High points: Tournai cathedral dates to the 12th century and is a Unesco World Heritage site / Alamy

Harriet O'Brien visits the scene of a dramatic liberation at the end of the First World War

City of bells, spires and winding streets, Tournai is a wonderfully ancient place that bears the glories, battlements and scars of a great flow of empires and dynasties, starting with the Romans. The French also flourished – indeed Tournai has the distinction of being the birthplace of Clovis, the first king of France, and therefore the first capital of the French kingdom. The Spanish and Dutch have also all had a hand in its making, as have the British.

At the town's heart is a magnificent cathedral (in the process of painstaking restoration), a vertiginous belfry, a web of cobbled lanes and a Grand Place fringed with glorious buildings. Beyond are areas of elegant Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture and a busy waterway – cargo barges still travel on the River Escaut – that is crossed by historic bridges. The wonder is that much of this was destroyed in the Second World War and then meticulously restored. The city fared just marginally better during the First World War.

In the face of stout defence from the French, Tournai was taken by the German II Corps on 23 August 1914. It remained under German occupation for the rest of the war. But it was close to the Western Front – Ypres is about 38 miles away, Lens around 34 miles – and a hotbed of the resistance.

Tournai was also a scene of dramatic liberation in 1918. At the end of September that year the German Sixth Army moved its headquarters from Lille to Tournai, destroying bridges and setting up observation posts, with Tournai's belfry a particularly significant lookout point. In the early days of October residents were encouraged to evacuate to avoid fierce fighting – the Germans were clearly expecting a pounding.

By the start of November shells from American and British troops were raining down on the town, and in the early hours of 8 November the Germans started to withdraw. Shortly afterwards the first British troops from the Fifth Army entered Tournai to jubilant cries from the remaining population.

Early next year the tourist office ( tournai.be) at Vieux Marché aux Poteries will open a free exhibition on its premises about the First World War – with particular emphasis on how Tournai's civilians survived. In the meantime, for a poignant reminder of the involvement of the Allies – and the sacrifices made in terms of the loss of young lives – pick up a map (also available free at the tourist office) and head to the Allied war graves. A pleasant walk of about 20 minutes along Rue Saint Martin and Chaussée de Willemeau will bring you to the town's cemetery where, in a separate section beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 689 Allied soldiers are buried: 642 of them were British.

The blue-grey stone and elaborate carvings of the tombs and memorials of local residents are a striking contrast with the uniform rows of shining cream stone of the Commonwealth sector. Among the headstones on the eastern side are those of Lieutenant Vincent Waterfall and Lieutenant Charles Bayly, whose reconnaissance plane was shot down in Enghien, just outside Tournai on 22 August 1914. They were the first British airmen to be killed in active service, and were both aged just 23. Next year Tournai plans to honour them with a memorial at Pont de Fer on Quai Notre Dame on the L'Escaut river.

As you retrace your steps to the centre, you go past two of the town's seven museums. Next to the town hall at Enclos Saint-Martin, Musée des Beaux Arts ( tournai.be/musee-beaux-arts) is an architectural gem, designed by Belgium's Art Nouveau genius Victor Horta – but completed only after the war, in 1928. Highlights include works by Manet, Monet and Seurat. On Rue Roc St Nicaise, a fine 18th-century mansion houses the museum of military history ( tournai.be/musee-armes). It offers an absorbing, eclectic mix (soon to be reorganised for next year's commemorations) including a large section on both world wars and a separate room on the resistance movements of each conflict. Through displays of letters and photographs you learn of the astonishing bravery of the local agents, many of whom were women.

A memorial to Tournai's greatest heroine of the First World War lies just the other side of the Escaut. Cross the river on Rue du Pont, pass the town's remarkable row of Romanesque houses and make your way behind the 13th-century church of St Brice. Here you see a large bronze sculpture of an angel gently embracing a woman. She is Gabrielle Petit, born in Tournai in 1893. At the outbreak of the war she worked for the Red Cross from where she was recruited as a spy. She was arrested by the Germans in February 1916 and shot by firing squad. The memorial records her last, defiant words to her executioners: "You'll see how a Belgian woman knows how to die."

Eighth wonder

This year marks the fifth centenary of another war in Tournai – and subsequent British occupation. In 1513 Henry VIII captured the city from the French. One of his first acts was to establish an extensive fortress on the right bank of the Escaut. The area it covered is still known as Quartier du Château, although just one round tower remains (it is currently being restored). British forces remained in Tournai for five years. Under the Treaty of London of 1518 it was given back to the French.

Staying there

Alcantara (00 32 6921 2648; hotelalcantara.be) was created from two houses dating from the 17th century. Doubles from €99 including breakfast.

Eating there

There’s good choice along Quai du Marche aux Poisson – try L’A rchestrate (00 32 6955 7922), for Belgian cuisine with a modern twist, or the small and convivial Bistro des Traboules (00 32 498 52 41 26).