Monthly Archives: June 2014

Ypres: the game of ghosts

Professor Mark Connelly, University of Kent

I first visited Ypres on a cold, wet day in the spring of 1987. I remember the Grote Markt and the Cloth Hall with its colonnade along its eastern face. My memory also brings back a sense of emptiness. In my mind’s eye the Grote Markt was completely empty. My recall is of no cars parked, no buses moving around it, just a massive space shiny wet in the drizzle. I returned in mid-July, and again my memory is of a quiet, sleepy little place. I remember walking up to the Menin Gate and on the corner of the road opposite its great east portico were very ordinary, non-descript little shops. I think one was a grocer or maybe a butcher’s. Of course, the timing of my visit was very interesting for it was in the immediate run-up to the seventieth anniversary of the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres. Yet, there was little sign that anything in particular was being planned. I can’t remember any notices giving details of special events or parades. All seemed immensely low-key. This is not to say that the people of Ypres were indifferent to the war and the impending anniversary, far from it. Anyone who has ever visited the city will know that at 8pm every evening buglers sound the Last Post under the great barrel vault of the Menin Gate, or the Hall of Memory as its designer, Sir Reginald Blomfield, so poignantly labelled it. It is a simple, but deeply moving act of respectful commemoration. No, the point I am making is that although the swelling tide of the Great War renaissance was well under way, it had not yet brought vast numbers of British people, especially school groups, on visits.

The Menin Gate, Ypres

The Menin Gate, Ypres

It was a few years before I visited Ypres again – probably five or six, in fact. On my return I was shocked. The Meninlaan was now a road of smart boutiques and shops. The Grote Markt was much busier and there was a car parking system in place. Going to the Last Post ceremony was no longer a case of turning up relatively late on and picking a good spot, but one that required arrival at least fifteen minutes before hand. Since then I have visited Ypres with increasing frequency, and so am part of the phenomenon in which British, and Commonwealth, particularly Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, visitors have flooded into the city to see the gate, stand choked with emotion at the Last Post ceremony, visit the museum in the Cloth Hall… and buy chocolate tin helmets, drink the wonderful local beers and eat the equally great mussels and chips. The number of visitors now means even more careful timing for the Last Post ceremony. To stand any chance of getting a good view, arrival has to be at least 45 minutes before. Wreath-laying by a group, be it a school, British Legion party or regimental association, now occurs almost daily, and the summer months can be packed solid. As for visiting on Armistice Day, especially if it falls on the weekend, a visitor could well fail to get a view of the Menin Gate at all being forced to take up a place somewhere near the Grote Markt.

Yet, what are we all there for? What brought us to this charming, friendly West Flanders city? Trying to determine what motivates each and every visitor is, clearly, impossible. However, a few broad-brush suggestions can be made. One of the huge advantages and outcomes of digital communication is the availability of information and records. In turn, this has made genealogy much easier, and given the very bureaucratic procedures of the armed forces, we are all much more likely to find a family member who once performed some sort of military service. Then, given the ubiquity of Ypres in the British military experience of the Great War, it is hardly surprising that many people find out that their relative served, and possibly died, in the salient. Next comes the mystical appeal of the Great War itself. What has given it such a grip on our imaginations? Perhaps it is something to do with envy? In our world of cynicism, information coming at us from all angles bearing many different, often contradictory, messages at once, the men who went off to war in 1914 are bathed in a glorious light of certainty. No matter what became of them later, our hearts tell us that they signed up because they believed totally and utterly in the cause. Unconditional belief in a cause: how wonderful that seems. We also have the bitter-sweet sensations of power through knowledge of their fate which we often translate into a journey starting in innocence but often ending in brutal experience. We can pity them, and that gives power, but also makes us feel strangely powerless. If only we had a time machine, we could go back and warn them, tell them what we know and how they might avoid their fate. But we don’t, and so desperately feel the need to do something. We can go to where they served, suffered and perhaps died. We can stand there and conjure up some kind of communion with them. This is clearly an emotional journey with very little hard-headed, rational thinking about it, but emotions are powerful motivators and the visit to Ypres is often seen as the way of assuaging, or even exorcising, them.

Although I am professional historian in the wondrously privileged position of being paid to research and teach about the past, when I go to Ypres I definitely feel its emotional pull and it often crashes right through other bits of my thinking and feeling. By the same token, my obsession with the city itself, as opposed to the former battlefields beyond it, is not so much its wartime state as what happened to it from the end of the war and up to 1939. I am fascinated by how the local people returned to this shattered city and started rebuilding their houses, businesses, occupations and lives. I am fascinated by the fact that they lived in little wooden prefabricated bungalows. I am fascinated by the fact that almost instantly a tourist industry grew up and people started visiting the ruins and battlefields. When I go to Ypres I am desperate to find signs of them; to think about the kinds of places they would have visited, the people they would have met, the souvenirs they bought, the memories they brought home with them. I want to know more about the British people who decided to make Ypres their own home. By the mid-1920s there were enough of them to necessitate the building of a school, and for visitors to notice the existence of a permanent British community. It is for this reason that I am delighted to be writing a book that will explore these very ideas and questions. Ypres gets under the skin alright, but how much of that is because of what we impose on it by what is in our head and how much is because of real ghost inherent in the very fabric of the place, I really don’t know.

Read more about the Menin Gate and other war memorials at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website:



Step Short and Folkestone and the First World War Project

Dr Will Butler, University of Kent

Over the past eight months, I have been working as the project manager and lead researcher for an exhibition at the Step Short premises in Folkestone, and a self-guided walking tour app of the town, taking in sights that were of significance during the First World War.

Aerial shot of Harbour (2)

Aerial view of wartime Folkestone

The idea of the project was to provide a very local perspective of the war, and how it affected its local population. Throughout the war, Folkestone acted as one of the main thoroughfares for a plethora of different nationalities, those either escaping the European mainland, or making their way to it. Much is known of the Belgian refugees, and British, Canadian, and American soldiers who stayed and passed through Folkestone, but it is important to tell the story of those left behind: how the changing makeup of the town influenced its people, how they lived and worked, and how the town itself was altered during over four years of conflict.

Belgium Refugees-inner harbour

Belgian Refugees in Folkestone

Naturally, Folkestone, “The Queen of the South Coast” as one handbook described it, as one of the most popular seaside resorts in Edwardian Britain, was used to an influx of people, especially during the summer months. Therefore, the rapid change in the demographic of the town was less of a culture shock than it may have been in other towns. There were few problems between the townspeople and its visitors, but this does not mean that there were no issues at all. Friction existed between soldiers and shopkeepers when high prices were charged; petty crime increased; prostitution became a real concern; and a whole host of regulations that restricted movement took its toll on how the town worked.

The relations, however, were, on the whole, harmonious. All concerned appeared to benefit from the arrangement- the town provided the soldiers and refugees with a comfortable environment to stay, and in turn, the inhabitants were afforded economic stability, and a whole host of entertainment opportunities, from musical performances to sporting events (Baseball had even been introduced to the town by 1918).

The exhibition will provide information and visual material to illustrate some of these changes and relationships, acting as a starting point for those interested in the history of Folkestone, and those with a wider interest in the home front, or the war in general. Additionally, the self-guided tour will demonstrate, through photographs and written information, how many locations were transformed by the war, and how they have changed subsequently. This culminates with a walk along the Leas to the newly erected Memorial Arch, which commemorates all those who passed through the town on their way to the front, or on their way home.

Launch of Gateways to the First World War, Friday 30th May 2014

Last week saw the launch of Gateways to the First World War, one of five AHRC-funded centres designed to enhance public engagement and mark the centenary of the conflict. Gateways is based at the University of Kent and brings together a team of researchers from the Universities of Portsmouth, Brighton, Greenwich, Leeds and Queen Mary, London. The launch was part of a First World War Study day organised by the University of Kent’s German Department. The event was opened by Professor John Baldock, the University of Kent’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research, who expressed the university’s pleasure in hosting the Centre and introduced an afternoon of debate and discussion on the First World War and its commemoration.

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Dominiek Dendooven, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, His Excellency Dr Emil Brix and Dr Deborah Holmes discuss how and why we should commemorate the First World War

One of the highlights of the event was a panel discussion on the commemoration of the First World War chaired by the event’s organiser Dr Deborah Holmes, of the German Department, and featuring Dr Emil Brix, Austria’s Ambassador to the UK, Dr Suzanne Bardgett, the Imperial War Museum’s Director of Research, and Dominiek Dendooven of In Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium. The panel led a fascinating discussion of both the problems and benefits of commemorating an event often complicated by ‘contested memories’. Dr Brix expressed his belief in the importance of European collaboration in the commemoration of the war, and Mr Dendooven discussed the ways in which the Flanders Field Museum is attempting to overcome national boundaries through exhibitions focused on individual war experiences. Dr Bardgett outlined some of the exciting centenary projects supported by the Imperial War Museum, including Lives of the First World War, the First World War Partnership, and Whose Remembrance?, the IWM’s project to investigate the role of colonial troops in the conflict. The discussion reinforced one of the key aims of the Gateways project: to encourage academics and the wider public to work together to discover connections between the local and the global during the First World War. As Gateways’ Director Professor Mark Connelly stated, the conflict was, for Kent and the South East in particular, a ‘global event with global repercussions’ which took place ‘on the doorstep’.


Gateways Director Professor Mark Connelly with His Excellency Dr Emil Brix, Dr Deborah Holmes and Dr Heide Kunzelmann

The panel discussion was followed by an illustrated lecture by Professor Connelly and Dr Heide Kunzelmann, of the German Department, presenting photographs taken of troop mobilisation and prisoners of war in 1914 by Dr Kunzelmann’s great-grandfather, a medical officer in the Habsburg Army. Comparing these newly discovered sources to photographs taken by British officers in 1914, the pair talked about the connections between the personal and the public, and the similarities between artefacts of the First World War from different sides of the conflict. Through their discussion of the photographs – which focused on the themes of mobilization, violence, vulnerability and reconstruction – they emphasised the importance of revisiting accepted and established approaches to the conflict.

img023 img017 Photographs taken by Dr Friedrich Kunzelmann in 1914

The event ended with a drinks reception and official launch of the Gateways to the First World War Centre. Professor Connelly and Dr Will Butler outlined some of the centenary projects already underway, including a collaboration with Step Short of Folkestone on an app tour highlighting the town’s connections to the conflict, and guests were shown the newly-launched Gateways website. After a successful opening event, the Gateways team is now looking forward to developing its work with local groups and organisations on a range of First World War projects across the UK. The Centre aims to encourage and support public interest in the conflict through a range of events and activities such as open days and study days, providing access to materials and expertise, and signposting for other resources and forms of support. Forthcoming events include:

19th July 2014 – 25th January 2015 – ‘Lest We Forget’, an exhibition in conjunction with Portsmouth City Council

13th September 2014 – A Family History Day at Brighton Museum in conjunction with Brighton Museums and Pavilion

28th September 2014 – Gateways to the First World War Public Open Day, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

12th December 2014 – ‘Representations of the Christmas Truce’, a one day symposium at the University of Kent

More details of these and many other projects can be found on the Gateways website at The Gateways team can be contacted at and via Twitter and Facebook.