At heart, IEPER, about 30km southeast of Veurne, is a pleasant, middling sort of place, a typical Flemish small town with a bright and breezy main square overlooked by the haughty reminders of its medieval heyday as a centre of the cloth trade. Initial appearances are, however, deceptive, for all the old buildings of the town centre were built from scratch after World War I, when Ieper – or Ypres as it was then known – was shelled to smithereens, the reconstruction a tribute to the remarkable determination of the town’s citizens. Today, with its clutch of good-quality restaurants and hotels, Ieper is an enjoyable place to spend a couple of nights, especially if you’re after exploring the assorted World War I cemeteries, monuments and memorials that speckle both the town and its environs, the most famous of which are the Menin Gate and Tyne Cot.
Ieper’s long and troubled history dates back to the tenth century, when it was founded at the point where the Bruges–Paris trade route crossed the River Ieperlee. Success came quickly and the town became a major player in the cloth trade, its thirteenth-century population of two hundred thousand sharing economic control of the region with rivals Ghent and Bruges. The most precariously sited of the great Flemish cities, Ypres was too near the French frontier for comfort, and too strategically important to be ignored by any of the armies whose campaigns crisscrossed the town’s surroundings with depressing frequency. The city governors kept disaster at bay by reinforcing their defences and switching alliances whenever necessary, fighting against the French at the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, and with them forty years later at Roosebeke. The first major misjudgement came in 1383 after Henry Spencer, bishop of Norwich, landed at Calais under the pretext of supporting the armies of Pope Urban VI, who occupied the Vatican, against his rival Clement VII, who was installed in Avignon. The burghers of Ghent and Bruges flocked to Spencer’s standard, and the allies had little difficulty in agreeing on an attack against Ypres, which had decided to champion Clement and trust the French for support. The ensuing siege lasted two months before a French army appeared to save the day, and all of Ypres celebrated the victory. In fact, the town was ruined, its trade never recovered and, unable to challenge its two main competitors again, many of the weavers upped sticks and migrated. The process of depopulation proved irreversible, and by the sixteenth century the town had shrunk to a mere five thousand inhabitants.
In World War I, the first German thrust of 1914 left a bulge in the Allied line to the immediate east of Ypres. This Salient preoccupied the generals of both sides and during the next four years a series of bloody and particularly futile offensives attempted to break the stalemate – with disastrous consequences for Ypres, which served as the Allied communications centre. Comfortably within range of the German artillery, Ypres was rapidly reduced to rubble and its inhabitants had to be evacuated in 1915. After the war, the returning population decided to rebuild their town, a remarkable twenty-year project in which the most prominent medieval buildings – the old cloth hall, the Lakenhalle, and the cathedral – were meticulously reconstructed. The end result must once have seemed strangely antiseptic – old-style edifices with no signs of decay or erosion – but now, after eighty-odd years, the brickwork has mellowed and the centre looks authentically antique and rather handsome.