Between 1914 and 1918, the Westhoek was the battleground of the First World War. This war is widely known as the Great War because 15 million people lost their lives making it one of the deadliest conflicts of all time. In the Westhoek, a region in Belgium and northern France next to the North Sea, one million soldiers were injured, missing or killed. Ten thousands of civilians were forced to flee. Cities, villages, the whole region was completely destroyed.
Remembering the Dead
Almost a hundred years later, reminders of this period still dominate the landscape of the region. The numerous cemeteries, war monuments and battlefields remind the world of the devastating impact of World War I.
One needs a lot more than one day to visit all the important war sites, but the majority selects a few sights to see in a single day before heading back to their hotels in Bruges, Ghent or Brussels. A Great War day tour is cheap since many of the sites can be visited for free.
Trench of Death
The Dodengang or Trench of Death is a network of more than one kilometer of trenches and bunkers. It was one of the most dangerous positions at a distance of only 50m of a German bunker. Many men lost their lives fighting for a meter of land. Walking through the trenches is the best way to experience how it must have felt like for the allied soldiers.
In the visitor’s center life in the trenches is illustrated with maps, photos and videos. The site is still run by the Belgian army and is free to visit.
The first IJzertoren was built as a memorial for the Flemish soldiers who died on the front during the Great War. During the Second World War, it became a symbol for the Flemish collaboration with the Germans. It was destroyed in an attack in 1946 and it took 20 years before a peace tower was built on the same site as a memorial to both world wars.
The tower is now an interactive 22-level museum about ‘War, Peace and Flemish Emancipation’ where visitors can taste and experience the atmosphere of both the First and the Second World War. The museum tries to offer a unique experience where visitors can feel the fear of the front soldiers and the citizens when walking through authentic underground trenches while the ear-deafening sound of bombardments and the smell of chloric and mustard gas and the smell of death are simulated.
On top of the 85-meter-high tower, the visitor can enjoy a great view of the rural surroundings with the former battlefields. The entrance to the IJzertoren is 7 euros.
Tyne Cot Cemetery
The whole Westhoek is full of military cemeteries, both of the Allied Forces and of their adversaries. Most visitors without family members on one of the cemeteries choose to visit Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest British military graveyard on the mainland. It is situated in Passendaele, where many lives were lost between 1914 and 1918.
During the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, several hundred thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed or crippled to gain control over a few kilometers of land. The casualties of this battle were collected from the surrounding fields to be buried on Tyne Cot Cemetery. 11,956 Commonwealth soldiers are buried here of which only of 3,800 the identity is known. On the large wall in the back of the graveyard, the names of 34,957 missing soldiers are engraved. The long lines of uniform white gravestones help visitors realize the sheer impact of this war.
Not much was left from the medieval town of Ypres after WW I. Germans only occupied the city for one night in 1914 before the Allied Forces gained control. About five million Commonwealth soldiers passed through Ypres on their way to the battlefields. The British were planning to leave the ruins of the city as a memorial to the fallen but the inhabitants of Ypres wanted to live in their city again. In the end, Ypres was rebuilt and most of its historic buildings were reconstructed. Thanks to their perseverance, visitors today can still enjoy the medieval market square.
Every night at 8pm, the ‘Last Post’ is performed underneath the Menin gate, which has the names of 54,896 missing soldiers. The buglers of the Ypres fire brigade have been paying homage to the fallen every evening since 1928.
In Flanders Fields
The Westhoek has many museums dedicated to The Great War, but In Flanders Fields receives the most visitors. At the entrance of this interactive museum, each visitor adopts the identity of a person affected by the war. The visitor becomes acquainted with the human side of the historic event and gets to know the stories of average men and women living, fighting and in some cases dying in wartime.
The end of the exhibition refers to WW II and makes it painfully clear that ‘the war to end all wars’ did not teach European leaders the lesson it should have.