In Flanders Fields Museum
By Chris McBeath
Whether you’re in Ypres for a vacation or a Battlefield Tour, there are two must-sees: The Menin Gate, one of Europe’s most iconic memorials to WWI, and the In Flanders Field Museum which brings you up front and personal to the pointless carnage of that four-year, hellish struggle.
That both sites should be in Ypres is entirely appropriate because through the ages, the city has always thrived with cultural, commercial and architectural wealth -- all of which was razed to ashes during The Great War. As you walk the streets of Ypres, however, it’s hard to believe that every cobblestone underfoot, and every brick of the gabled storefronts and surrounding medieval buildings were painstakingly picked out of the rubble to recreate Ypres as it was. Far longer than a football field and more than 200 feet (61m) high, The Cloth Hall, which now houses the museum, is among of the most impressive.
Cloth Hall night (In Flanders Fields Museum)
State-of-the-art touch screens, video projections, soundscapes and more than 2,000 original artifacts immerse you in a ‘life-at-the-front’ experience. A microchip equipped poppy bracelet lets you choose your language preference and activates various interactive displays, including those involving the personal stories of four individuals within the larger picture of the Great War. One is a Dutch girl, six years old when the war broke out, and orphaned shortly afterwards.
Cloth Hall day; credit Chris McBeath
If you follow the museum’s prescribed route, you’ll wend your way through the war in chronological order, from the build-up of hostilities pre 1914 to eventual peace four years later. In between, you’ll be bombarded with heart-rending horror and mesmerizing visuals – trenches of mud, lice, and rats; make-shift dressing stations for the wounded; a walk along the wire of No Man’s Land that once stretched for 400 miles from Switzerland to the English Channel. A whistle blows and on never-before-seen old footage, you’ll see soldiers scramble over the top towards you as the shells blast open the ground beneath them. Then comes a sudden quiet of the Christmas Eve Truce -- the softness of carols – the pathos of Stille Nacht. Like the truce, it lasts but a moment in time and you are quickly drawn back to the reality, most poignantly through the words of the soldiers themselves from all sides – men from more than 30 countries fought in this war. Some accounts are chilling. For example in a letter home, Julien Grenfell writes: “Then the German behind put his head up again. He was laughing and talking. I saw his teeth glistening against my foresight, and I pulled the trigger very steady. He just gave a grunt and crumpled up ……… I adore war. It is like a picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic.”
Gas Masks; credit In Flanders Fields Museum
500,000 soldiers died in the years 1914-1918 in some of the bloodiest conflicts in history to which the region’s too numerous graveyards bear testimony. Some sites are as they were: haphazard necessities hurriedly dug 100 years ago. Others, though, continue to grow in uniform rows as freshly tilled fields constantly unearth the archeological debris of war as well as skeletal parts of unrecovered bodies. With more than 100,000 soldiers still listed as Missing in Action, their names are etched on many a battlefield memorial. If forensic science can give the bones an identity and therefore a grave, that soldier’s name is removed from the memorial. At The Menin Gate, more than 500 names have been smoothed from the marble over the years, though the walls still carry 54,389 names of Commonwealth soldiers yet to be found. It’s an enduring legacy that fuels the bugles of The Last Post every night, without fail.
War Horse in mud; credit In Flanders Fields Museum
Because Ypres was at the epicenter of battle, it is the deserved gateway to keeping the First World War relevant to contemporary audiences. Not only does it explore the consequences of the Great War and how we view it, it enables us all to reflect on our role in conflict today. The final exhibit is provocative: a tally of all the major wars around the world in which the Red Cross has been involved with since the War to End All Wars ended. The list is at 130, and counting.
Poppy bracelet; credit In Flanders Fields Museum
As sobering as that may be, a visit to Ypres is to witness a truly remarkable renaissance. Out of the ashes, this beautiful city has reclaimed its heritage and offers an enduring story of hope, peace and remembrance. And in visiting the In Flanders Field Museum, you begin to understand that journey.
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