Ypres Cloth Hall Bombarded

Roger Hudson examines a 1915 photograph of the medieval Cloth Hall in the Belgian city of Ypres following heavy German shelling.

Second Ypres began in April 1915, the only major German attack that year on the Western Front. Rather than capture the town the Germans decided to destroy it by artillery bombardment. The civilian population of 17,000 was evacuated and the Cloth Hall together with St Martin’s Cathedral behind it were soon unrecognisable. The shelling served to divert attention from preparation for the first gas attack of the war, on April 22nd, on French troops to the south of the town. The chlorine killed 5,000 within ten minutes. The Germans were taken by surprise at their success, did not exploit it and were halted by a British counter-attack. The Canadians to the north of Ypres were attacked with gas on April 24th, but the Germans suffered big losses, too. The salient had to be shrunk in May and higher ground given up, but the line held. By the end there had been 59,000 British losses compared with 35,000 German. 

Third Ypres, or Passchendaele, starting on July 31st, 1917, came about because Field Marshal Haig wrongly thought the German army was near collapse, because he rightly feared Russian withdrawal from the war was imminent and would release German divisions from the East to reinforce the Western Front and because merchant shipping sinkings by U-boats based in north Belgian ports threatened Britain with starvation. Haig’s enemy was as much the weather as the Germans, the worst rains for 30 years flooding the landscape and filling the craters left by the 4.5 million shells of the preliminary bombardment, which had destroyed the drainage system. It ended in November: 310,000 British casualties and 260,000 German for a few thousand yards. 

Churchill’s suggestion, that the rubble that was Ypres in 1919 should be left as it was as some sort of memorial, was ignored, though the Cloth Hall’s restoration took until 1967 to complete. Built between 1200 and 1304, it probably owed its survival until 1914 to a rapid change in the pattern of trade around 1320, when exports of cheaper woollen cloths from Ghent and Ypres suddenly started to fall, as Italian weavers grew in numbers. Soon a quarter of the town had fallen into ruin and it never recovered its former prosperity, so there was no call for expanding or replacing it. What it did become was an inspiration for Victorian architects when they wanted to erect secular buildings in the Gothic style. Echoes of it can be detected in the University Museum, Oxford, Waterhouse’s Assize Courts in Manchester, Gilbert Scott’s St Pancras Hotel, the High Court in Calcutta, even the Delaware and Albany Railway Building in Albany, New York.