As this was the third time I’ve been to Belgium, but I hadn’t yet been to any war-related sites, it was clear this was something I needed to rectify on this trip. Thus, we planned to spend a day in Ieper (Ypres), but on the way there made a pit-stop in Diksmuide, for a museum I’d read about online. The Ijzer Tower is located in the outskirts of Diksmuide, along the Yser River. However, as it is a 22-story building, you can’t miss it.
The land around the tower looks rather war-torn, which is not entirely due to the trench. The original tower, built shortly after WWI by a group of Flemish veterans, was blown up in 1946, allegedly by rival French-speaking soldiers. The current tower was built shortly after, and the remains of the original tower were used to build the Pax (Peace) Gate and the central monument, pictured above. The central cross is surrounded by the graves of Flemish soldiers killed in WWI, giving the site a sombre air.
Because the museum is currently undergoing construction, the entrance is a bit tricky to find. There’s a small parking lot in front of the Pax Gate, from which we walked down the street, past a fenced-off industrial area until we found the shop entrance (where we were greeted by a ginger cat waiting for someone to activate the automatic doors so he could slip back inside). There, we paid the admission fee (7 euros) and exited through the back of the building, where we finally found access to the museum complex via a reconstructed trench next to a field.
The trench did come complete with authentic smells, though it’s difficult to say whether they were intentional or not. Diksmuide is famed for its dairy industry, and the trench had a distinct manure odour which could have simply been the by-product of all the cows in the area. No matter, only a raging case of trenchfoot could have enhanced the authenticity. From the trench, we proceeded through the small circular cemetery which offered a recording in English explaining the significance of the site and of the soldiers buried there.
Also outside the tower was a small hut of a type which was given to people whose homes had been destroyed due to the war. Apparently some people were still living in these huts up until the 1990s. The inside was done up to resemble a typical post-war interior, complete with wax figures, and I have to say, even though it only had four modest-sized rooms, it was probably bigger than my flat, so I can see why people carried on living in them for so long! On the other side of the tower, there was a chicken coop with several intimidating roosters, so we hastily made our way into the tower.
Once inside, we took a lift up to the top floor, and from there, climbed up several flights of stairs to reach the outdoor viewing platform at the top, where we were rewarded with a commanding view of Diksmuide and the surrounding countryside. There were exhibits on almost all of the museum’s floors, so from that point on, we worked our way down via the sometimes narrow staircases (though there did appear to be lift access to most floors).
The museum was not solely about WWI; rather, it was a museum of Flemish history and independence, with the story of the war told from a Flemish perspective. I honestly never knew that there was so much serious conflict between Flanders and the Walloon region, and I found the exhibits absorbing. Almost everything had an English translation, so despite the Flemish bent of the material, we had no trouble understanding anything.
Of course, had the museum only consisted of signage, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much as I did. Fortunately, every floor had a set of footprints on the ground, beckoning you to have a peek around the corner. You’d be well-advised to do so, because that’s where the IJzer Tower hid its real gems. The upper floors had re-created trenches (this time without the smells) with sound effects, so I spent most of the time pretending to duck and cover. Even more frightening was the atomic bomb room in the WWII section, which featured strobe lights and and a huge explosion that only activated after you went too far inside to avoid it.
I’m sure you all know by now that if there’s one thing I love as much as authentic smells, it is hilarious wax figures. The gent shown above wins the award, hands down, for the best mannequin I have ever seen, anywhere. Not only is he disturbingly cheerful for someone in a war zone, but his face looks as though it was painted by someone who had never seen a human, except for perhaps Michael Jackson. I truly hope they don’t get rid of him in the renovation, as looking at his picture still makes my day.
As we worked our way down through the museum levels, into more recent times, the displays did get slightly less enticing. Try as I might, I found it hard to summon up much enthusiasm for modern Belgian politics. In fact, there was a group of older people slightly ahead of us in the museum who abruptly disappeared, so I think even they must have gotten bored. However, I urge you to persevere, as some of the best parts of the museum were on the lower levels.
One of the main things that persuaded me to visit the IJzer Tower was reading online that they had an area where you could smell various poison gasses. Indeed they did! From a sort of urinal-shaped trough, the aromas of mustard and chlorine gasses wafted up. Chlorine just smelled like bathroom cleaner (which is probably what they used to replicate it) but mustard gas was foul. Not that you’d actually have time to analyse the nuances of the scent if you were caught in a gas attack, but still. That little fellow on the right is either a flea or lice (it wasn’t clear which), and was surprisingly cute, in an ugly sort of way. They also had some giant rats.
One of my favourite sections was on the 2nd or 3rd floor, and was a recreation of an extensive British trench system that had been rediscovered in the 1990s. It actually spanned several floors, right down to a poorly lit set of stairs with a rope handrail. I nervously tiptoed through this area, as I was scared that there would be a sudden mock explosion at some point (like the atomic bomb earlier on), but thankfully that never happened, so feel free to enjoy the various dioramas in peace. Well, in wartime, actually, as that’s the whole point, but you know what I mean.
The 1st floor appeared to be under construction, as most of it was filled up with building materials. There was a small shop on the ground floor, along with what I think were the only toilets in the building (so go when you first arrive, or you’ll be holding it for a while!). Leaving the tower, we took another look around the graves, and exited through the turnstile at the bottom of Pax Gate.
Although I’ve been a bit glib throughout, as is my nature, much of the museum was quite poignant, particularly the cemetery and the ruins of the first tower. The ultimate message of the IJzer Tower is the price of war, and the need for peace. It was also moving to read about the struggles of the Flemish people against a French-dominated government, and fascinating to have a different perspective on WWI, when all we usually hear about is the experience of the British or Americans, and not the people who were actually living inside a war zone. I highly recommend the IJzer Tower if you’re visiting Belgium – the country isn’t all that large, so it’s within a two hour drive of almost any city, and only about a half hour outside of Brugge. 4/5.