100 years since eyewitness account of Ypres

Picture of Basil Clarke
Basil Clarke: witnessed destruction of Ypres

It was exactly a century ago, on 28 November 1914, that war correspondent Basil Clarke had published what he considered to be the best scoop of his career.

While living as a fugitive in Dunkirk, he was the first journalist to reach the centre of Ypres following the German destruction of it.

But when his eyewitness account of what he saw appeared in his newspaper, the Daily Mail, it had to be presented as a third person piece he had heard from someone else. This was because Clarke feared that admitting to have been in Ypres himself may have given the authorities, who wanted to catch him and send him back to Britain, too much of a clue as to his whereabouts.

While a necessary deception, Clarke later admitted that it meant “a toning down and loss of visual quality”. So today, to mark the centenary of the articles publication, I thought it would be worth reproducing the article as Clarke has originally intended it:

“A fair-haired Flemish girl stood bare-headed at the doorway in Ypres. She gazed wistfully upon the smoking Cathedral before her and the ancient Cloth Halls with their beautiful old walls all jagged and broken by German shell.

More shells, whining pitifully on their scandalous errand, flew by overhead, only to crash at length against ancient masonry and bring down more stones and timber and dust upon the heaps of ruins that now constitute the old-world city of Ypres.

The girl took no notice. Not a flinch showed upon her homely face at the falling whimper of the shells. It might have been carved of marble, like the faces and hands and bodies of the cathedral saints lying shattered in the road before her. But it lit up at the mere pleasure of seeing someone approaching. Visitors were rare just then in Ypres.

“Not afraid, Ma’mselle Bulckaert?” said my Belgian companion, who knew her.

“No longer, monsieur. One gets the habit.”

Another shell. We were silent while it passed.

Shakespeare wrote: “That sound again. It hath a dying fall.” A shell’s note, too, has a “dying fall”.

Mademoiselle imitated the whine, clapped her hands for the crash at the end of its fall, and gave a little, mocking laugh.

“Phew!” she said, and she shook a fist towards the German lines. “Bang away. What more have you got to break?” And then she spread her hands towards the wreckage in the square before us.

Mlle Bulckaert was the daughter of the café keeper in the Platz Alf van der Peereboom, of Ypres. Residents were few, and the only people to be seen were a few French soldiers, a woman who stood at the door of an imitation marble bar, a blind old man with red eyes who faltered about in the bar, trying to be useful, and two tiny children who sat on the floor taking their soup with wooden spoons. Ypres was given up for the time being to the shells.

And what a sight, then, from the Grand Platz! The Cathedral, the famous Cloth Halls, the Museum of Antiquities, the theatre – all ruined; all battered into holes and heaps. Imagine looking upon, say, Canterbury Cathedral or Westminster Abbey piled up in heaps – heaps of stone and mortar and wood, and saints and angels and stained glass and tombs and curtains and pictures and chairs and candles and Prayer Books – the old and the new, the venerable stones of the year 1400 and the forgotten umbrellas of 1914 – all in one headlong jumble!

That awful sight struck me cold. I wondered how Mlle Bulckaert and my guide could contrive to chatter. The city, so silent and empty and waste, might have been unpeopled by a plague, shattered by a mad god. You looked, and still looking, could hardly believe.

I left my companion and walked across the Platz Alf van der Peereboom to the Cathedral, entering through a shell hole in the wall.

Jagged patches of sky lay visible through the vaulted roof. The whine of the shells came through the gaps and into the silent church – an eerie, fascinating sound to echo through the arches. Never before could such devil’s music have sounded in that holy place.

I struggled along the aisle over stones and heaps to the altar steps. Fallen crosses and candlesticks, rent curtains, shattered tombstones and great holes!

A mitred bishop, Jansenius, carved in red-veined marble, lay still and intact on his tomb-top. Round about was chaos. Some half-burnt flowers lay on his chest. Part of a Rubens painting, detached from the wall, hung ragged and charred over his head.

The far end of the church was filled with blazing wood. A shell had caught the wooden roof not long before and fetched it down. It was burning now and cutting off the exit by the western door.

Outside, in the Platz, on the other sides of the Cathedral, lay such of its ruins as had not fallen inwards through the roof. Of the beautiful belfry about one-half remained standing – jagged at the top like a broken tooth.

Notwithstanding its shortened height and battered state, someone had planted a Belgian tri-colour on its highest point, and there it still fluttered in the breeze, though a shell had cut off part of the last colour of the three.

The remainder of the tower and of the broken walls of the Cathedral lay in heaps on the ground below, just as shell after shell had knocked off segments piecemeal.

In one of those heaps was a big brass drum with spikes on it and cogwheels. It was part of the mechanism of the famous carillon of Ypres – a carillon whose tuneful bells had played hourly to the townsfolk for hundreds of years, even back to the day when wicked Philip-le-Bel swore in his wrath because they kept him awake at nights.

In other heaps were sections of beautiful stained-glass windows that had come crashing to earth under shell fire – mammoth spiders’ webs of lead filled with glass of wondrous hues.

I picked up a piece and held it up to the sun. It depicted the white taper fingers and the wrist of a woman – perhaps an angel or a saint or the Virgin – on a background of gorgeous blue.

Through a gash in the Cathedral wall overhead protruded into the street the torn end of a painting. It flapped to and fro in the wind like some poster torn from a hoarding by a gale. It was another of the splendid wall pictures, by Rubens, with which Ypres Cathedral was filled.

The Market Halls of Ypres, near by, were, like the Cathedral, ruined. I walked along their colonnades, now roofless, and in many places smashed beyond recognition. In one place a great book lay smouldering on the stones. It was part of the marriage register of Ypres, and the dates alongside entries on a page I opened were 1714.

Later I walked through the streets to see houses without roofs, houses without fronts, houses with bedsteads and wardrobes ready to topple out through holes in the walls and into the street, houses, too, that were just one tall heap of stones and plaster.

In the Platz Alf van der Peereboom was a huge hole in the street big enough to accommodate a London motor omnibus. The hole was made by one German shell. Thousands of such shells must have been used to reduce the historic buildings of Ypres to the state they were in.

Mlle Bulckaert, at the café door, and her father were full of the details of the bombardment. They were there all the time in their café overlooking the Cathedral. At first, they told me, no shots went near the Cathedral or the Cloth Halls or the Museum. House after house suffered, and the prison and the hospital, but not these places. “No, monsieur. For days and days not a shell went near the Cathedral or the Cloth Halls. The Germans would not smash them up. They thought to take the place and make it their own.”

But day followed day, and the Germans were as far from taking Ypres as ever. For this simple reason: the Allies’ troops did not sit still under bombardment. They went out on all sides of the town and kept a ring of trenches and fire and steel, at a distance varying between four to eight miles, between the Germans and Ypres. German shell and shrapnel could reach it, but not German men. Attacks from north, east and south, separately and collectively, all failed.

Then the Germans smashed up the historic treasures of Ypres.

“Perhaps they got angry,” as Mlle Bulckaert put it to me. “Anyway” (to continue her narrative) “the shell fire changed on Saturday last (November 21). On that day shot after shot went into the Cloth Hall and brought it down in heaps. Then came night and a rest from shell fire. On Sunday they changed their aim to the Cathedral. Sunday, too, of all days! Shot after shot into it! And I was christened there, monsieur. I should perhaps have been married there – who knows?

“The abbé was about all the time. He and an English officer carried buckets of water to put out the flames after every shell that set the woodwork alight. Oh, he was heartbroken, but he and the English officer worked and worked and thought nothing of the shells.

“All that night the firing went on, and sparks and fire and burning wood were thrown onto our house from houses near us that were hit. Some of these houses caught fire, and we should have been burned down, but father stayed on the roof, getting here and there with a fire extinguisher, putting out every bit of fire he could see. He sat on the tiles with an extinguisher, monsieur, waiting for the shells to come.

“Next day (Monday) the Germans finished off the Museum of Antiquities, the theatre, and ever so many more houses and buildings around the Platz.

“Like this, one after another they went. There seems not much more to finish, but still they keep on. Seventy shells fell in half an hour just before you came along. I’ve not counted them since…”

So Mlle Bulckaert had been counting the shells as she gazed out wistfully from her door over the ruins of Ypres!

M Bulckaert would not leave his home, and as he would not go his daughter would not. She would stay with her father, she said simply. “How can I leave him with no one to see to him?” I looked again at this brave Flemish girl, wished them luck and left Ypres.

On the country roads later, as I came towards Dunkirk I noted anew with an added joy the grim-set, determined faces of the troops marching out to the lines to maintain that ring of trench and fire and steel about Ypres. It was safe and fitting, I felt, to leave it to them and their arms to deal with those defilers of Ypres.”