Why a visit to Ypres is a must
Full of inspiration after our visit to the Atlantic Wall in Ostende, our epic 42 day journey in the motorhome is still going. And, we haven’t killed each other just yet! Today, we are heading to Ieper.
Our greatest disappointment today (wait for it !) was that we couldn’t find any frites! We left the Belgian coast later in the afternoon and we were starving. As we knew we were getting close to the end of our time in Belgium, we were still wanting to hold firm on our plan to eat them every day.
Small town after small town came and went and still we remained empty handed. As we approached each new town, we could be heard saying “this one will have them”. But no…..the drive continued and the absence of frites seemed to make us more and more anxious by the minute. Never mind that we had enough food on board to feed a horde of people. That wasn’t the point. Where were all the frites?
We started seeing frites shops in the distance, but like a mirage, when we arrived alongside the building, it actually wasn’t at all what we thought. As time wore on, we started driving up and down the small streets, like a stalker, casing people that we thought were eating them.
Eventually we had to call it quits for fear that we would still be seen driving around small towns in the middle of the night looking for our fix of hot, crunchy chips.
Ieper or Ypres?
Because we are in Belgium, it is the Dutch word Ieper to us. To the French, it’s Ypres and to the British, it’s colloquially called “Wipers”. History suggests that the British armed forces struggled to come to terms with the pronunciation of the French spelling, so summarily made up their own.
Ieper, though a very ancient town, is best known for its role in World War I. Situated on the western side of Belgium, near the French border, the town became a battleground for fighting between the Germans and the Allied forces.
This area was strategically important to the Germans to allow them to take full control of Belgium and to advance further into France. The Allied forces were not prepared to allow this to happen and so this area, also referred to as the Western Front saw fighting continue for years.
Many national armies fought in and around Ieper however it has a strong link to the Commonwealth forces who fought here continuously from 1914 to 1918. It was also the Commonwealth forces who sustained the greatest injuries and fatalities, with over 185,000 soldiers impacted in some way.
The fighting of World War I also took its toll on the city of Ieper, with most of it destroyed. Today, the town has been rebuilt, trying to keep as much as possible of the heritage intact.
This city has an incredible night time vibe, largely generated by the Last Post ceremony that is held every night at 8pm sharp, at the Menin Gate. This was one of our “must-do” events whilst we were here.
We parked our motorhome in a public car park that allows overnight stays after 5pm. Another terrific sign that the Belgians really welcome this kind of travel.
We walked the back streets of Ieper. Old brick buildings, cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways. It was a little brisk, but not as bad as it had been for the last week or so. Still, I had a bit of a spring in my step as we headed towards the centre of town.
And then suddenly, there it was. I can hear myself in my head saying the same things over and over again as I arrive at a new town. But, somehow, this one felt even more beautiful than any of the others I had seen.
The magnificent Cloth Hall
In the centre of town, a magnificent building stood before us. This was the Cloth Hall, initially built in the 13th century and completely destroyed in World War I. Given it’s importance to the town as the marketplace for their strong cloth industry, it was rebuilt as an exact replica after the end of the war.
First a bit of rugby
To kick off our evening we made our way to the only Irish Pub in Ieper. Why Irish? It was the semi final of the Rugby World Cup and Australia was playing Scotland for a place in the final. Not only was this a chance to have a few local beers, but we had a fantastic evening of chatting to a couple of locals and an entire travelling party from Scotland! Between us and the Scots, we had the public bar at capacity.
As the game to’d and fro’d, the noise emanating from the pub must have been huge. National anthems being sung at top voice, singing, cheering and the occasional sledge. Beers were flowing to, a couple of lively pints or three of Leffe and Juliper, as we egged our own teams on.
Finally, Australia was victorious and the Scots in a sign of great goodwill shouted the only two Aussies at the bar another round.
Stories and tears
Whilst this was all great fun, it was the conversations at half time and at the end with them that was of most value. A British man had some great stories of his years spent living in Australia. A lady from the sunny Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, who married an Irish man from Cork, went there to live, and hasn’t seen the sun for nine years!
But the best was the two Scottish men, brothers, who had travelled to Ieper to visit their grandfather’s grave, on the 100th anniversary of his death in World War I. It was the first time they had done so and they were highly emotional. With tears streaming down their faces, they told us of their lifelong wish to do this together, and how visiting the grave yesterday was the most incredible thing they had ever done.
With the rugby over, it was time to watch the Last Post ceremony.
The Menin Gate and the Last Post
If our previous activity had been lively and raucous, the Last Post was (quite rightfully) subdued, sombre and respectful.
Each night since 1928 at 8pm, the Last Post ceremony is conducted at the Menin Gate. It is truly a special event to be part of, and in my opinion, a visit to Ieper should include this. It is believed to be the only daily ceremony of its kind in the world.
The Menin Gate is a perpetual memorial to just under 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers who fell before 15 August 1917 on the Western Front, without a known grave. The gate sits adjacent to the remains of the city ramparts and over one of the main roads that led out of town. A road that lead the soldiers of the Allied forces to the front line.
Inside the walls and the stairwells of the Menin Gate are the names of these soldiers. As noted above, only those fallen soldiers prior to 15 August 1917 are named here. This is because it was realised after it was built that nearly 35,000 names of soldiers wouldn’t fit. These names are now inscribed on the memorial wall at Tyne Cot Cemetery. The Menin Gate also does not carry the names of the New Zealand and Newfoundland soldiers either.
At the time of building, the Menin Gate was controversial, and opinions were varied. Today, with the benefit of time passed, it is an important part of both Ieper and world history.
Such is the number of unknown soldiers, that remains continue to be found in the Belgian fields. If found, they are finally given a proper burial.
Get the best vantage point for the ceremony
We’d read that the best location for getting the best view was to stand in the middle of the road, immediately after it is closed off to stop the traffic going through the bridge. If you can’t get there early enough, then this is probably a good spot.
But, my advice to anyone wanting to attend is to get there around 7.30pm, just as the crowds are starting to move in under the gate. Go underneath and into the middle, to the point where there ropes are. If you can get into the actual corner, this will position you for the best view. Any corner will do. If you can’t then at least try to get alongside the ropes.
The speaker’s lectern is set up in the middle in front of the stairs, and the buglers who are responsible for playing the Last Post stand under the eastern end of the gate. The soldiers march through the middle too.
On any given night there are hundreds of people here which would multiply considerably in the summertime where tourists are at their peak.
At exactly 8pm, the buglers take up their position under the outermost end of the gate.
In complete silence, a speech is conducted by an official in the centre and a soldier delivers The Ode.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
[The Ode by Laurence Binyon, as published in the Winnowing Fan:Poems of the Great War, 1914]
Then, as a means of making this ceremony so much more than just habit, each night a different group of people take part in the ceremony. Here they lay wreaths for family members, long lost to the war. Others lay wreaths honouring regiments that may have a link to a current day military club. Whatever the origin, it’s another sombre reminder of what has been lost to so many.
As it all comes to an end, the main street resembles the Running of the Bulls….with hundreds of people, having had their movements and voices restricted for half an hour, released into the night. It’s bedlam. Everyone’s talking about what they just saw and of their trips to the cemeteries that surround this town.
We see our Scottish friends and shout to them over the top of the crowd, giving two thumbs up to show how much we enjoyed being part of the nightly Menin Gate institution. Everyone flocks into the bars and restaurants, who have waited patiently since 8pm and are now ready to welcome their customers long into the night.
It’s time for us to join them for a couple of wind-down drinks, before making our way back through the same cobbled streets that brought us into this fabulous town.
Been to Ieper? There are so many cemeteries and places of significance in this area that we didn’t get to see them all. I’d love to hear which ones you’ve been to.
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Kerri now travels regularly with her husband, Stirling, where eating great food, drinking quality beer and wine, and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.