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.

Judging by the amount of damage, this scene is from early 1915, between the first and second battles of Ypres. The roof of the medieval Cloth Hall has gone, burnt out after hits by incendiary shells, as has the Renaissance addition called the Nieuwerck on the right, while the belfry has been badly knocked about. The desperate defence of Ypres by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in October and November 1914 had been the culmination of the ‘Race to the Sea’ to stop the Germans from seizing the vital Channel ports. There was some slightly higher ground to the east of the town felt to be vital, so the frontline bulged to form a salient. This made the British in it vulnerable to shelling from front, left and right, but they were defending, not attacking, which was nearly always a decisive advantage in the First World War and the accurate, rapid rifle fire of the BEF regulars cut down the Germans in swathes. Even so, by November 22nd, when the weather brought the battle to a close, less than half the original 160,000 members of the BEF were left unscathed. The pattern for the rest of the war had been set: trench warfare and unimaginable casualties.

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.

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