YPRES, Belgium. Located in the renovated historic Cloth Hall of Ypres (pronounced “ee-per”), Belgium, the In Flanders Fields Museum tells the dramatic, heartbreaking story of World War I as it raged in the West Flanders region of that country.
For those of the Baby Boom generation and younger, the First World War exists in many ways a ghost of the far-distant past. That’s because World War II dominates with reflections of parents and grandparents who fought so valiantly to preserve our liberty and freedom in the 1940’s.
In Flanders Fields Museum
The In Flanders Fields Museum is a reverent place. Like similar sites such as the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, it is a place of solitude, a place of peace, a place of quiet. In short, visitors to The In Flanders Fields Museum pause to solemnly consider the echoes of world conflict conducted a century ago.
Indeed, the death and destruction of the “Great War” still linger here some 100 years later. Here, more than 600,000 soldiers fell. Here, as well, exist more than 425,000 graves and names etched on memorials that dot the landscape. Collectively, they trace the horrors and devastation that result from human insanity.
Originally honored in America as Armistice Day by many states, a new national holiday – declared in 1926 – commemorated the signing of the Armistice that functionally ended the First World War on November 11, 2018. Even so, that War did not formally end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. Today, given the world war that unfortunately followed the first one, the U.S. government renamed this holiday “Veterans Day.”
The poppies of Flanders Fields
Museum visitors receive a “Poppy Bracelet” as they enter. Poppies are the symbol of the WWI conflict in Flanders, northwest France and Gallipoli where constant bombardment disturbed the soil and brought seeds to its surface.
The significance? Fertilized by the nitrogen in the explosives and the lime from the rubble of destroyed buildings, combined with the blood and bones of millions of men, horses, donkeys, dogs and other animals, the soil where they died in these Flanders Fields became a place where poppies thrived.
Bracelets help tell the Flanders Fields story interactively
The bracelets activate a chip which selects the appropriate language for each visitor, relating the personal stories of four individuals who dramatically tell their tales in vivid video detail. It is perhaps the very simplicity of their narratives that proves so mesmerizing.
Each narrator stands alone with a neutral background as each describes the personal intimate details of his or her experiences. There is no music. No fast editing. No computer gimmicks. Only the solemn remembrances of four people who enter the frame, then softly, almost painfully, relate their accounts before disappearing silently into the darkness.
The exhibition focuses on the invasion of Belgium, the first weeks of mobilization, the four horrifying years of trench warfare, the end of the war and the permanent remembrances since.
Visiting Flanders Fields today
It is the intent of the In Flanders Fields Museum to encourage visitors to view the actual sites themselves. Places like Sanctuary Wood Museum Hill 62 where guests can walk through trenches that remain in the Belgian countryside. Or places like Essex Farm and Canadian Hill 62 Memorial where a sculpture of a brooding soldier looks down upon landscape architecture designed to recreate the first deployment of poisonous gas against the enemy in combat.
The city of Ypres
The city of Ypres, officially known as “Ieper” in Flemish, was completely leveled during the war. Afterwards, survivors rebuilt it stone by stone. Thus no building in the city today is more than 90 years old, although the original versions have been lovingly restored as close as possible to their original appearances.
One of the more dramatic displays in the In Flanders Fields Museum is a diorama that incorporates moving colored lights to highlight troop movements and battles in the region.
Subsequently, amoeba-like blobs of light appear, shaded to represent the combatants and their movements. The lights glide across the 3-dimensional exhibit, combining into larger bubbles of light or dividing into smaller ones.
In the end, the most telling aspect of the exhibition is how it conveys the futility of a conflict where one side pushes while the other retreats and vice-versa. The constant movements represent a perpetual tug-of-war to the death.
From war to peace
The In Flanders Fields Museum is much more than a reflection upon the past, however. It is designed as a personal cultural and artistic representation that conveys a universal contemporary message of peace.
Ypres, the City of Peace
Ypres, in fact, is known as the “City of Peace” for obvious reasons. As the museum reminds us, the “nature of war does not change in time.”
Until recently, officials closed the Cloth Hall Bell Tower to visitors, but chose to repoen it recently, including it as part of the tour of the refurbished museum.
Be forewarned that no elevator takes visitors to the top of the tower. Consequently, guests must climb 231 steps to reach the top. And 231 steps to get back down again.
If successful, however, intrepid visitors are rewarded with a high-angle view of the many of the Ypres Salient battlefields that dot the landscape.
In military terms, a “salient” is a battlefield feature that projects into an opponent’s territory.
The Ypres Salient was formed by British, French, Canadian and Belgian troops in a defensive effort to halt the German incursion in 1914. Surrounded on three sides by German soldiers, the allied troops occupying the salient were vulnerable to attack.
When you visit
Museum hours vary according to the season. Winter hours from mid-November through the end of March and Sundays are from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Between April 1 and November 15 closing time is an hour later at 6 p.m. Holiday closings: December 24-25, December 31-January 1 and January 7-21, 2019.
Admission for adults is 9 Euros. Visitors 18 to 25 pay 5 Euros. Those age 7 to 18 pay 4 Euros and those under 7 get in free. As for group rates for a minimum of 15 guests, tourists need to book these in advance.
Not surprisingly, visitors to The In Flanders Fields Museum regard it as a great place to begin an understanding of the the current generations’ “forgotten war.” Once you visit this museum, the First World War — The Great War — will be forgotten no longer. A visit here etches the scope and tragedy of that conflict forever in your memory.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com). His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime
Editors Note: Support Bob’s GoFundMe to give him a hand up