One First World War story that isn’t told as often as those about particular battles and fallen soldiers, is the reconstruction of places.
The conflict left a huge strip of France and Belgium in utter ruins. One area in serious need of repair was Flanders, which lies in the north of Belgium.
Here, that subject is explored as part of a new book on the subject.
Article based on the book ‘From The Ashes’
“I should like to acquire the whole of the ruins of Ypres … A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.”
In January 1919, then Minister of War Winston Churchill spoke in favour of the preservation of the destroyed city of Ypres.
For in British public opinion, Ypres had become a metonym for the sacrifices of the British Empire during the First World War. The destroyed Cloth Hall, in particular, served as a fixture in British efforts to turn Ypres into a place of commemoration.
On the command of the town mayor Beckles Wilson, wooden plaques were placed in the ruins of the Cloth Hall and the St Martin’s Cathedral with the clear message that Ypres was seen as “Holy Ground” by the British people.
The plans were eventually abandoned.
In fact, Ypres and the former frontline rose from their ashes in a spectacular fashion.
The majority of towns and villages were reconstructed by the mid-1920s.
The belfry of the Ypres Cloth Hall was inaugurated on July 29, 1934, seven years after the completion of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. The Cloth Hall, once the symbol of the destructive power of war, had become the hallmark of post-war recovery.
Throughout 2020, this region (known today as the Westhoek) celebrates the reconstruction after the war.
One hundred years ago, however, rebuilding was far from evident. Four years of uninterrupted conflict had reshaped the old battlegrounds into a wasteland.
The plain of the river Yser was flooded, the landscape had been devastated beyond recognition, and the soil was polluted with metal and toxic chemicals. Recovery seemed out of the question.
But then Westhoek slowly clawed its way back to its feet. The resilience of the population, reinforced by acts of national and international solidarity, paved the way for the revival of local communities.
Every town and village has its own story of reconstruction.
In Ypres, the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ tells of how the martyred city and its surrounding region were rebuilt.
The ‘Yper Museum’, meanwhile, focuses on the revival of social life; Diksmuide concentrates on the material and social reconstruction of the town; Nieuwpoort devotes attention to the traditional architecture of Jos Viérin; and Zonnebeke zooms into the remarkable oeuvre of modernist architect Huib Hoste.
The link between reconstruction and tourism is explored in Kemmel (Heuvelland), with Poperinge preferring to make children and the sick the main protagonists in its reconstruction story.
Langemark-Poelkapelle, Houthulst, Koekelare, Veurne, Messines, Lo-Reninge and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission also have their tales to tell, which show how the post-war recovery and its consequences still resonate today.
The fact that today’s terrific landscape of the Westhoek has such a strong homogeneous feel owes much to the picturesque architecture of the reconstruction, adopted to eradicate all traces of war.
‘From The Ashes’ brings all these stories and more together, plus presents various walking and cycling routes to take you to the main sites connected with the reconstruction after the war.
Throughout the region, visitors will also find temporary exhibitions and events marking part of “Feniks: the Great Reconstruction” that covers the 2020 tourist season.
Essential reading for anyone who is interested in Flanders and the First World War and wishes to learn more about its impact on life and legacy.
For more, read ‘From the Ashes: Reconstruction of Flanders Fields after the Great War’, and visit www.feniks2020.be for updates on how the COVID-19 lockdown impacts tourism to the area.