When we decided to visit Belgium I knew that I wanted to spend some time exploring the battlefields and memorials from the First World War. In High School (and a couple times since) I read and re-read All Quiet on the Western Front and was shocked and horrified by the atrocities of the war. The author was so wonderful at painting a picture, I am woken by nightmares every time I read this book. Also, the Belgian Ambassador to the US had recommended a book called War and Turpentine for people who planned on traveling to his country, which I had just started reading when the planning of this trip began. Both are great books with a WWI time frame, but a true focus on the human impact of war.
The first thing that made my list of WWI destinations was the city of Ypres or Ieper. This city located just 53 kilometers south / southwest of Bruges and played a key strategic role in WWI – it was the bottleneck that stopped the German advancement through neutral Belgium into France. It is also home to some of the most horrific fighting in the war. There were multiple battles of Ypres (1914, 1915 and 1917), the second of which was the first time the Germans used poison gas during the war. The town was completely destroyed in the war, but was rebuilt afterwards which was paid for by the German reparations. The town center continues to look like it would have before the war.
Ypres is home to the “In Flanders Field” museum which, located in the main square of the town. This museum traces the war from a local perspective, showing detailed maps, uniforms and even rebuilt trenches that you can walk through – putting you in the middle of the battle. Other than what I’ve stated before, probably the most memorable thing about this area is it was the site of the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 between German and British soldiers.
For those of you not familiar with the Christmas Truce, it took place just a few months into the war (a war that was supposed to be over very quickly, no less). Near Christmas the various warring factions laid down arms, collected their wounded and buried their dead, sang Christmas songs, shared photos of their families, etc. The museum had a very moving video recreation of this. The video is very simple and consists of four men (French, German, British and Dutch) standing in uniform telling a bit about the war at Christmas time. The most poignant part is when each begins to sing a Christmas Carole (Silent Night) in their native language. As the song is sung, the soldier who was speaking, steps into the background and another steps forward to tell his tale. I watched the full series of soldiers roll through their parts. These were just boys fighting this war, forever changed. Likely their first time really away from home, especially for Christmas. It was quite moving.
We spent about 90 minutes at the museum. I’m very interested in WWI and read most of the materials posted in the museum, but I am also a very fast museum patron. I’d suggest you budget 90-120 minutes for a visit, depending on your level of interest.
Each night at 20h00, since the end of the war, at the Menin Gate in the center of Ypres, the Last Post Ceremony takes place. This moving ceremony begins with the Last Post Bugle Call, progresses to the laying of wreaths (which guests can sign up and do in honor of friends, family or impacted organizations) and ending with the Réveille Bugle Call. During our visit we also had some pipers and an additional moment of silence.
The crowd was large and is expected to be large throughout the year, as 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. We arrived at the Menin Gate about 19h45 and the area was utterly packed. We knew it would be busy, but weren’t expecting it to be this busy on a Sunday night in late spring. We were able to hear everything perfectly well, but couldn’t really see anything until after the ceremony, where we made our way through the crowd.
It was a quick yet moving ceremony. I cannot imagine what it will be like on November 11, 2018 – the day that marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.
Have you visited Ypres before? Were you moved by the Christmas Truce exhibit as much as I was?