The Canadian National Vimy Memorial at Vimy Ridge is one of the best WWI memorials. Three things make the memorial so memorable. First, the monument itself, like all of the Canadian monuments, is sober. It doesn’t celebrate victory, but morns loss, even though the battle for Vimy ridge itself was a great success. Two, the Canadian government bought the land around the battle field and left it as it was at the end of the war. It is one of the few untouched battlefields left. Finally, the battle for Vimy Ridge was marked with extensive use of tunnels. The tunnels remain and Canadian students lead tours through them that not only explain the tunnels, but what was happening in the battle. And as an added plus you’ll get a little dose of Canadian history. It is a site not to be missed.
Ieper, Belgium was completely destroyed during the war. It has been beautifully reconstructed, including a faithful reproduction of the Cloth Hall. The Cloth Hall houses the In Flanders Fields Museum the most pacifistic war museum I’ve every been in. First there is a constant ominous drone, a music that gives the museum an undercurrent of foreboding. Second, many of the displays are about the dehumanization of the military. When displaying an uniform, they note that when a civilian joins the military his identity is taken away and replaced with a conforming uniform. They shows children’s games that promote militarism along with propaganda from each side. And as you leave the museum there are banners listing every war since WWI. This is not a museum so much about the history of war, but the history of collective insanity. The museum along with the Passchendaele museum bring the horrors that were the four battles of Ieper into focus. I didn’t take too many photos here, but the few I have will give you an idea of what Ieper is like.
The Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing near Passendale is the largest British military cemetery in the world with 11,954 burials. Along the walls of the inclosing arc are the names of another 35,000 missing for the years 1917-1918. The mud of the Passendale campaign particularly contributed number of missing. The area like most military cemeteries was the site of a battle that took place on October, 4 1917. There are three German bunkers in the cemetery, two are readily visible and the third is under the Cross of Sacrifice that is part of every Commonwealth Cemetery.
Given its size, importance, and proximity there were dozens of British tourists and several tour groups. It was quite a marked contrast from some of the remoter cemeteries that where wrapped in quiet. On the other hand, we did get to eavesdrop on the tour and learn a few things.
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.