The Great War in Belgium
When I first heard about the Flemish town Ypre that was completely destroyed during the First World War and eventually rebuilt to its original state, this place caught my attention. All buildings in Ieper date back after the war however you find yourself walking through quite a historic city centre. This is particularly the case when standing in front of the majestic Cloth Hall and Belfry. Other notable historical buildings are the Flemish townhouses situated at the Grote Markt. It really surprised me to learn that these iconic buildings are not that old at all.
At Ypres and its surroundings many gruesome battles have been fought against the German and you can’t barely imagine the large number of people that have died here (nearly half a million). As from 1928 – with an interruption during the German occupancy between 1940-1944 – the Last Post ceremony has been taking place every night at 8 o’clock to commemorate this dark period. Under the arches of the Menin Gate in Ypres, the buglers play their last salute in honour of the soldiers of the former British empire and its allies who died during this cruel war.
I couldn’t have chosen a better period to visit ‘Flanders Fields’ for the reason that in 2014, Belgium and the rest of the world are commemorating the Great War that took place one hundred years ago. When I told my family about the history of Ypres, the interesting museums in this area but also about the beautiful landscapes, the outstanding food and Westvleteren abbey where world’s best beer is brewed, they were quickly convinced to travel with me to Ypres.
We rented a nice vacation home for 6 people at Menin Gate House 2 with a view on the Menin Gate. The location of this holiday home was more than perfect, just outside the city walls were we could easily park our cars. We were surprised to find out that the owner of the accommodation was the chairman of the Last Post Association, Mr. Benoit Mottrie. He warmly welcomed us at the holiday house which was decorated with objects of WW1: posters with war propaganda hung on the walls, in the living room you could find a series of photographs with famous people who attended The Last Post (think of the Queen of England and the pope). Also, there were two original clarions lying on a shelf, ammunition that was found on the fields and other collectors’ items. You can imagine that before we even had seen any museum or monument, we were already inspired to dig into the history of this region.
In Flanders Fields Museum There are many interesting museums, visitors centres and monuments in Ieper and the surrounding towns that tell the story about the war. Our program started in the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres that provides you with an excellent and vivid introduction into the subject. The museum has recently been renewed (2012) and provided with interactive screens and multimedia applications. At night, after having a lovely dinner at Restaurant De Trompet (we had a delicious Flemish stew) we attended the last Post under the Menin Gate. It was very impressive to encounter such a big crowd of young and older generations who commemorate the fallen soldiers until today.
A trip to Flanders Fields isn’t complete without a visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery at a stone’s throw from Ypres, where approximately 12.000 soldiers are buried (amongst which British, New Zealanders and Australians). This military cemetery counts the largest number of British soldiers, almost 9.000 on European land. Tyne Cot is a very impressive place, not only because of the size of the cemetery and the huge amount of graves yet also for its conspicuous great Cross of Sacrifice which is built on a German bunker. The walls in the back of the cemetery contain a list of 35.000 engraved names of soldiers without a grave. In the visitors centre you’ll learn more about Tyne Cot Cemetery which is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. I was intrigued to find some personal belongings of fallen soldiers and the authentic letters that soldiers wrote to their families during the war. Nowadays you can’t barely imagine to be in war, yet being in this region made it all come very close.
The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 had great impact on all of us. The museum teaches you about the Battle of Passchendaele in the 1917’s. Hundred thousand of soldiers died within hundred days to only gain a few kilometres of land. My father and I were impressed by the great collection of historical weapons, war artillery and uniforms that the museum exhibits. There was so much to see! I was also intrigued by the historical footage displayed on screens throughout the exhibition. The museum contained a space dedicated to the use of chemical weapons (amongst which chloride- and mustard gas) that were first used in the battles of this region. You were able to get acquainted with different gas masks used during the war and you could even try one on. There were also several jars that contained the smell of different gasses. After smelling from a couple of jars I started coughing and didn’t feel well. Imagine how it would have been if the gasses were released in a trench! It’s too horrifying. After visiting the exhibition it was time to actually experience the new reconstructed trenches just outside the museum and replica’s of dugouts (underground) made of wood. The museum really captures your attention during the entire visit.
Apart from the interesting historical knowledge we absorbed during our trip to Flanders Fields we fully enjoyed Ypres and its architecture, the nice terraces and our visit to the city brewery Kazematten in the basements of the fortress of Ypres. For centuries, these ‘souterrains’ were used for the storing of ammunition and weapons. During the First World War they were converted into an officers’ mess by the British Army. The British Army newspaper, The Wipers Times (the beer of the brewery is named after the newspaper) was also printed here. Every Saturday the brewery offers a beer tasting for only €10 with a guided tour and explanation of the brewing process. Wipers Times 14 beers are for sale here, including a nice beer glass. Our trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to Westvleteren which we did on our way home. The abbey of Westvleteren where world’s best beer is brewed cannot be actually visited, however Café in de Vrede (next to the abbey) is the perfect place to enjoy the famous Westvleteren 12 beer and some delicious cheese (home made by monks). It was fun watching so many cycling fanatics, beer lovers, tourists and locals entering the cafe as from 11 o’clock. I have to say that region has more to offer than merely its turbulent war past.
Looking for a good accommodation in Ypres? We stayed at Mening Gate House 2 (they have several houses for rent) which we absolutely loved!
Menin Gate House 2
Hoornwerk 1, 8900 Ieper, Belgium
+32 477 27 00 61