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.
– Colonel John McCrae
The Ypres Salient was a part of the Belgian section of the western front during World War 1, which stretched from the North Sea coast to the Swiss Alps.
The area is covered in history. It’s an ideal region to explore if you’ve got a day or two to spare and, of course, if you’re interested in war history. Keep in mind that you will need a car or (motor)bike to follow this itinerary, or you can choose to go on an excursion from one of Belgium’s major cities.
Visiting Flanders Fields in Two Days
The route to follow:
An ideal base for exploring the region is Ypres, or Ieper in Flemish. The best way to start is by visiting the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum‘, which is located in the impressive Cloth Hall. It is one of the best history museums I have been to in my entire life. It’s absolutely brilliant and I highly recommend it if you want to get an idea of the things that happened here.
The next place to visit is the Trench of Death, near the city of Diksmuide and next to the Yser river. This was an important part of the Belgian section of the western front and is a symbol of the fierce resistance by the Belgian army. It was the most feared place at the front line amongst Belgian soldiers. Here, the Belgian and German armies were barely a few dozen meters apart: at the end of the trench you can still see the remains of a German bunker, just a stone’s throw away. The entrance to the trenches is free; it really is a must-do.
As you drive towards and back from the Trench, you pass the Yser Tower. It’s a memorial tower along the Yser river and also a symbol of Flemish emancipation. At 84 meters tall, it’s the highest peace monument in Europe. ‘Nooit meer Oorlog’ (Never again War) is written on the tower in the four languages of the armies in the region during the First World War, being Dutch, French, English and German.An elevator can take you to the top of the building, which offers great views of the town of Diksmuide, the former battlefields and the Yser river. The stairs down will take you through a museum about war, peace and Flemish emancipation.
An elevator can take you to the top of the building, which offers great views of the town of Diksmuide, the former battlefields and the Yser river. The stairs down will take you through a museum about war, peace and Flemish emancipation.
Now, it’s time to visit some of the most well-known war cemeteries in the area. It’s impossible to visit all of them though (there literally are hundreds).
It’s a good idea to head to the German ones first. They are the most sombre and depressing of the cemeteries. They kind of have a dark atmosphere about them. They’re incredibly humbling and make you want to whisper instead of talking out loud.
The first one to go to is the Vladslo Soldatenfriedhof. This German cemetery contains the remains of 25,644 soldiers. Each stone in the cemetery holds the name of twenty soldiers, with only the name, rank and date of death specified. At the back of the cemetery stands the statue ‘The Grieving Parents’, made by a famous German sculptress in memory of her son, who is also buried here.
On the way back to Ypres, you will pass a Belgian war cemetery and the second and biggest German war cemetery.
The second German war cemetery, Langemark Soldatenfriedhof, really is a mass grave. More than 44,000 German soldiers are buried here, including over 3,000 schoolboys who were sent to their death in the First Battle of Ypres. The big oak trees among the graves contribute to the dramatic, sombre feeling that takes hold of you as you’re walking around.
The town of Langemark was the scene of the first gas attacks by the Germans, which was the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres.
Make sure you get back to Ypres before 7.30pm, so you can make it to the Menin Gate in time for the Last Post ceremony. Buglers of the local Last Post association have been playing the Last Post every evening at 8.00pm sharp since 1928, in memory of the British soldiers who gave their lives for the Belgian people.
The Menin Gate is a war memorial dedicated to British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient, but whose bodies were never found. Its massive Hall of Memory contains the names of 54,896 soldiers. As huge as it is, it turned out to be too small to contain all the names. The rest of the names were inscribed on the wall surrounding the famous Tyne Cot War Cemetery.
The route to follow:
On the way towards Tyne Cot, you pass by the Canadian Forces Memorial. A Canadian soldier stands guard over the dead, arms reversed.
The Tyne Cot War Cemetery lies on British soil. The setting is absolutely stunning. It lies on a small hill and overlooks the surrounding countryside.
This made the area an important strategic point for both sides during the war. It was captured by Australian and New Zealand divisions and two days later they started a cemetery for British and Canadian war dead. The cemetery was recaptured by the Germans, but finally liberated by Belgian forces.
It’s an impressive place and you could easily spend a couple of hours there. It’s enormous: it is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world. It’s located near Passchendaele, famous for its battle.
Next, there are some more (smaller) British war cemeteries worth visiting: the very little Polygon Wood Cemetery and Buttes New British Cemetery. They both are located next to Polygon Wood, which was at the front line during the entire war and of which only a few tree trunks were left in the end.
Another spot worth paying a visit is Hill 62. It was one of the very few hills around Ypres occupied by allied forces. Numerous fierce battles were fought here. At the top of the hill is a Canadian monument and a little café. In the woods behind the café you can visit some remains of trenches and tunnels if you please.
If you’ve got some time left, there are several other places to go to in the area: hills, cemeteries, museums, mine craters,…
If you don’t, head back to Ypres and take a walk around and through the city. It’s a beautiful city, which had to be completely rebuilt after the Great War. It now is an exact replica of the old medieval city.
Don’t forget to check out my post about Waterloo, another famous Belgian battlefield!