When you Visit Ypres the best place to start is the superb In Flanders Fields Museum, in the magnificent Cloth Hall right in the centre of Ypres.
The museum was named after the immortal poem by Major John McCrea, and tells the story of the battles around the Ypres salient, using state of the art technology and presentation techniques. Once in the museum you will see that your ticket has the name of someone who lived or fought in Ypres. As you go around the museum insert your ticket into one of the machines and it will show what is happening to your person. Do they survive the war? Perhaps they are injured or move away?
Be prepared for sudden and unexpected sounds – an aircraft may make a low pass, firing its machine guns. Or the hissing sound of a sudden gas attack. One of the final chambers recreates moving through no man’s land – look below your feet and you see the debris of the battlefield. Your senses are battered by the sights and sounds of the battlefield.
When you visit Ypres try to include this privately owned museum as it is quite quirky but offers three very interesting insights into the fighting around Ypres.
The site has several hundred yards of preserved trenches which really give you an idea of what it was like living in the trenches. Of course the trees have grown back in the past 100 years but this has helped to minimise the weathering, which has blurred the definition of the trenches at Beaumont Hamel on the Somme. Look closely at the dead tree stumps and you can clearly see they are riddled with bullet holes.
Another unforgettable experience is the collection of thousands of stereoscopic photos, which show the true horror of the battlefield and modern mechanised war. Be prepared for some pretty horrific sights – like the corpse of a horse high up in a tree.
The museum is probably unaltered since it was first opened shortly after the Great War so it’s nothing like the modern, high-tech presentation you see in the In Flanders Fields museum. Glass fronted display cabinets contain masses of original military and personal kit collected from the battlefields.
Another recommendation when you visit Ypres is this well preserved site. Major John McRea, serving as a Medical Officer, would have watched the red poppies growing in the warm spring weather amongst the military graves at the makeshift dressing station. It is believed he was so deeply affected by the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer that he was inspired to write:
'In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.'
Essex Farm advanced dressing station started out as a series of dugouts but, as the war progressed, the concrete bunkers were built to give more protection to the casualties and medical staff.
An injured soldier was first carried back from the front line either on a stretcher, or over the shoulder of another soldier in a fireman’s lift. First stop for proper medical help was the Regimental Aid Post, manned by the battalion’s medical officer and orderlies who could be members of the Regiment’s band who had, and still have, a secondary role of giving medical support.
If he survived this far, the casualty was taken by ambulance to the next level of medical aid, the advanced dressing station, where more advanced medical help was given. Survive this far, and the injured soldier started the long journey back to Blighty by train and cross-channel boat.
There are 1,200 Great War soldiers buried or commemorated in the Essex Farm cemetery, of which 103 are unknown. There are also special memorials for 19 casualties who are known or believed to be buried among the unidentified burials.
In 1992 a group of amateur archaeologists, nicknamed ‘The Diggers’, discovered the remains of an original British trench close to new buildings in Ypres’ northern industrial zone. By 2000 they had unearthed extensive trenches and underground dugouts. In addition to many artefacts, they also discovered the remains of 155 Great War British, French and German soldiers
Today you can walk through a section of the trench which has been reconstructed with concrete sandbags and duckboards. You can also see the entrances to the undergrounds dugouts, but cannot go in as they are clearly flooded. Above ground, information boards show the locations of the dugouts, and explain the history of the site. You can also see a reconstruction of the way that duckboards were redesigned to lift the walkway above the level of water in the trench, so reducing the risk of trench foot.
If you found Visit Ypres interesting link to:
Ypres memorials and cemeteries
Ypres where to stay
Return to trips and travel