World War One sites in Flanders to check out
Updated: May 7
Europe is a fascinating place to explore with so many beautiful destinations to see, cultures to check out, food to try but also it is full of history. However, a lot of history is very dark, especially when it comes to war. The continent has many of these but not as bad as the First World War and the Second World War. The country of Belgium on the north-western mainland of Europe has been caught up in it twice in a very big way and to be honest, my knowledge of the events which took place here isn’t that great but when I spent a lot of time in Flanders (the western region or otherwise known as the Dutch region), over the last decade, I have explored various sites. I used Brugge (Bruges) as a base and the following can be done within a thirty minute to an hour’s drive or train journey.
Wanna know how World War One started? Then go to your library and read up about it, otherwise I will be writing a book. However in a nutshell, there was some tension with that Austrian-Hungarian Empire, someone shot a man called Franz Ferdinand whilst touring the Balkans, Austria wanted to declare war on Serbia but wouldn’t in case Russia who supported Serbia would come barge in in from the east and give the mighty Austrian-Hungo Empire a good run for their money. However Germany reassured Austria that they would join forces, declared war on Serbia and whooooaaaaa, it all got a bit crazy with all the European powers and Germany/Austria-Hungarian Empire taking on all of Europe. However Germany took on most of the attacking and did a lot of naughty things like killing people, taking land etc. Eventually the Austrian-Hungary Empire collapsed, Germany defeated, a few treaties signed and the world was at peace, for now.
Belgium was at the forefront of most of the attacks as Germany conquered Western Europe. However with Allied forces from the likes of Great Britain, United States of America and Canada to name a few coming over the water for a little game of ‘Go away Germany for peace sake’, a lot of battles took place in this part of the world as well as Northern France. A lot of trench warfare took place around the town of Ieper (Ypres in French) and that’s where I will start.
The town is located a few miles from the French border and was one of the major hotspots of the war. Famous for being a linen town and has stood here since the first century AD (the Romans came through here and raided of course), the town has been under lots of different empires and countries over the years but eventually came under the Kingdom of Belgium when formed. The town became famous for its position in the First World War and about three battles were fought here or on the outskirts of town. The most famous battle was Passchendaele in which Allied forces fought for months, only to push the Germans back a few miles. Over half a million people lost their lives on both sides and the town of Ieper was totally obliterated by artillery fire. During the war English-speaking soldiers often called the town (Ieper/Ypres) Wipers, a funny mispronunciation which caught on and English folk still call the town that today. Other mispronunciations in the town are Whyteshaete (White Street) and Ploegsteert (Plug Street) and there is probably a list somewhere out there with more crazy street names which were mispronounced. Getting back to the war, Ieper was one of the places that hosted an unofficial Christmas Truce in 1914 where German and British soldiers put down their guns and played a game of football, had tea (maybe some fish and chips from nearby Oostende) and sang carols. It didn’t last long of course before the bloodshed began.
Another fact I found out is that Adolf Hilter during the First World War fought for the Germans (despite being Austrian-Hungarian Empire back then) and got injured nearby, so he got sent back to Germany to be repaired so that in later years after starting a political career, he became that ‘man’ who started World War Two and part of his army came back to Ieper for another battle in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s. I bet the locals or the British were thinking they should have killed him off whilst they had the chance.
Walking around Ieper I also learnt that the United Kingdom’s King George V awarded the city the Military Cross, awarded for bravery, loss and spirit to all the local people and army personnel. Ieper was one of only two cities to get this award, the other being Verdun in France. This happened in 1920 and a few years later, the cross (along with the French cross which was also awarded to the city) was added to the city’s coat of arms. Ieper also has the title of ‘city of peace’ and has a close friendship with another town on which war had an impact on and that is Hiroshima in Japan. Both towns witnessed the war at its worst, Ieper was one of the first places where chemical warfare was used and Hiroshima saw nuclear warfare being used for the first time.
That’s the history story I learnt about the city but here are the top sights to see. The city was rebuilt after the First (and more rebuilding done after the Second) World Wars, which was mostly paid for by Germany in reparations (you destroyed us, you rebuilt us!) with buildings such as the stunning Cloth Hall and Town Hall with the main square to its original appearance. The rest of the town looks more modern. The Cloth Hall is the main building in the centre of the city and hosts the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ which is a fantastic museum to visit and most of it is dedicated to the city’s role in the First World War. First built in the thirteenth century, the Cloth Hall was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages. There is also a belfry in the middle of the building and in 1999, the Cloth Hall was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nearby is Saint Martin’s Cathedral which was built in 1221 but again was reconstructed after the war in it’s Gothic-style facades. The only difference now is that the spire is a lot higher.
However for me the main landmark has to be the Menin Gate. This massive memorial is dedicated to those soldiers of the British Commonwealth (but not including Newfoundland and New Zealand) who lost their lives in Ieper and surrounding area during the First World War before 16th August 1917 and have no known grave. Other servicemen who died after that date are named on the memorial at Tyne Cot elsewhere in Belgium. When a serviceman is identified, a grave is made for them and their names are removed from the gate.
The gate itself is located on the road which heads out east (to which most of the fighting took place as the German army came from the east) and many of the soldiers never returned. Now I was fortunate enough to have a beer in a bar next to the gate and one evening before 20:00 (with a pint of one of Belgium’s beers), I stood outside and heard the ‘Last Post’ (which is a bugle call used by the British and Australian armies), being played. This has happened every evening since it started in 1928 (apart from that dark time known as the Second World War when Ieper was occupied by Germany - again!). The local fire brigade are the guys who play this to honour the memory of the British and Commonwealth armies who fought and died in the area. It is quite a moving experience and did have a tear from one eye as I watched on. I also noticed all the local traffic stopped and the engines switched off. The locals know what to do when 20:00 approaches every day and they are very respectful when honouring this moment. A few minutes later life got back to normal, cars are moving and I was back in the bar talking to the barman about Belgian life.
Sanctuary Wood Museum (Hill 62)
Exactly three kilometers from the Menin Gate (heading eastwards - signposted of the N8 road between Ieper and Kortrijk), is Sanctuary Wood where a lot of bloody warfare took place. However after the First World War a farmer returned to his land and checked out the woodland he left four years earlier. He cleared a lot of the debris and trenches by the Germans (and casualties of course), but for some reason he left the British trench system alone. This is now one of the original trench systems which has been left alone and visitors can check out. Most trench systems in the area were filled in and ploughed over by returning farmers.
There is a museum here which is privately owned by the grandson of the farmer who reclaimed his land in 1919. Inside is a lot of equipment and other materials which were found in the fields which were used during the war. There were some interesting findings and probably one of the best museums I have come across for World War history.
22km north of Ieper is the small town of Diksmuide and not too far from the coastline of Belgium. The town also got caught up in heavy fighting in World War One and like Ieper was completely destroyed and was rebuilt in the 1920s. The town is famous for having one of the Belfry’s which is part of UNESCO's world heritage site list and is famous for the dairy industry in the area. However there is a huge tower next to the canal which can be seen for miles and that is the Yser Tower (IJzertoren). This is a huge memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Battle of the Yser during the First World War. There is a lot of history regarding this tower, so forgive me, here are my findings from my two trips to the memorial which also hosts a museum inside the tower (and I also got amazing view points from the top).
Belgium, Belgium, Belgium, how I love my neighbours across the sea. However Belgium back in the day before the First World War was very French speaking (especially in the Army) and Flemish folk (who spoke a Dutch language but with little differences to their neighbours to the north in the Netherlands), were always being felt if they were left out. Well, during the First World War, a lot of soldiers were recruited to join the fight and get down those trenches which were popping up all around the area. However most of the soldiers were Flemish and after the war, Belgium after doing the figures, had about 80% of the army who were Flemish! Now you could imagine how the locals felt around these parts so during the war the Flemish Movement was created and the demand for more Flemish rights in Belgium was the aim of the game.
After the war the Yser Tower was built and was built by an organisation of former Flemish soldiers. The main language in the army and in government was still French and then Hilter and his buddies from the east came storming through Belgium very quickly at the start of the Second World War. Some of the Flemish folk gained sympathy for the Germans as their politics fitted in with theirs, the language was easier to understand than the French and they were kinda hoping the Dutch language would be recognised in Belgium (but German-occupied) politics. Eventually the Second World War was over and the Belgium government got really pissed off with some of the Flemish folk who got involved with the Germans, so in the end 242 people were convicted and executed, most of whom were in the resistance. A lot of monuments were destroyed which included the Yser Tower. In the 1950s the second Yser Tower was built on the same site and there is also a new Gate of Peace built at the entrance of the grounds. And coming up to the present day, the tower is still a symbol of Flemish nationalism.
The tower, memorial and museum is a great way to get a good understanding of the battles which took place in the fields around here and to get some idea of Flemish nationalism. I spent a good couple of hours here taking in all the information, looking at posters and above all, taking in the peaceful views from the top.
So these are the top sights I would recommend visiting this part of Flanders in Western Belgium. However everywhere you go there will be history. Every town, village, field will have something to do with both wars. There are cemeteries everywhere as well. For me personally, I don’t think I have any family members who fought in the battles here, (my mother found three of our family members who died at Loos and in the Somme in France and my blog post can be found here), but it is still a touching experience to go to these places and really get a few of what the locals, the armies, the cowes were facing when the Germans decided to pop through twice and caused a lot of bloodshed.
We shall not forget.
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