Fascinating WW1 Photographs: From Hitchin to Ypres!

Posted on October 27th, 2014

Almost since before the start of this 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of the war, there has been a proliferation of websites devoted to commemorating the Great War; everything from ‘colouring’ in original photographs – which are otherwise imprinted on our folk memories in sepia / black & white when, of course, the war was conducted in spectacular, awful colour – to photographs showing war time locations as they look today.

Those of my readers in Hertfordshire who know Hitchin, will be amazed to see from this coloured photograph – of a battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment parading in Hitchin Market Square on their way to war in August 1914 – how little the square has changed. How many of you still meet for coffee in Halsey’s?

Hitchin Market Square August 1914

Whilst sitting in another favourite café / bookshop last weekend (Waterstones in St Albans), I flicked through one of the many Great War books published recently. Rather than it being a ‘text’ book, it was William Longford’s lovely book, ‘The Great War Illustrated in Colour August to December 1914’; a treasure trove of original photographs and illustrations.

Many of the photographs we might be familiar with and which form the background to our knowledge and understanding of the war. In particular, one of my favourites has long been the one of the men of the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers (amongst whose number were Lt Maurice Dease VC and Private Sidney Godley VC) resting in the main square of Mons just before the battle / retreat began!

4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers

Another is that of Cavalry (British Lancers in field uniform) pictured during that very retreat, showing how the start of the Great War was one of movement, a world away from the static trenches which were just over the horizon.

British Lancers in field uniform

So imagine my delight and amazement when I came across a photograph that I had never seen before (although I feel that I ought to have done) – A photograph which would feature amazingly well on one of those websites devoted to locations of the war then and how they look now.

Apart from the fact that the Grote Markt (the Market Place) in Ypres was full of British Cavalry – so that it really couldn’t have been taken recently as the area doubles now as a car park as well as a marketplace – yet the surrounding buildings were recognisable instantly.

Grote Markt
Following the almost total destruction of the city during the war, Ypres can proudly boast that it was rebuilt brick by brick, exactly as it had been pre-war. In fact this re-building project was only completed finally at the start of the 21st century and is a monument to the use of Germany’s reparations monies!

Ypres

 

But, as much as I was taken by how little change has been permitted throughout the re-building project – such that I could pick out my one of my favourite restaurants bordering the square and could take you to the very building from which the picture has been taken in 1914 – I was also very much taken with the date of this century old picture. For it was dated 13th October 1914, the day upon which the British Army arrived in Ypres.

Our understanding and knowledge of the war is often bounded by a series of images and words either provided for us by films (Oh What a Lovely War) or TV programmes (Blackadder goes Forth) let alone harrowing written accounts such as the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the paintings of Paul Nash.

And whilst none of these can be described as in any way wrong, they do have a tendency to confine our imaginations to the mud and blood-soaked trenches of 1916 and 1917. We do not often think clearly about the opening months when the war was young and fresh, when it was going to be over by Christmas and when it was prosecuted in the way of wars over the last 200 years.

All too often we forget that before October 1914, it was one of movement and reliance upon the Cavalry; for finding the enemy and then driving through them to scatter them, render them leaderless and useless before rounding them up in submission.

So this photograph was a wonderful reminder that between the outbreak of the war on 4th August 1914 and the first Battle of Ypres which began on 14th October 1914, the Western Front as we have come to know it and its most significant memorials – amongst which the Menin Gate, Ypres stands sentinel – were yet but a figment of everyone’s imagination.

These days the Menin Gate in Ypres is famous for the sounding of the Last Post every evening at 8. pm by the Buglers of the Town’s Fire Brigade. This is a ceremony which they have performed every night almost without break in all weathers since 1929. Of course I would be delighted to accompany you on a Great War Tour to attend this most moving of ceremonies.

Menin Gate Ypres

But, if this is not possible at the moment, do not forget that until 11th November 2014, the Last Post is being sounded at the Tower of London where you will also be able to view the moving (literally, as it is growing daily) exhibition, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’.

 

Debbie Coupland

About the Author

Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.

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