The town of Ypres grew up on the banks of the river Ieperlee around 1000 years ago, becoming an important cloth trading centre in the middle ages. As the cloth trade flourished the town grew richer, and it was fortified under the Burgundian Dukes in the 13th and 14th centuries.
These medieval fortifications consisted of large stone towers connected by curtain walls, with four gates giving access to the town. There was a flooded ditch'in front of the walls. During the Eighty Years War'Ypres revolted against Spanish authority.
Despite having little or no artillery fortifications, the town held out against a besieging Spanish army for six months in 1583-1584. The defenders finally surrendered due to starvation.
In the first half of the 17th century the Spanish strengthened the fortifications of Ypres by constructing earthwork demi-lunes'in front of the walls and a bastioned'trace around a new suburb to the north of the town (called the Ville Basse).
Ypres was besieged three times by the French (in 1644, 1648 and 1658), who exploited the dry ground on the east side of the town to make their attacks. Ypres was returned to Spain by the Treaty of the Pyrenees'in 1659.
In the late 1660s the French made alarming advances into the Spanish Netherlands again, gaining control of the important fortresses of Douai, Tournai and Lille. This left Ypres exposed to the next French blow. By this time the fortifications consisted of the medieval walls, protected by some demi-lunes to the east and west. The northern sector was strongly protected by the bastioned trace around the Ville Basse. To the south, where the ground was very wet, there were virtually no artillery fortifications.
The defences were completed by a covered way'stretching most of the way around the town. In anticipation of a coming French attack, in 1669 the Spanish ordered the Walloon engineer Jean Boulengier'to strengthen the fortifications of Ypres. Boulengier set about building an earthwork citadel'in the east to protect the dry approach used by the French in the previous sieges.
This citadel took the form of a regular pentagon with five bastions and five demi-lunes. There were false brays'in the flanks of the bastions that faced away from the town. In the map to the right, Boulengier planned to link the citadel to the eastern defences by the construction of a new bastion and stretch of rampart. This plan is flawed because the left flank of the new bastion could have been used against the citadel.
In the end, the citadel stood closer to the town, between two demi-lunes in front of the eastern wall. This position meant that part of the eastern rampart and the two closest demi-lunes could be used against the citadel if the town fell into the hands of the enemy. The citadel was completed in under two years due to its earthwork construction, which was cheap and simple to carry out.
In 1678 French troops of captured Ypres after an 11-day siege, attacking from the east and taking the citadel. Vauban'immediately set to work improving the fortifications. Ypres capitulated on 26th March and work on the fortifications began as early as April.
The first thing Vauban did was to demolish the Spanish citadel and replace it with a hornwork. The main reason for doing this was that the citadel was not fully integrated into the adjacent fortifications and the nearby ramparts could have been used against it. A hornwork did the job of protecting the eastern approach much more satisfactorily.
Vauban remodelled the defences of the Ville Basse, creating an additional front of two demi-bastions'inside it. He placed sluice gates here to divert water into the ditches and create inundations'to strengthen the south-western sector of the town's defences.
Two hornworks were built to strengthen the north-western part of the fortifications. The more northerly of these had a second ditch, with a covered way and three lunettes'to add to its strength.
After having made these alterations to the outer defences, Vauban returned 4 years later in 1682 to give his attention to the inner defences, which had remained essentially unaltered since medieval times. He dealt with the medieval ramparts in two different ways.
Firstly, in the south-west where the fortifications were rendered almost unapproachable by the wet ground, Vauban made minor alterations to the medieval defences. The towers were lowered and their walls thickened and the curtain walls had earth heaped up behind them to give them strength. Lunettes were built in the ditch to protect the main wall and there was a strong covered way.
The rest of the fortifications were not so safe from attack, so a more radical approach was required. Vauban constructed a bastioned trace around the rest of the town, from the Bellepoort (Bailleul Gate) all the way round to the Rijselpoort (Lille Gate).
The construction of the bastions was rendered difficult by the sandy nature of the ground, which required deep foundations to be made if the walls were not to sink. For this reason the bastions were not very deep, particularly on the eastern front, where the central bastion is extremely wide for its depth.
An interesting feature is the sally ports in the flanks, accessed via staircases in the ears of the arrow-headed bastions. Each sally port had wooden walkway leading to the false bray and a quay for the small boats used to access the outworks.
Vauban's modifications transformed Ypres into a strong fortress, worthy of being one of the most advanced places of the Pré Carré. Its many hornworks, outworks and inundations ensured that a competent commander could hold off an enemy for a long time.
Ypres was ceded to the Dutch by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1716 and its first test came in 1744, when it was attacked by the French. After they took the town, they demolished the hornworks in order to weaken its defences. In the late 19th century the ramparts were partially demolished.
Although the decision was made to demolish the fortifications of Ypres, which were thought to be stifling the town's growth, this was never fully carried out. In the late 19th century, the western sections of the ramparts were torn down, but the town did not grow, so the demolition was not completed.
This left roughly half of the main ramparts intact, although the Bellepoort and the Antwerpenpoort gates were removed. These remains however, were to face one final assault; that of the German heavy artillery, which was trained on the town during the First World War. Most of the town was levelled, but the ramparts somehow survived.
After the war it was decided to rebuild the Menin Gate (previously the Antwerp Gate) as a memorial to the British soldiers who died on the Ypres salient. The names of 54,896 soldiers with no known graves are inscribed on the walls of the gate.
It is interesting to note that the sandy ground that had caused Vauban's engineers so much trouble in the 17th century was also a problem to the builders of the Menin Gate in the 20th century.
Today, Ypres has been completely rebuilt and the remaining fortifications have been restored. The Vesting Route Ieper suggests a route beginning at the powder magazine in the west (next to the train station) and ending at the Menin Gate in the east (but it is equally possible to go the other direction of course).
The walk is 2.6km long and takes around an hour and a half. There are 23 information panels along the route explaining the importance of certain sites, and there is a film about the history of the fortifications showing at the Municipal Museum (€2.5 entrance fee).
Guided tours are available from the tourist office, which is located in the magnificently restored cloth hall. Guided tours include the film mentioned above, which is shown in the powder magazine. It is recommended to book tours in advance. The museums are closed on Mondays.
The surviving fortifications of Ypres, whilst far from complete, are in excellent condition and well worth a visit. The Menin Gate offers a poignant reminder of the horrors of the Great War and the quiet, green ramparts seem a fitting companion - a reminder of past conflict and of the value of present peace.
Ypres is readily accessible by train from Lille on the French side of the frontier or Courtrai on the Belgian side of the frontier. The station lies on the west side of the old town, opposite a demi-bastion built by Vauban, at the western end of the surviving fortifications.