The greatest cultural destruction from the war in Flanders was in the leveling of Ypres. And the most visible treasure of the town was its immense medieval Cloth Hall, built in the 13th and 14th centuries. During the days when Ypres was a world leader in the textile industry it served as the market place, warehousing, and offices for what was then the cutting-edge new technology and source of wealth.
The southern wing of the hall had a magnificent façade, surmounted by a tall belfry in the center, its oldest element. The foundation stone for the belfry (and watchtower) was laid by Baudouin IX, Count of Flanders. Over the centuries the Hall was frequently restored and embellished and in 1914 held many irreplaceable artistic masterpieces, frescoes, murals, tapestries, and painting. Many of these would be lost forever during the Great War.
|Reduced to Rubble and the Stub of the Belfry
In early November German artillery units drew close enough to begin shelling Ypres and a few random hits were made on the Cloth Hall itself. The southeastern section of the Hall, a less strongly built addition known as the Nieuwerk, constructed in the 17th century, was the first feature to fall. Struck by German artillery on 21 November 1914, its south gable was destroyed. The following day the Cloth Hall burst into flames, destroying its upper floors, and a few weeks later the Nieuwerk was completely destroyed. Over the next four years, shells relentlessly reduced the structure, although—oddly—just enough of the belfry survived so that the Tommies marching through the town always recognized the ruins.
With the necessity to focus on rebuilding the necessary infrastructure of Ypres, it took a full decade after the Armistice to initiate restoration of the Cloth Hall. Funding, local redevelopment priorities, architectural purity–would the design match the original or would contemporary styles be incorporated in the design–were all areas of great contention. The strategy to try to match the look and quality of the pre-1914 structure mostly prevailed and construction finally began in 1933 on the belfry. Eventually, despite the slow precise craftsmanship involved and the coming of another war that saw the town occupied by the enemy for five years, the project carried forward. The rebuilt Cloth Hall was dedicated in 1967, by my one-time acquaintance King Baudouin, grandson of Albert I, Belgium's greatest hero of the war.
|The Cloth Hall Gloriously Restored
Today, the Cloth Hall is once again one of the world's cultural treasures and a premier tourist destination. It holds the town council and tourism offices, but most notably, the In Flanders Fields Museum, which our readers surely know, is one of the finest military museums anywhere and an unforgettable experience for visitors.
Sources: Michelin Ypres & the Battles of Ypres and Major and Mrs. Holt Ypres Salient Guides