Ieper (Ypres) - Belgium
At home, or as you tour the twelve locations of the Australian Remembrance Trail in France and Belgium, listen to a four-minute audio-cast featuring the extraordinary stories of Australian soldiers 'on this spot'. Listen to the audio-cast from your device
This is the Cloth Hall in the great market square at Ieper in Belgium. Before 1914 Ieper was a quiet, provincial centre where on Saturdays the square bustled with a weekly market and farmers' wives sold fresh vegetables from stalls in the covered area under the Cloth Hall; where dozens of women, young and old, bent over cushions making the famous Belgian lace. The great buildings spoke of wealthier times, when Ieper had been the centre of the Flanders cloth trade and merchants came from all over Europe to buy and sell at the Cloth Hall. During the First World War Ieper became famous again, not for its produce, but for its ruins.
In late 1914 war came to Ieper. On 22 November German shells fell as the front line between the Allies - British and French - and the invading Germans was established within kilometres of the town. The Cloth Hall caught fire, burning out its interior, but the people of Ieper remained, often in the cellars under the wreckage of their homes.
In late April 1915, a great battle occurred near the town and German bombardments rendered normal life impossible. On 28 April 1915 a local photographer, known simply as 'Anthony of Ypres', took his camera to the Cloth Hall and recorded what he called the 'derniers fugitifs a Ypres' - the last fugitives of Ypres - a man pushing a wheelbarrow with an elderly woman on a mattress on top of it, and beside him a woman pushing another barrow with a bundle of belongings. Dominating the scene is the burnt-out frame of the Cloth Hall. Pictures like this appeared in newspapers throughout the world, including Australia, illustrating the destruction of war and the plight of civilians. Ieper now became a military ghost town echoing to the tramp of thousands of soldiers and the intermittent explosions of shells.
On 3 September 1917 Australia's recently appointed official photographer to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), Captain Frank Hurley, pulled up in a car in front of the Cloth Hall. In his diary he wrote:
This magnificent old [building] is now a remnant of torn walls and rubbish. The fine tower is a pitiable apology of a brick dump scarred and riddled with shell holes. The figures are headless and the wonderful columns and carved pillars lay like fallen giants across the mangled remnants of roofs and other superstructures ... it's too terrible for words.
During the next two months, as he ploughed through the mud and death of the battlefields east of Ieper, recording the experiences of the men of the AIF, Hurley and his assistant, Lieutenant Hubert Wilkins, returned again and again to the town. These bleak ruins captured Hurley's imagination and he produced a series of images of the town, many with the Cloth Hall as their focus. As he confessed to his diary:
For my part, Ypres as it is now has a curious fascination and aesthetically is far more interesting than the Ypres that was.
For him there was pathos and sadness in this rubble, and Frank Hurley captured those sentiments for all time in his famous visual story of the destruction of modern war.