In late October 1914, on the eastern side of Ypres town, a bulge formed in the Front Line and the city found itself in the middle of this Ypres Salient.
It became one of the most notorious war zones on the Western Front. On its northern stretch was The Yorkshire Trench. After the first “successful” gas attack on April 22, 1915, a shallow trench was created, initially by the French, but it was managed by the British from June 5, 1915 onwards.
In the spring of 1917, a new trench – Yorkshire Trench – was dug onsite and named after the home region of the British 49th Division that had manned this sector in the second half of 1915.
The trench also provided access to underground headquarters for the 13th and the 16th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers but was abandoned after the first phase of the major British offensive.
The 1917 trench and dugout is a window into the Third Battle of Ypres.
“To fully understand the story of the First World War in this region, you have to go out into the landscape in search of its witnesses,” says In Flanders Fields Museum (IFFM) director Stephen Lodewyck.
You can find them in the cemeteries and monuments, but also in crater pits or trenches,” “Yorkshire Trench is the only British trench in the Ypres Salient still preserved on its original alignment. The importance of this site cannot overstated, as it is a historical window into the war.”
Yorkshire Trench and Dugout was discovered by a farmer in 1992 and partially excavated by The Diggers, a group of amateur archaeologists led by Patrick Van Wanzeele.
Just before the expansion of the industrial estate in 1998, further excavations took place. More than 200 bodies were recovered in this area and many artefacts found their way into the collection of the IFFM.
In August 2002, the Diggers restored about 70m of the trench and both dugout entrances.
Today the site, is in the Ypres’ industrial area and is owned by the City of Ypres. Earlier this year, one of the entrances to the dugout collapsed due to changing water levels, limiting accessibility.
John Morrison, a reservist with the Yorkshire Officers’ Training Regiment, launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to restore the site, including a sponsored walk from Boulogne to Ypres.
“When I mention the First World War and the restoration of the trench, the first thing most people say is, ‘my uncle, my grandad, my great grandad was wounded, or killed, or an unknown in Ypres.’ It’s a place in our collective memory,” he said.
“For those people, donating gave them a forum to remember a family member lost to the war. For me, it’s a reminder of the price that freedom costs.
“After listening to people and their stories and reading so many individual accounts and diaries, I realised that there was only one salient where so much misery, murder and mud was compressed into so small a place – and that was Ypres.”
The In Flanders Fields Museum, together with the Friends of the Flanders Fields Museum (VIFF) also organised a crowdfunding initiative and this, with grants from Westtoer and Visit Flanders, provided a budget to get started.
Stairwells were renewed, information panels replaced, the route of the 1915 trench restored and the route clearly marked for the public.
The renovation ensures that visitors can enter and understand the site properly again. A green management plan has also been agreed with the city’s landscape department.
There were not enough funds to fully restore the 1917 trench – crumbling sandbags limit the trench’s accessibility – but fundraising continues to ensure the site’s experiential appeal and survival.
VISIT: Free access. Bargie St, north of Ypres, opposite the IVVO green park. Free visitor centre at Hoeve Klein Zwaanhof, within walking distance of the site has an introductory film and artefacts. battlefields.com.au and visitflanders.com
DID YOU KNOW?
Flanders is the Dutch-speaking northern portion of Belgium, bordering the northernmost part of France. During World War I, Australian battalions served on the frontlines throughout Flanders. The region was the site of the bloodiest battle in our nation’s history – the Battle of Passchendaele. Today, Flanders is a rich, vibrant place to visit inviting guests to explore battlefield history, the region’s medieval beginnings, culture, nature, and culinary experiences.