Zonnebeke, Belgium: Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

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I don’t think a visit to Belgium can really be complete without seeing something related to WWI (or more than one thing; I’ll be devoting a couple of posts to it this time around).  It played such a huge role in the history of this little country, as so much of Flanders was virtually decimated in the fight over a relatively tiny area of land, and many of the Belgian people were forced to flee to avoid the war and destruction.  On my last trip to Belgium, I made it to a few WWI sites, visiting the Ijzer Tower, In Flanders Fields Museum, and Tyne Cot cemetery.  However, I did not get to see the Passchendaele Museum, which is very near Tyne Cot, as it had already closed for the day by the time I got there. Clearly, it was time to remedy this.

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With the cat festival in Ieper planned for that afternoon (yeah, you read that correctly…just you wait!), it left the morning free for exploring nearby Great War sites, starting with Passchendaele (admission 7.5 euros).  As you can probably guess from the museum’s full name, it commemorates the Battle of Passchendaele, fought in 1917.  Like so much of the war, Passchendaele was tragically almost pointless in terms of the human life lost relative to what was actually accomplished (at least half a million casualties over a fight for 5 miles of territory).  If you need a visual aid for this, then visit Tyne Cot to see it all starkly laid out in front of you, in the form of row upon row upon row of identical tombstones for the soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient (and really, please do visit Tyne Cot, as there’s nothing else quite so effective at driving home the futility of war).  However, perhaps because the museum recognises that many of its visitors will also have just been to Tyne Cot, and doesn’t wish to immediately depress them further, the museum isn’t all doom and gloom.  In fact, a lot of it is rather fun.

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The museum obviously took children into consideration when planning out the galleries, as there are lots of activities.  Fortunately for me, there were no children in sight, so I was free to ignore the fact that the mirrors had been intentionally been placed at a child’s eye-level, and indulge my love of dressing up (and I do recommend visiting early in the morning as we did, because the tour bus circuit seems to come through later in the day).  I learned that I look surprisingly good in a helmet, which is probably not what the museum was going for, but still.  The museum is split up into five different sections, beginning with a general history of the war, which is the most like a traditional museum, and then, similar to the Ijzer Tower, goes off piste a bit by including the re-creation of a dugout, which leads into an underground area about the history of the battle itself, then into a re-creation of some trenches, and finally, to a memorial section.

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In the first part, the museum tells the story of the war through uniforms, soldiers’ kit and their personal possessions, and a few interactive things, like smelling stations where you could get a whiff of various poison gasses and bully beef (which turned out to smell worse than the poison gas).  My only complaint would be that the item captions are written directly on the glass cases in white ink, so they can be a bit tricky to read in places, and I think I missed a few of them entirely as they were hard to even see against some of the objects.

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Next came the British dugouts, which we entered via a wooden staircase (I sent my boyfriend down first, just in case).  I don’t know if they wanted their attempt to re-create these dugouts to include the actual fear and nervous anticipation that real soldiers would have felt, but it worked on me!  Usually these things have some kind of explosion noise that’s triggered when you walk into them, and because I’m terrified of sudden loud noises (I hate balloons for this very reason), I was extremely tense the entire time, just waiting for the explosion to happen (I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what actually happens, so you can experience real fear too!), and though exploring the maze of tunnels was fun, I was quite relieved to finally emerge blinking into the next area.

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This “bunker” section was a curious mix of the heavy-duty machinery of war, with huge guns and collections of shells and things; and of more intimate portraits of some of the soldiers involved.  There was a section for each of the countries who’d sent men to fight at Passchendaele, with insignia of the units involved, the total number of casualties each sustained, and video interviews with some of the veterans of the battle (presumably taped in the 1970s or ’80s, since there are no veterans left today, and the men looked old in them, but not in their 100s type old, more like they were in their seventies and eighties), which were alternately amusing and sad.

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I wouldn’t generally consider myself a big weaponry person, but some of the facts about the WWI weapons were fascinating…unfortunately, I’m hard-pressed to repeat any of them here, as I initially wrote this a week and a half after my visit, and after going to a number of other museums, so my retention is not as good as it normally is.  Thanks to the pictorial evidence, I can tell you that I tried on yet another helmet before heading out to the trenches (seriously, I’m sure it’s cost-prohibitive, but it would be awesome if they gave you a helmet to borrow when walking through the trenches.  It would really add to the experience).

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The trenches are, appropriately enough, actually outside (when we first showed up, the lady at the admissions desk said something about going outside, but we didn’t quite catch it and were worried there was some kind of additional walk we were meant to go on that we wouldn’t have had time for, so we were relieved when we realised she had probably meant the trench section). Definitely don’t wear shoes with any kind of a heel, as there are big gaps between the boards on the bottom of the trench, and you will probably fall through.  I liked how different sections of the trench were constructed out of different materials, to illustrate the difference between British and German trenches.  In fact,  I think the whole museum set-up was very nicely done, with the sections smoothly segueing into each other, and covering so many war-time environments.

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At the end of the trenches, there was an American relief house, provided to some of the Belgians who had lost their homes in the war; it definitely appears to be American in design, as Belgian houses have a very distinct look, and this house isn’t it, but it did provide some information on the American role in the war (ignore me on the porch with a stupid expression on my face).  Finally, we reached the Hall of Reflection, which was quite extensive and solemn, but also contained an array of interesting facts (concealed under panels featuring various cartoon characters), about the wartime experiences of people like AA Milne and Walt Disney.  There was quite a moving sculpture at the end, made of arms floating on a watery surface (which sounds weird without an explanation, but was meant to represent the many men who died from drowning in the trenches, especially after they were wounded and couldn’t escape, due to dreadful weather during Passchendaele that led to flooding).

I have to say that the Passchendaele Museum was right up there with the best war museums I’ve seen.  It fully conveyed the horrors of war, but also offered opportunities to get a taste of (dramatically toned-down) wartime experiences yourself, making for an enjoyable and educational experience.  If you have to pick one museum in the Ieper area to visit, I think this would be an excellent choice.  4.5/5.

 

 

 

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2 comments

  1. Completely agree – I thought this was a fantastic museum too. We hadn’t done any research beforehand and didn’t really know what to expect, I was amazed at the extent of the museum. It poured with rain on our visit so the trenches were super slippery as well, definitely not a place for heels. Looking forward to reading about the cat festival!!

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