Ypres and its Flanders Fields are forever associated with the Great War. In and around Ypres silent witnesses of one of the deadliest wars in human history are very much present. With over 150 military cemeteries, numerous memorials and museums it is difficult to choose. Hence, a list of the lesser-known war sites that are well worth a visit.
Long Max Museum
Long Max was a German gun of 75 tons and with a range of 50 kilometres. The cannon was the masterpiece of the Batterie Pommern, and deployed at Koekelare to fire on Dunkirk. It wasn’t until the allied liberation offensive of 1918 when Belgian soldiers conquered the weapon. But it were eventually the Germans who dismantled the biggest gun the world had ever seen so far in 1941.
At the museum you can see a scale model; while the remnants of the artillery platform give a good impression of its impressive size.
The museum also covers the German occupation. About 5.000 soldiers from Mainz lived in Koekelare for four years straight. For the 6.000 inhabitants a serious adjustment. People had to pass through passport controls at German guard posts.
Unlike other war museums in the Westhoek, the Long Max looks at the German experience of the First World War. According to user reviews of the world’s largest travel website TripAdvisor, the Long Max is one of Belgium’s best museums. It was ranked third in the 2016 Travellers’ Choice Awards.
Clevenstraat 2, Koekelare, Admission fee: 5 euros. Thanks to Gerdi Staelens.
Memorial to the Missing
The British Memorial along the rue de Messines is a remarkable circular monument with porticos guarded by two big lion statues. 11.447. That is the number of engraved names of fallen soldiers with no known grave serving the area Caëstre-Haezebrouck-Fournes in Northern-France to Dranouter-Ploegsteert-Warneton in Belgium.
Each first Friday of the month at 7 pm sounds the Last Post. The Last Post ceremony was conceived in Ypres. Originally, the clarion call announced the end of the working day.
Rue de Messines, next to the Plugstreet 14-18 experience museum.
Plugstreet 14-18 experience
The building of the Plugstreet 14-18 experience centre is inspired by the catacombs or Hill 63, an underground network of tunnels and chambers built by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. The dugout offered shelter during the Battle of Messines.
The museum illustrates the impact of the war on civilians, from the difficult coexistence with the soldiers to the eventual evacuation. But it also gives a good impression of life at the battlefield. And being creative had its advantages. Hence, the use of a fake tree as observatory post to keep an eye on the enemy.
Plugstreet 14-18 experience centre, rue de Messines 156, Ploegsteert, Admission fee: 5 euro. Thanks to the Plugstreet 14-18 experience team for the image.
A bombshell with football amidst a British and German trench commemorates the Christmas Truce of 1914 when British and German soldiers fraternized, singing Christmas carols and playing games of football near the woods of Plugstreet. The monument was inaugurated in 2014 by Michel Platini, former UEFA President, with the words ‘To all those who experienced the Small Peace in the Great War.’
Chemin du Mont de la Hutte
From Poperinge many thousands of men went to the battlefield. Army chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip Clayton decided to open a house where the men after returning from service could find rest. Every British soldier and officer, regardless of the rank, was welcome in the Every Man’s Club. Very quickly the homy, cosy Talbot House became a home from home.
For those wanting to experience this World War I heritage, I highly recommend a stay at the Talbot House. Here, you drink a cup of tea or read a book from Tubby Clayton’s library just like the soldiers did one hundred years ago. A British host completes the picture. And do continue the tradition: write your name in the guestbook. Soldiers could write their name on a list in the hope to find a lost friend.
Talbot House, Gasthuisstraat 43, Poperinge. Admission fee: maximum 8 euros. Spending the night starts from 72 euros (double room). Thanks to Raf Craenhals.
Chapel O.L.V. der Zege
The Germans figured it out and pretty soon the tower was reduced to ruins. But from a tall ladder monk-lieutenant Lekeux kept fully informed of the goings-on of the enemy until it was no longer doable. And so he moved to the attic of a nearby farm. A grenade struck. But luckily it remained unexploded under a statuette of Our Lady and thus saved his life. After the war, brother Martial returned to the monastery and had a chapel built in Stuivekenskerke in honour of Our Lady.
The stained glass windows in the chapel depict scenes from the Great War. One of the windows show Lekeux praying with beside him the unexploded grenade.
Oud Stuivekens, Stuivekenskerke (Diksmuide)
Command Bunker Kemmel
The early fifties, the Cold War is in full swing. Belgium, Holland, France, Great Britain and Luxembourg are working on a communication system for the Western-European air defence. Stationed soldiers are obliged to sign a confidentiality agreement. Military police checks the identity and makes sure no document leaves the bunker.
The secret bunker is ready in 1954. Communication with the troops is handled by the North and South lines using military telephone lines, high frequency and domes. But the NATO implements its own system and the bunker becomes obsolete.
Ten years later the upper echelons of the Belgian army decide to reshape the bunker as a command centre from where the Belgian troops will be led in case of emergency. Theoretically, the centre runs on three shifts of 200 men each. (With each shift lasting eight hours). But it didn’t get that far. However, coordinated exercises did take place from 1973 until 1993.
Command Bunker Kemmel, Lettingstraat 64, Dranouter – Admission fee: 4 euros. Ticket available at the tourist office of Kemmel. Open each Tuesday and Saturday. Thanks to Mr. Dehouck.