Ypres, and the In Flanders Fields Museum

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When I was last in the beautifully restored town of Ypres, I visited the In Flanders Fields museum.  Anyone versed in First World War history is familiar with LCol John McCrae’s famous poem by the same title.  Written in 1915 in an Advanced Dressing Station just down the road from Ypres, the Canadian medic’s poem is possibly the most well-known verse spoken on Remembrance Day throughout the world. As such, it is fitting that the small, but wonderfully executed, museum in Ypres bears the same name as the poem.

Lt. Col. John McCrae, M.D.

The In Flanders Fields museum presents First World War history from the West Flanders region of Europe.  Its location, in the Cloth Hall of Ypres, gives it particular weight. The Cloth Hall – which dated originally from the 13th century – was destroyed by artillery fire during the war, as was much of the rest of Ypres.  It was painstakingly restored after the war.  Indeed, the area surrounding the Cloth Hall was rebuilt so well, it looks like it was never touched by war at all.

Cloth Hill Tower, Ypres in 1918. Taken by a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and in the archives of Ontario.

A restored Cloth Hall in 2004. Creative Commons License
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The museum focuses on the human experience of the First World War, and presents hundreds of objects and photographs in a contemporary and experience-oriented layout.  Interactive installations throughout provide personal connections for visitors to those who fought during the war.  The local landscape is also used to advantage; visits can be arranged to the Cloth Hall belfry from where the views over the surrounding town and battlefields help put the scope of the war in this area into perspective.

Technology is fully embraced in this small museum.  Upon entry, each visitor receives a poppy bracelet in which a microchip is placed.  This enables the visitor to learn about four individuals as they go through the permanent exhibition.  Other multimedia experiences include touch-screens, projections, soundscapes, and lighting.  Together, these create an effective, slightly intense, immersive experience.

From the In Flanders Fields Museum. http://www.inflandersfields.be/en/practical/visit

After one’s museum visit, the Menin Gate is not to be missed, and is only very short walk from the museum.  This impressive memorial is dedicated to those British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed at the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown.  Looking at the sheer number of names that cover seemingly every vertical surface of the memorial, it is hard to fathom that these are only a few of those who died in the war in total.

Panel of the missing dead at Menin Gate. By Jamain – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29701118

The gate stands at the east side of the town, where one of the main roads led to the front lines.  Completed in 1927, the memorial has come to have a unique daily function in the lives of those who live in Ypres.  Every evening at 8pm, the Last Post ceremony takes place. It has done so, virtually uninterrupted, since 1928.[1]    Each time, individuals or groups lay a wreath to commemorate those who were killed during the war. Service members, choirs, community groups and the like come from around the world to participate in the ceremony. I, myself, was privileged enough to accompany a group of Canadian Forces personnel in 2007.  The experience has had a lasting effect on me, and will not soon be forgotten.

Not far down the road from Ypres is Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery – the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world. Here almost 12,000 men are remembered, of which over 8,000 are unnamed.  There are numerous other war cemeteries in this area – pick almost any road leaving Ypres and you’ll see the iconic white stones along the way.  Besides Tyne Cot, one of my personal favorites is the St-Julien Canadian Memorial, known for its “Brooding Soldier” figure.  The Langemark German Military Cemetery is also worth a stop, and poses a dramatic contrast in style to the Commonwealth sites.

The Brooding Soldier. By MelicansMatkin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Ypres area is rich with history.  It’s a important spot to visit and the perfect one for reflecting on the idea of “lest we forget,” and remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice – on either side of the war.

[1] NB: during the German occupation, the ceremony took place in Brookwood Military Cemetery, in England.

About the Author

Having enjoyed museums for as long as I can remember, I am a self-professed museum nerd, with an equal interest in military history.  I received a BA (Hons) from Queen’s University in Medieval History, and an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. Finally, I completed a Master of Museum Studies at the University of Toronto before beginning my museological career, primarily at the Canadian War Museum.  I have lived and traveled all over Canada and Europe, being an “army brat” and having married into the Air Force.  Any chance I get to visit a local museum, I take, whether the institution is national or niche.  I am always looking for new and interesting ways to interpret and display history.

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1 Comment

  1. Recommend to all students off the Great War the seminal book “The Real War”, by BH Liddell Hart. He was the futurist whose interest in armor led German Gen. Hans Guderian to credit him with the success of the German tank actions early in WW2.

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