Cloth Hall, the largest non-religious gothic building in Europe. This memorial to the town’s medieval hey-day had survived centuries of periodic siege and war. It contained beautiful frescoes that portrayed the town’s grand past.

Pre-war Ypres
A pre-war Saturday market in front of the famous Cloth Hall

YPRES DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR

The war arrived in Belgium on 4 August 1914. Ypres’ first experience of it was on 7 October when the town was plundered by a German cavalry division. (They left with 8,000 loaves of bread!). The First Battle of Ypres broke out two weeks later. The most famous monuments of the town – the Cloth Hall and St Martin’s Church – were soon ablaze. Over the following four years, the entire town was destroyed.

the destruction of Ypres
Bird’s eye view over Ypres after its total destruction, 1919

At its peak, up to 20 shells were falling on the town every minute. During the four years of the war, the front line was located just 11 kilometres away from the town centre at best, and a mere 1.5 kilometres away at worst.

The destruction of Ypres
Australian troops passing through Ypres, 1918
The Monastery Gate, Ypres
The Monastery Gate remained standing
The Destruction of Ypres
Menenstraat on the corner of the Grote Markt, 1918

RECONSTRUCTION BEGINS

The authors then describe the various scenarios for the reconstruction of the town. The British Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, wanted to preserve Ypres as “holy ground”: a symbol of the war and British sacrifice. But city architect Jules Coolmans had other plans. He intended to completely rebuild the town, retaining a “Flemish, medieval and renaissance” appearance. The local Mayor sided with Coolmans, and plans began to be put into action.

As I mentioned, the book describes – and takes you there if you follow the walk – 40 examples of reconstructed buildings. Here I’ll share just five or six.

THE MEAT HALL

The lower floor of the Great Meat Hall was built in the second half of the 13th century from natural stone. The upper floor in brick dates from 1529. In the early months of the First World War, the building was razed to the ground.

No part of the Meat Hall was left standing by the end of the war. On the left is a corner of the Cloth Hall

In 1923 it was extremely precisely reconstructed, even using the same types of wood.

MINNEPLEIN

While the reconstruction was ongoing, huge numbers of temporary houses needed to be built. Until the First World War, the Minneplein was a large, attractive grassed square.

Pre-war Minneplein Ypres
The Minneplein before 1914

After the Armistice, the area was soon filled with emergency dwellings. For several years, the real Ypres was to be found here. Among the hundreds of huts could be found the Town Hall, the St Martin’s church, the state police barracks, and two schools.

Huts on the Minneplein in Ypres
Emergency temporary huts on the Minneplein
Minneplein 1919
The temporary huts on the Minneplein

THE “LITTLE HUT”

One house you have to visit is in an un-named street (between Slachthuisstraat 18 and 22). It’s an exceptional witness to the solution of the housing shortage after the First World War: an authentic emergency dwelling. In contrast to the wooden huts on the Minneplein, this is a wooden structural skeleton with brick walls. It dates back to 1919! Since then it’s been modified and plastered many times.

The “Little Hut” in 2020: a 101-year-old temporary accommodation!

HOSPITAL / COURT OF JUSTICE

Our Lady's Hospital Ypres
The pre-war Our Lady’s Hospital. The small wall and the side gate on the left survived the war and still stand today.
the destruction of Ypres
This is all that remained of the hospital by the end of the war

The beautiful Our Lady’s Hospital with its French style architecture was, however, not reconstructed. It was not considered appropriate to have a hospital in the very centre of the town, for reasons of hygiene. In its place, a new Court of Justice was constructed.

Court of Justice, Ypres
The almost complete Court of Justice, 1929

ST. MICHAEL’S SCHOOL

Amazingly, the new St. Michael’s school was already finished by April 1921.

St. Michael's School, Ypres

St Michael’s school was built with stones recuperated from the ruins of St. Martin’s Church

THE MENIN GATE

The Menin Gate is one of the most famous war memorials in the world. In the book its design and construction is covered. However, completely independently of my research into this post, I have received a number of outstanding original photographs of the construction of the Menin Gate. So I will be devoting a separate post to this subject shortly.

YPRES 2020

If you’ve got this far, one question on your mind is probably “What does Ypres look like today?” To answer this question I contacted blogger and photographer Stefaan who lives in West Flanders. He posts his photos on his wonderfully named blog Ostendnomadography and his Instagram page. I asked him if he had any contemporary photos of Ypres, and he said he was planning to go there for a photo shoot. He went yesterday and gave me permission to reproduce some of his lovely photos of modern-day Ypres. Thanks Stefaan!

Vismarkt Ypres
The “Minckhuisje” on the Vismarkt was designed in 1899 as a toll booth, and rebuilt in 1923. ©Stefaan Tanghe
Veemarkt Ypres
The pretty wrought iron fences along the Veemarkt were designed according to a medieval pattern, when they were used for tying up cattle. ©Stefaan Tanghe
St. Martin's church Ypres
St. Martin’s Church went up in flames on 22 November 1914. At the end of the war, there remained nothing more than a pile of rubble. Reconstruction began in 1922 and the new church was inaugurated on 15 July 1930. ©Stefaan Tanghe
Cloth Hall and Grote Markt Ypres
The population of Ypres considered the shelling of the Cloth Hall on the Grote Markt as the lowest and saddest point of the destruction of the town. Several stones in the reconstructed Cloth Wall bear the scars of the impact of exploding shells. ©Stefaan Tanghe
D'Hondtstraat Ypres
D’Hondtstraat (first mentioned in 1217 as “Hontstrata”) has always been a narrow, cobbled street with a slight bend. Nothing changed in its reconstruction. ©Stefaan Tanghe
Astrid Park Ypres
What is now called Astrid Park was formerly the bishop’s garden and, after the French Revolution, the Public Garden. ©Stefaan Tanghe
Blauwe Leliestraat Ypres
The workers’ houses in the Blauwe Leliestraat were built in “Flemish bond”: a bricklaying method in which the rows of bricks are alternately laid with the long and the short sides abutting. ©Stefaan Tanghe

OTHER TOPICS IN THE BOOK

The book is a treasure chest of information. It covers much more than the 40 pre/post-war buildings. I also enjoyed reading the following:

  • Biographies of the prominent people of the time: architects Jules Coomans, Raphaël Speybrouck and Pierre Verbruggen, local personality Edouard Froidure, the aristocractic Tack family.
  • Historical descriptions of the beguinage, the town’s ramparts, the theatre, the Grand Bazar.
  • The negotiations to build an Anglican church in Ypres.
  • Profile of the architect of the Menin Gate, Sir Reginald Blomfield.
  • The “Ypres Fury” when the unveiling of a war monument in 1926 led to demonstrations
  • The rise of “Battlefield Tourism”.

WHERE TO BUY THE BOOK

The Reconstruction of Ypres by Dominiek Dendooven and Jan Dewilde (ISBN 9781913491048) is published by Unicorn Publishing in the UK. It is available for purchase on Amazon.co.uk (it doesn’t seem to be available on Amazon.com), Bol.com or Belgian bookshops such as Standaard Boekhandel. The book is also available in Dutch: De Wederopbouw in Ieper (ISBN 9781913491314).

Addendum: Reader Jacques points out that the book is also available at Amazon.nl, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, and Bookdepository (best price).

I hope you enjoy both the book and the walk. If you want to receive my forthcoming post on The Construction of the Menin Gate – and other new posts – directly into your inbox, add your email below:

35 replies »

  1. Almost struck dumb by this post, Denzil. The level of destruction beggars belief, and the concept of the book is wonderful. Many thanks for sharing. 🙂 🙂

    • Amazing isn’t it Jo! Especially the speed of reconstructing a whole town in ten years or so, and without the technologies, mechanization and transportation capabilities we have today.

  2. oh this is fabulous . . . Ypres is somewhere I definitely want to go back to. Thought it an extraordinary place, and this book will make that return visit extra special. Thank you so much for the review. Will be ordering my copy!

  3. An absolutely astonishing feat.
    A couple of years ago, I visited the 1905 Martin House, one of the best known of Frank Loyd Wright’s houses. The state had just finished a restoration, costing $52 million. When you think about reconstructing an entire medieval city, The cost would almost be unimaginable nowadays. as would finding the stonecutters, etc. Amazing.

    • I agree Robert. Currently Belgium is without a proper government, and has been for nearly two years now. 100 years ago they rebuilt a city in 10 years, and now they can’t form a government in two years. Perhaps we should take the politicians’ salaries away and see how quickly they can get something done! After all, in Ypres they had nowhere to live …

      • Wow, I knew about the gov’t stalemate, but hadn’t realized that was still going on! maybe Belgium and the US should form a League of Dysfunctional Politicians (but who would we ever get to organize this!)

  4. Wonderful post, Denzil. The photography is superb. Think I’ll schedule to reblog this on Veteran’s Day. You’ve provided a post for what will now be the third year in a row.

  5. Wonderful article Denzil. It was a pleasure to walk this tour and learning more about a town in my region. West Flanders has much more to offer than Bruges and (my hometown) Oostende… . Towns like Veurne and Ypres, their architecture /history is just amazing. I am glad that I could help you out with some pictures and spend a nice day out in Ypres. Cheers Stef

  6. Fascinating post Denzil. I’ve long been amazed by the precise reconstruction of so many treasured structures across Western Europe. War is horrible, but the human spirit seems to always find a way to endure.

  7. I’ve heard of Ypres of course, but don’t know anything about it in detail, so it was fascinating to read more and to see those photos. It looks like a beautiful place to visit even without the wealth of history there.

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