Ypres was first shelled on 7 October 1914; the last shells fell on the town on 14 October 1918. By then Ypres was a place of ruins. Its systematic destruction and the heroism of its defenders moved Colonel Beckles-Willson, a serving Canadian Officer and official collector of 'trophies' for the fledgling Imperial War Museum, to write the following high-flown tribute:
'Ypres is only a heap of ruins, but it is an eternal memorial of British valour. It is only a shell-swept graveyard, but the graves are those of our heroic dead...what Jerusalem is to the Jewish race, what Mecca is to the Mohammedan [sic], Ypres must always be to the millions who have lost a husband, son or brother, slain in its defence, and now sleeping their eternal rest within sight of its Belfry. Ypres and the expanse of earth spread out eastward is in truth 'the Holy Ground of British Arms'! For the tens of thousands of gallant Frenchmen who fought and fell here it must also be sacred to our Allies. But the brunt of the defence for four years fell upon us, and 250,000 British dead lie within its borders.'
Winston Churchill, in January 1919, articulated the feelings of many in his eloquent comment: '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.'
Estimates of casualties for British and Commonwealth forces resulting from the occupation and fighting around Ypres between 1914 and 1918 were in the region of 500,000 (dead, wounded and missing).
In 1920, in honour of all that the city and its inhabitants endured throughout the war, Ypres was awarded the British Military Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.
BACK TO MAIN TEXT