There are several places around the world with historical significance to Remembrance Day, one of which is the city of Ypres, Belgium. Here, poisonous gas was used for the first time, Canadians were unified in battle for the first time, and thousands of soldiers lost their lives. It may be a sombre visit, but Ypres is the perfect destination for anyone wishing to pay their respects to those who gave their lives in World War One and Two; standing today as a shining example of survival and growth after the horror of war.
First World War
Ypres is a Belgian municipality that played an important role in World War One. The city was the site of three major battles between German and Allied forces as it was located directly in Germany’s warpath through Belgium and into France from the North.
The First Battle of Ypres began on October 19th, 1914 and lasted over a month until November 22nd. The Allied forces were able to defend the town from the German attack. An unofficial Christmas truce was observed on December 25th, 1914.
Poison gas was used by the Germans during the second Battle of Ypres on April 22nd, 1915 which lasted until May 25th, 1915. The gas attack, which first affected Canadian, French, and British soldiers, resulted in little actual ground gained by the Germans since their own soldiers were also exposed to the gas.
The Battle of Passchendaele (the Third Battle of Ypres) is the longest, bloodiest, and most famous of the three. It began on the 31st of July 1917 and lasted until November 6th, 1917. Canadian, French, British, and Anzac troops fought to defeat the German forces at the cost of half a million casualties on both sides.
The Second Battle of Ypres saw the first use of poison gas and was also the first battle for Canadians. Two days into the second battle on April 24th, Canadian troops were directly attacked by the poison gas – but the Canadian line did not break. Canadian troops rallied behind cries of “we are Canadian!” It is often argued that the Second Battle of Ypres made the Canadian army as it was the first time Canadians really fought together. Although it was a loss, it was a glorious loss; one which forged a reputation for Canadian soldiers.
Throughout the Battle of Passchendaele, Canadian forces launched several attacks on the German troops. The third attack was ultimately successful and Canadians finally captured Passchendaele for the Allied forces.
Ypres is a town in the province of West Flanders, Belgium. In Flanders Fields is one of the most famous war poems ever written. It was penned by Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, who wrote it after his friend’s funeral. A friend who fell during the fighting of the Second Battle of Ypres. There’s no understating the importance of In Flanders Fields in regards to war poetry or Canadian literature. This eternal piece was a direct product of the Battle of Ypres.
Ypres is home to many memorial sites that are easily accessible for anyone wishing to pay their respects. The Langemark German war cemetery and the Tyne Cot Commonwealth war cemetery hold the largest number of graves in the area. Saint George’s Memorial Church commemorates the Commonwealth and British soldiers who lost their lives during the battles for Ypres. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing honours the soldiers of the British Commonwealth who died in the Ypres Salient during World War One and who have no known grave. Every night at exactly 8:00pm, traffic around the arches is stopped and the Last Post is sounded in honour of the soldiers who passed through the gate to battle and never returned. This tradition has happened every evening since 1928 with the exception of one period during World War Two when Ypres was under German occupation and it was prohibited.
Things to Do
While most of Ypres was completely obliterated during the battles, it was rebuilt (with German reparation money) and is now a bustling little city. Visit the Yper Museum, which illustrates Ypres’ history dating back to the Middle Ages, or the In Flanders Fields Museum, or the Hooge Crater Museum, both of which are dedicated to Ypres during the First World War. There are also walking and city tours to explore, great restaurants and cafes as well as excellent shopping opportunities. Once you’ve finished exploring the city, be sure to visit Wijngoed ZilvercruysZilver Cruys (Silver Cross) Wine Estate and Brewery De Kazematten for some incredible Belgian wine and beer.
City of Peace
Today, Ypres has the title of “city of peace” and maintains a close friendship with another city that suffered the worst atrocities of war: Hiroshima. Ypres was the first place gas warfare was used and Hiroshima was the first to experience nuclear warfare. Both cities advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
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