The third battle of Ieper, commonly known as Passchendaele, was marked by its initial success through extensive use of mines and an incredible loss of life in the later stages as the mud and poor planing took their toll. Passchendaele was the last stage of the battle where close to 40,000 men disappeared into the Belgian mud. The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 recounts the history of this battle and the three others that took place in Ieper, which saw such dubious innovations in warfare as chemical weapons and flamethrowers. Don’t be fooled by the size of the museum building. This is a large museum, complete with dugouts and trenches, along with artifacts of war. When we paid our €7.50 I thought it was a little steep, but after winding through the all the displays I was pleasantly surprised how extensive it was. It was one of the best World War 1 museums I saw. Like many museums of the first world war (and as I think they should), the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 has an anti-war feel, though it is subtle. The continual tractor and agricultural traffic in the surrounding streets adds a sense of remote futility to place. So much to fighting for essentially farm fields.
The following are some smaller sights we came across while driving around Ieper. They all have one thing in common: desolation. The Hooge crater is the site of a giant mine that the Germans blew up in 1915.
Pond Farm is a private museum in Langemarck, Belgium. Pond Farm is working farm and over the years, as in much of France and Belgium that constituted the front lines, the proprietor Stijn Butaye has collected artifacts from the fields. The museum is small but our visit was one of the most interesting of the trip. Stijn was unavailable that day but his mother gave us a guided tour of the museum which an in depth description of where the front lines were and what it is like to live with the remnants of the war. They still dig up live munitions which have to be disposed of. Their website proudly proclaims, “This Private Pondfarm Museum is controlled by the Federal Goverment Justice (foj), Police Ypres, DOVO and was approved on the security of weapons and ammunition.” A must see if you are in the area and have the time. You can find them on FaceBook also.
The Brooding Solder at the Canadian monument at St. Julien is one of the best World War I monuments in terms of design. Like all Canadian monuments it does not celebrate the war, but instead, reflects on it. The monument is on the site of the first gas attack in history when the Germans released chlorine gas that caught the unsuspecting troops ill prepared.
The Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery is the largest American Cemetery outside the United States. While it is relatively close to Verdun, it is also in the middle of nowhere. The isolation gives the cemetery a tranquility that adds to the sense of peace you find there. It was the first cemetery that after ten minutes among the head stones I found the quiet heavy and at the same time beautiful.
This was the cleanest cemetery of all those we saw in the whole six days. While we were there the grounds keepers where mowing the lawn. One man had the job to walk around with a paint roller and clean any cross that had grass on it. As with the Montfaucon-d’Argonne monument, the grounds are extremely well cared for.
The Pennsylvania Memorial is located in Varennes-en-Argonne
We hadn’t planed on visiting the American Memorial at Montfaucon-d’Argonne. I didn’t even know it existed. When we started the drive for the Meuse-Argonne cemetery we began to see signs for an American monument. And once we drew close it was impossible to miss the tower on the hill. As a monument goes it is nice and gives a great view of the whole region, which is now just farm fields. It was the first of many days we spent following tractors.
The site of the monument is on the old town of Montfaucon-d’Argonne which was destroyed during the battle. After the war the town was moved down the hill and rebuilt.
The Romagne German Cemetery is a lonely and small cemetery. Surprisingly, the day we were there another visitor was also there.
On the way to the Meuse-Argonne there are little battlefield monuments all along the way.
All around Verdun are restatements of the war. The London Trench is a reinforced communication trench line about 500 yards behind Fort Douaumont. The 61ieme RAD monument is a quarter mile off the road to Fort Douaumont. the monument is in the middle of the forest that was planted at the end of the war which makes the area only that much more solitary.