World War I

Ypres (Ieper), Belgium: In Flanders Fields Museum


After visiting the IJzertoren, we stuck to the WWI theme by heading to Ypres; unwittingly arriving on the day of the Ypres Rally, which meant navigating around closed-off streets.  In Flanders Fields Museum is located in the centre of town (which was full of frituur carts on account of the rally, bonus!) in the attractive Cloth Hall, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in the war along with much of the rest of Ypres. Admission to the museum is  8 euros, which includes access to several other museums in Ypres (none of which we had time to visit, unfortunately), and a poppy wristband, which is the really the main gimmick.  At the start of the museum, you enter in some personal information into a computer (age, gender, country, etc.), which allows your museum experience to be personalised based on your life experiences.


Scattered throughout the exhibits, you’ll find little scanners to scan your wristband with, which will bring up a screen of information on someone in the war who is a similar age, or from near your hometown, clearly designed to make you empathize with the soldiers (the closest they got to my hometown was through the story of a Belgian lady who emigrated to Detroit).  Though I found this element of the museum neat, it was nowhere near as powerful as actually looking at the possessions of soldiers who were killed in action, which were placed in glass cases along the walls.


Unlike the IJzertoren, In Flanders Fields was very technologically orientated.  In addition to the wristbands, video screens were also placed throughout the museum, which projected actors playing soldiers, doctors, nurses, and townspeople onto the walls, so they could talk about their wartime experiences.  Because of this, the lighting was kept quite dim, which made reading some of the captions a bit difficult.  But, only a few of the cases had actual captions to read in the first place – most of the information was kept on yet more wristband scanning screens, which was fine if you had a display case to yourself, but if an area was quite crowded, you were left fairly clueless about the artefacts.  I presume this came about to facilitate the inclusion of more languages than they could have put on a physical sign, but I’m old-fashioned in my taste in museums, and would have preferred at least some basic signage to accompany the computers.


The artefacts included the usual sort of war memorabilia – uniforms, armour, weapons, and other general kit.  As I mentioned above, the most poignant parts of the museum were the cases full of the belongings of deceased soldiers, which included things like photographs and snippets of letters written to family that never made it home. I wish there could have been more of that sort of thing, and slightly less gadgetry.  Still, some of the technological aspects were actually pretty cool, namely a huge map of Belgian battlefields that you could click on to see the changes in the landscape from 1914 to the present day.  The work Belgium has done to preserve the history and appearance of its towns is truly impressive, unlike some of the hideous post-war construction in other countries (er, like the UK).


The focus of the museum was largely on combat and the experience of the average soldier, so there wasn’t too much on more specialist topics, like wartime medicine (though I see there’ll be a special exhibit on it next year).  They did have some pictures of injured soldiers and reconstructive surgery, but they were hidden, as were all the other “grisly” photographs, inside these weird tent-like structures, which were even darker than the rest of the museum, so it was quite difficult to look at them.  I understand this museum is aimed largely at schoolchildren, but I don’t think images of death should be hidden away; rather, I think it’s important for people to see the cost of war.  I think even putting them in a special section with a warning or something posted outside would have been a better choice than pasting them to the roof of a wigwam.

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The current special exhibition features art by Stephen Hurst relating to Ypres and his impressions of the First World War.  Most of it was surprisingly playful in tone, but I don’t think there was really enough signage to adequately explain why this was so.  The entire museum was on the upper floor of the building, as the ground floor was devoted to tourist information, and a shop that seemed to have a nice collection of relevant books, and a WWI deck of playing cards that I secretly wanted after noticing Woodrow Wilson was on one of the cards (I’m a complete sucker for presidential tat.  I still desperately want the Presidential Pez set, especially the lesser known presidents).


Though the museum ostensibly told the story of WWI from a Flemish perspective, due to the personalised interactives, it felt like a more inclusive interpretation of the war than at the IJzertoren.  However, by taking a broader outlook, the history was by necessity far more general, so I suppose it just depends what sort of presentation you prefer.  Obviously, I like a specialised and more intimate approach, so I preferred IJzertoren.  I think In Flanders Fields often felt like it was trying too hard; it should have taken its cue from John McCrae’s eloquent (and eponymous) poem, and kept things simpler.  The rare moments where I was able to feel an emotional connection to the soldiers through the things they left behind were ultimately spoiled by the overuse of modern technology.  2.5/5; probably more enjoyable for the many children visiting than for adults.


Whilst near Ypres, we also stopped to visit the restored Yorkshire Trench in an industrial estate outside of town. Though the underground part is closed off for safety reasons, it was interesting to be able to walk through the trench, to get an idea of the dimensions of it.  Our last stop of the day was Tyne Cot cemetery, where over 10,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried.  Tyne Cot has a visitor’s centre full of soldiers’ possessions, like at In Flanders Fields, but they are made even more moving by the fact that all the soldiers are buried right there.  Although the visit was marred somewhat by the British schoolchildren who were allowed to run screaming through the cemetery and clamber all over the monuments, I still think everyone should visit at least one of the war cemeteries, as staring at thousands of identical graves really drives home the human scale of the devastation.  It was quite a sombre day overall, but I’m glad I finally got to experience Ypres.


Diksmuide, Belgium: IJzer Tower (Ijzertoren)


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.