The 10 First World War sites you should see first

Summary

As we reach the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War in Belgium, Flanders Today has put together this guide to the most important sites, cemeteries and monuments in Flanders

A road to peace paved in war

Flanders is home to literally hundreds of sites, cemeteries and monuments commemorating one of the most traumatic events in the region’s – and the world’s – history: the First World War.

As we mark 100 years since the Great War’s beginning and end, over the next four years thousands of people will come to Flanders to remember the dead and visit the places where much of the war’s destruction took place.

If you’re having trouble knowing where to start, here are 10 essential places that will help you understand the total breadth and scope of the war’s impact in Flanders and the world.

A journey through the Westhoek

While marks of the war can be found in most corners of Flanders, the place to begin is Ypres, the strategic city over which the Germans battled the Allies throughout the course of the war.

Since so much of the history of the war takes place in the part of West Flanders known as the Westhoek – roughly from Nieuwpoort on the coast to the border just north of Armentières – the Ypres tourist office has taken the sensible step of designing the Peace Route, a 45-kilometre cycling route. Most of the sites below can be found along this route – but don’t worry, it doesn’t need to be done in one go.

1. It would be impossible to design an itinerary of major sites relating to the First World War without starting at In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. The museum is situated in the old Cloth Hall, once the centre of the thriving textile industry. Destroyed during the war, it was rebuilt in all its former glory, and so a fitting symbol of hardship and renewal.

A fully renovated museum and new permanent exhibition opened in 2012 and tell the story of the war from the invasion of Belgium by Germany, through the terrible years of battle in the region, up to the armistice and the culture of remembrance.

The museum is utilises interactive technologies to enhance visitor experience and is distinctly narrative: The objects form part of a human story, and an international one. As the museum reminds us: “People from five continents and more than 50 countries and cultures took part in the war in Flanders.”

That’s a fact that will come to our attention again more than once as we pursue our route.

The poet's grave

2. Tyne Cot Commonwealth cemetery in Passchendaele, where the British lost 300,000 soldiers in the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, is the last resting place of 11,956 soldiers of the Commonwealth as well as a number of German prisoners-of-war who died in British hands. The back wall is a memorial to 34,957 whose remains were never identified. The ordered ranks of identical headstones, each made of bright white Portland stone, present a moving vista.

3. The Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof in Langemark is the German military cemetery, home to 44,304 of the German dead, almost 25,000 of them in one mass grave. Among their number are more than 3,000 cadets and students who died in fighting in October 1914. The sculpture group of four soldiers is by the late German artist Emil Krieger.

4. Essex Farm cemetery in Boezinge (pictured above), just north of Ypres, is where John McCrae, a Canadian physician who rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, wrote the iconic poem "In Flanders Fields". The poem led to the poppy becoming a symbol of First World War remembrance. Essex Farm was the site of a field hospital, where McCrae was stationed in May 1915, when he penned the verses.

The cemetery contains nearly 1,200 graves, including that of Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick, the youngest fatality of the war at age 15. There is a striking memorial dedicated to the 49th Division immediately behind the cemetery, on the canal bank.

5. The Peace Route also passes through the Palingbeek provincial park, together with Hill 60 which, though not a cemetery as such, is still the last resting place of men who died in the underground fighting that took place from April 1915 to June 1917. The pockmarked landscape is still maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The Last Post

6. The seaside town of Nieuwpoort had a major role to play in the war, when, in 1914, soldiers Karel Cogge and Hendrik Geeraert used the locks system, called the Ganzenpoot, or Goose-Foot, to flood the plain where the German invader was camped. The action forced them to withdraw from the town altogether and held a line for the Allies which would remain fixed until the final offensive of 1918. Nieuwpoort also has an impressive monument to the dead of the town, sculpted by local artist Pieter-Jan Braecke, who also made the monument in Ostend further up the coast.

7. The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 was opened on Anzac Day in 2004 and last year added three new sections for visitors. The museum in general focuses on the Battle of Passchendaele, otherwise known as the Third Battle of Ypres. It also features an underground dugout kitted out as it would have been during battle and a series of outdoor trenches. From the museum, it’s easy to visit other sites like Tyne Cot, the German trenches at Bayernwald and Polygon Wood.

8. One of the most enduring acts of remembrance anywhere, and one which is guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat, is the daily Last Post under the Menin Gate in Ypres (pictured above). Every day since 1928, with the exception of the period of occupation in the Second World War, the Last Post – a British Army bugle call marking the end of the day – is played by two buglers at precisely 20.00.

The Last Post Committee, which organises the event, has a full calendar of groups from all over the world who wish to visit and lay a wreath in the niche in the gate; groups include not only military organisations but also scouts and guides, police, schools and even, on one occasion, a group of leather-clad bikers. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, the gate contains the names, carved in stone, of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died in battle before August 1917 but whose remains were never recovered. The names of the missing from later battles are listed at Tyne Cot.

Tubby's house

9. On the other side of the Cloth Hall from the Menin Gate is St George’s Memorial Church, built by the same Reginald Blomfield to commemorate the more than 500,000 dead of the three battles for the Ypres Salient. It was consecrated in 1929, and since then has been a place of pilgrimage for people visiting the other sites in the Ypres area.

The church is open every day, and its most remarkable feature is the hand-made cushion covers, each commemorating one of the regiments who took part in the fighting. Plaques on the wall also commemorate the dead, among them 300 students from Eton College.

10. Finally, a place not associated with death, but rather a place of respite and relaxation. Talbot House is in Poperinge, which in wartime was not occupied. British chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip Clayton (known as “Tubby”), opened a club house in 1915 for soldiers on leave from the front. One steadfast rule: no distinctions of military rank or social status were recognised. The house (pictured) is now a museum of life away from the killing fields, as well as a small B&B. And you can still get a very decent cup of tea.

This article was updated with corrections to item #4 on 22 November, 2016

First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres