Ypres – How a Battle Site is Remembered

A new book about Ypres has just been published.

Book cover photo of the shattered & desolate remains of Ypres in 1917
Cover of Great Battles – Ypres

There must be dozens of books about the WW1 battles for Ypres in Belgium, but Ypres – part of Oxford University Press Great Battles series – is not really about the strategy or carnage in the Ypres Salient. It’s more about how this most famous and bloody location is remembered and where it sits in the culture of those nations that fought there.

Actually, say its authors, Prof Mark Connelly and Dr Stefan Goebel, it’s a book mostly about tourism and the birth of battlefield and pilgrimage tours.

Almost as soon as the Great War ended in 1917, the ‘business’ of establishing cemeteries and memorials got underway, books and guidebooks were written and people started to visit the area. In the post-armistice decade, Ypres began to be rebuilt with an infrastructure for tourism. Those visiting, whether for remembrance or sightseeing (dark tourism!), needed sites to visit, hotels to stay in, restaurants and bars to eat & drink in, transport links to the area, local transport around the area and tour guides and guidebooks to show them where to go. You could argue that WW1 turned a sleepy little town into a thriving city.

They say that history is written by the victor, but in Great Battles – Ypres, Connelly & Goebel examine the way the Allies and Germany formed their own distinct cultural values and attitudes, especially during the inter-war years.

For example, the victorious nations were first to create memorials on a large scale, eg the Menin Gate, and to visit the area in large numbers. It wasn’t till 1928 that the Germans began to return to Ypres.

Dr Goebel speaking about a presentation slide on the screen beside him
Dr Stefan Goebel at book launch

Different nations have their iconic battle sites, be they traumatic or glorious. Among the campaigns in and around the Ypres salient, it’s Saint-Julian and Passchendaele for the Canadians; Messines and Passchendaele for the Australians and New Zealanders; Dixmude and the Yser Front for the French and Belgians. For the Germans it’s Langemarck. Here a myth was started about how their soldiers advanced on the enemy while singing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”. So it was in the village of Langemarck that they built their cemetary in 1928… a memorial imbued with the spirit of Langemarck that was subsequently folded into the national psyche. Hitler used the Langemarck spirit to stir support during his rise to power and it was no surprise that it was to the Langemarck battlefield and cemetery that he paid a visit on his way to Paris in 1940.

Prof Connelly speaking about a presentation slide on the screen beside him
Prof Mark Connelly

I spoke to Prof Mark Connelly yesterday at their book launch held in Flanders House, London. (Apologies for the sound levels and extraneous noise. It’s a new phone. I haven’t got the recording settings worked out yet!) 

Ypres: Great Battles (Amazon affiliate link) is published by Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0-19-871337-1). Hardback RRP £18.99.

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