Ypres is a good example of an ambitious patriotic exaltation about the heroism of World War I soldiers and civilians, driven by a desire for patrimonialisation set in history, but confronted with the daily life of local populations wishing to pursue the region’s economic development. The city is tackling the challenge of an activity that is at times contradictory: reconciling pilgrimage tourism, based on strong personal motivation (especially for the victims’ families), and memorial tourism, more structured by socio-economic expectations.
A symbol of World War I battles
The Ypres Salient was the subject of fierce fighting from the autumn of 1914 and the spring of 1915, with the German offensives facing resistance from the Allied forces, particularly British and Canadian forces, and again in 1917-1918 when the Allied offensives met with resistance from the German forces. In total, representatives of more than 50 different cultures took part in the fighting. The Ypres battlefield shows the multiple issues related to war, the “culture of war” and the “brutalisation” of conflict:
- The destruction of the place, with the German artillery reducing the city and its medieval buildings to ashes, caused outrage in the population.
- Technical experimentation, with the first uses of combat gas, in particular mustard gas, created a cloud of green vapours that terrified soldiers for the first time in April 1915.
A landscape of ruins facing the hope of local development
In 1917, André Michelin devoted a volume to Ypres in the collection of tourist guides on battlefields. The city, until then typical of Flemish municipalities with a prosperous past but overlooked by tourist circuits, became the embodiment of the destructive power of modern war. Prior to 1914, the only place of interest for a visitor was the Halles aux Draps (Cloth Hall). After 1918, Ypres’ tourism value was derived from these ruins as well as those of the nearby cathedral. The conservation of these ruins is mentioned even while the conflict is ongoing (Van Ypersele, 2013). But with reconstruction there is the risk that the most visible marks of the conflict would be wiped out.
In September 1919, Albert I told the Council of Ministers that Ypres would not be reconstructed. The idea of preserving the ruins, regarded as almost sacred, was strongly defended, particularly by the British. In January 1919, Winston Churchill proposed to buy them in order to ensure their conservation as a permanent memorial. However, the Belgian government in exile had given the victims the right to rebuild the houses since 1918.
In September 1921, a Yprois councillor stated that it would be “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs […]. The ruins are currently the population’s only resource. Everyone makes a living from the ruins.”
cited by Lauwers, 2018: P. 42
In 1919, facilities were established in Ypres to welcome visitors. While the city had only one hotel before 1914, the Pilgrim’s guide to the Ypres salient mentions 14 in 1920. Tourists came to admire the ruins where the victims lived (Gueslin, 2014). The relationship between the victims and the visitors was ambiguous: a large part of the population then depended on war tourism, but this war tourism was not conducive to a return to normal life for the Yprois.
Stefan Zweig, in an account published in 1928 in the Berliner Tageblatt, mentions this memorial tourism in Ypres: “On the Grand Place [of Ypres], there is a car park like in front of a theatre, these cars (…) pour thousands of tourists daily into the city, who contemplate the “curiosities” led by a loud speaking guide. A full package for ten marks: the great four-year war, the tombs, the heavy cannons, the communal hall destroyed by shells, with lunch, or dinner and full comfort “and nice strong tea“, as stated everywhere. In all the stalls, business is done with the dead (…); fancy items are displayed made with shells (which may have torn the intestines of a fighter), beautiful memories of the battlefield.
The reconstruction process was slow and costly. It ended in 1967, with Ypres completely rebuilt, including its monuments, without undermining its status as a memorial of the Great War.
Monumentalising the memory of war as an escape
The narrative and the detailed descriptions make it possible to substitute the immediate emotion by a memory embodied in “new” places of memory. A memorial dedicated to the soldiers of the British Empire with no identified tomb was built in the 1920s. Since 1928, the Last Post ceremony is held at the Menin Gate Memorial. At the end of the 1920s, Ypres presented itself as a city of peace (vredesstad), attracting mainly veterans and bereaved British families (140,000 Britons participated in the tour organised in 1931 by the British Legion).
Aware of the importance of tourism, the local authorities gave priority first to reconstruction. In the interwar period, interest in war sites tended to fade as pilgrimage tourism decreased.
British residents, mostly veterans, were the main actors in war tourism in Ypres during this period. Almost all initiatives came from individuals, sometimes local hoteliers and traders. The city’s first war museum was founded in 1932 by a British veteran. German pilgrimage tourism of the interwar period, at the initiative of nationalist student associations in particular, focused on the Langemarck “student cemetery”, to which the first official pilgrimage was organised in October 1929. Built around the heroic sacrifice of the German youth in 1914 and used by both the left and the right under the Weimar Republic, the “Langemarck myth” became an important element of National Socialist propaganda and led to an increased presence of German visitors during the 1930s (Connelly and Goebel, 2018: P. 111-150).
A memorial industry celebrating peace
At the beginning of World War II, after the campaign of May 1940, there was a brief revival of memorial tourism. The Germans organised tours to see Ypres, the Somme and Verdun, where the oldest were sometimes veterans while the youngest wanted to see where their fathers had stayed or were buried. But war operations prevented the development of this practice.
After 1945, the new World War II memorial sites now competed with World War I memorial sites. The fiftieth anniversary of World War I was an opportunity to reactivate the memory of the conflict, as part of the commemoration and with the support of public entities. In 1964, the first war museum established at the initiative of the local authorities was inaugurated, with the modest Herinneringsmuseum 1914-1918, the predecessor of the current in Flanders Fields Museum. The end of the city’s reconstruction (1967) saw the beginning of an inventory and enhancement of the vestiges of the war.
War tourism in Ypres then experienced a resurgence, initially slow. Pilgrimage tourism flows were on the decline but they were gradually compensated by memorial tourism, boosted from time to time by commemorations. Ypres then focused tourist attention on this war heritage (Bullock and Verpoest, 2011: P. 326). At the beginning of the 2010s, between 300,000 and 400,000 people visited the region annually to discover the different places of remembrance of World War I in West Flanders.
In 2008, Flanders, and particularly its government, announced its intention to seize the opportunity provided by the commemorations of the centenary of the conflict to get more international visibility. Mourning remains central to commemorative practices in Ypres and family ties to the Great War are nurtured. Tourism has a central role, however, as commemorations in Belgium are led by the Ministry of Tourism (Van Ypersele and Gilles, 2014). In connection with the centenary, 2,8 million tourists visited the Westhoek and local players hope to continue to enjoy this surge in attendance (Belga, 2019). Since, the other tourist sites of Ypres and the remembrance dimension of Ypres as peace tourism, intended to go beyond the commemorative cycle (particularly with the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate with overseas combatant countries), are strongly promoted (Lauwers, 2019).
Johan VINCENT, Stéphane TISON, Tom WILLIAMS
- Belga, 2019, « Le nombre de touristes de la mémoire a nettement baissé dans le Westhoek », VRT NWS. 11 juin, en ligne.
- Bullock Nicholas et Verpoest Luc (ed.), 2011, Living with History, 1914-1964. Rebuilding Europe after the First and Second World Wars and the role of heritage preservation. Leuven, Leuven University Press.
- Connelly Mark, et Goebel Stefan, 2018, Ypres: great battles. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- Deseyne Alex, « Le tourisme de guerre à la côte après la 1re GM », De Grote Rede. n°36, p. 82-89.
- Gueslin Julien, 2014, «Y comme Ypres. Un guide Michelin des champs de bataille (1919)», La Revue de la BNU. n°9, p. 82-85, en ligne.
- Lauwers Delphine, 2018, «Du tourisme de guerre au tourisme de paix? Ypres comme lieu de mémoire transnational», La Revue nouvelle. n°7, p. 40-45, en ligne.
- Van Ypersele Laurence, 2013, «Tourisme de mémoire, usages et mésusages: le cas de la Première Guerre mondiale», Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire. n°116, p. 13-21, en ligne.
- Van Ypersele Laurence et Gilles Benjamin, 2014, «Les commémorations belges», Matériaux pour l’histoire de notre temps. n°113-114, p. 100-103, en ligne.