Cities of the Western Front

A hundred years on from the First World War, each month brings new ceremonies and remembrances- recently, the beginnings of the Battle of the Somme and the Brusilov Offensive- which serve as reminders of the immense destruction and innumerable casualties of the conflict. Between these major battles, the war of attrition and scorched earth- led by generals who knew no other way to use modern weaponry like artillery- devastated armies, locals, and settlements on the war’s vast fronts. On the western front, many displaced Frenchmen and Belgians watched as their towns and countryside were transformed into a rubble-strewn hellscape of no man’s land. For the people and their leaders, the prospect of rebuilding after the Treaty of Versailles was a daunting one. However, in one of history’s most remarkable conservation efforts, not only were the cities of the Western Front reconstructed, but their historic landmarks and streetscapes were raised from the ashes with such skill and craftsmanship that tourists today are stunned to learn that the sites they visit are technically less than a century old. The foremost examples of this astonishing preservation can be found in France’s Reims and Arras and Belgium’s Ypres.

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A print depicting the Reims Cathedral Fire

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A Reims portal today, in fully restored Gothic splendor

The city of Reims was far back from the allied trenches, but was within range of German “Big Bertha” cannons whose barrages sparked a fire which gutted the city’s Notre-Dame cathedral, a grand case study in the Gothic style and site of the baptisms of some of France’s first kings. One of the most famous landmarks to be damaged during the war, its preservation was entrusted to the experienced and driven architect Henri Deneux. Aware of the historic importance of the cathedral, Deneux prioritized a long-term repair process in which original materials salvaged from the rubble were used as much as possible (and barring that, materials faithful to the original structure). Using then state-of-the-art concepts such as prefabrication and steel space frames he erected a temporary roof which allowed the project to continue safely for twenty years. The cathedral today- a world heritage site and major tourist attraction- appears unchanged from its pre-war self.

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A British regiment marches through the ruins of Arras

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Central Arras today

In Arras, the front lines sometimes ran right through the city center. In the heat of battle, three quarters of the city was left in ruins. Arras was considered highly unique before the war for its low country style architecture, with streets of narrow gabled houses and a Bruges-style Belfry. Pierre Paquet was the town planner tasked with recreating this identity, a job he needed to complete quickly in order to allow displaced inhabitants to return home. He used reinforced concrete, popularized not long before by such engineers as Auguste Perret, in unprecedented abundance to cheaply rebuild the bare bones of the city blocks; meanwhile, he and a team of architects pored over pre-war paintings and photographs in order to craft the facades as faithfully as possible. Through this method they preserved the essence of the city while incorporating into it the efficiency of modern structures and interiors.

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Ypres in 1918: what little remains of the Cloth Hall and cathedral is in the center

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The Cloth Hall and cathedral today

While the damages in Reims and Arras were immense, neither come close to the infamous evisceration of the Belgian Front’s main hotspot. Three battles were fought over the Flemish city of Ypres (also known as Ieper) and by 1918 the medieval trade hub was completely levelled. No reconstruction seemed more daunting than that of Ypres, but the government of Belgium saw such a task as a symbolic means of healing war wounds and returning to pre-war normality. Fortunately, the town’s municipal architect Jules Cooman had made detailed surveys of the major landmarks, including the cathedral and now-famous cloth hall, for routine restoration before the war; these were now used, with the dedicated help of returning residents, to rebuild these sites brick-by-brick. No such records had been made of the city’s private buildings, but surviving images of them were used to develop a generic historic “Ypres Style”, used to create a streetscape and backdrop that looked to the past. Due to the total destruction, the process was slow and interrupted by the Second World War; the Cloth Hall was finally completed in 1967.

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The shell of the Ypres Cloth Hall

The restoration of the cities of the Western Front was so thorough due to highly specific circumstances: the immediate seizure of reparations money from the central powers, the economic crash that caused many people to seek work in massive public projects, the novelty and horror of modern warfare which kindled a strong desire to reclaim the peaceful past. By contrast, the places where historic conservation is most needed today (such as Syria) are often places where war has left the population poor, unstable, and somewhat cynical. Nevertheless, there is still relevance to be found in the programs of the twenties and thirties, such as the ability of preservation to rebuild identity and economy through tourism. Most importantly, the restorations- battle scars and imperfections included- keep local history alive and past struggles in the cities’ memories.

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