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Ypres: An ideal base for explorers

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Posted on June 2 2018

Ypres is an ideal base for travellers exploring the Australian Remembrance Trail.

It is within 20km of most of the major sites – Passchendaele, Zonnebeke, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Messines, Ploegsteert and the cemetery at Tyne Cot.

The area is a cyclist’s haven and the medieval city has some of the region’s best food, beer and chocolate.

A must-see is the Cloth Hall which was destroyed in the First World War and rebuilt over 40 years.

Few cities on the Western Front suffered more damage than Ypres during the war and, when the Australian troops arrived in 1916, it was already in ruins.

The British had taken the city back from the invading Germans in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914.

That action established the famous Ypres Salient, pushing the German army out on three sides in a bulge around the eastern end of the city.

This position enabled the German artillery to pound Ypres from all three sides but an implacable British defence kept them from sweeping through to the Channel ports.

The once-proud Cloth Hall, a magnificent medieval market building, was a smoking ruin.

The Cloth Hall in Ypres, Flanders, set on fire by the invading German army in 1914.

The Australian troops spent the second half of 1916 fighting along the Somme, and returned in January 1917 to help hold the line north of Ypres and more came in June for the Battle of Messines.

This was the precursor to the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as the Battle of Passchendaele, a name that has become synonymous with relentless bloodshed and suffering.

Some of the worst fighting of the war took place in the battles for Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and Passchendaele.

All five Australian divisions fought in the region in 1917, the worst year for Australia, with more than 76,000 casualties, nearly double the figure for 1916.

Winston Churchill, Britain’s post-war Secretary of State for Air and War, suggested Ypres be acquired and preserved as a ruin, but the Belgians disagreed and reconstructed their community, brick by brick.

Instead, Britain built the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, inscribed with the names of 54,000 soldiers with no known grave.

Today the Australian Remembrance Trail marks significant sites for Australians – from the Menin Gate, through which nearly every soldier marched on his way to battle, to Tyne Cot Cemetery, the 5th Division Memorial at Polygon Wood, and the beautiful Australians-only cemetery at Toronto Avenue.

Six experiences around Ypres:

1. The Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate Memorial – every night at 8pm.

2. The new Australian gallery at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 at Zonnebeke

3. In Flanders Fields Museum at the rebuilt Cloth Hall

4. Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world

5. Toronto Avenue Cemetery – the only all-Australian cemetery in Belgium

6. Polygon wood – located 8 kilometres east of Ypres town centre are two cemeteries: Polygon Wood Cemetery and Buttes New British Cemetery

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