Julie Podevyn and Sebastiaan Vandenbogaerde “Ce n’est pas la loi qu’il faut changer, c’est la mentalité” Ypres Tribunal for War Damages (1918 -1935): intermediary for a city in reconstruction
In January 1919, Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965) chaired a session of the Imperial War Graves Commission in London during which he declared that the destroyed city of Ypres was a symbol for the suffering of the British Empire. He intended to keep the centre of Ypres in permanent ruins, as holy ground and a “zone of silence”. Initially, Belgium’s government supported the idea, which was firmly disapproved by the local Ypres population. Moreover, since 1916, state officials had drafted plans to reconstruct the country through several institutions. Among those new institutions were the tribunals for war damages (tribunaux et cours des dommages de guerre/rechtbanken en hoven voor oorlogsschade), an idea copied from the French, which had to guarantee swift and equal compensation for citizens affected by the Great War. The tribunal at Ypres, the seat of a judicial district, was the last to close its doors in 1935.
The post-war reconstruction of the devastated regions, such as the north of France, Belgium, the Westhoek region and Ypres has long captured scholarly interest. Conversely, research on the tribunals and courts for war damages, established both in France as well as in Belgium, has remained rather under analysed in both countries. This contribution examines legislative texts, legal doctrine, local case law and literature to assess the role of the Ypres Tribunal for War Damages within the city’s reconstruction process between 1919 and 1935. Through the example of the Ypres Tribunal for War Damages, we argue that, despite the best of intentions, this judiciary fell short of its objectives in managing reconstruction in the aftermath of the Great War. The legislation underpinning its operations was too chaotic, procedure was too formal, and the tribunals were unequipped and understaffed.