Belgium: The Great War as you've never seen it before

By Adrian Mourby

Adrian Mourby is moved by a visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres.

First World War graves in the Belgian town of Ypres. Photo / Thinkstock
First World War graves in the Belgian town of Ypres. Photo / Thinkstock

In early morning mist, the Menin Gate rose dramatically from the moat that still surrounds Ypres. It's a war memorial that virtually dwarfs the town, a Lutyens-inspired gateway into Valhalla.

Going through this vast tomb-like structure, I passed the spot where the Last Post has been sounded more than 29,000 times since the tradition began in 1927 of a nightly tribute to the First World War dead. But my destination was new: the Cloth Hall's museum, which reopened last month.

At the bottom of the Menin Road, with all its Tommy-themed book and souvenir shops, I came into the Grote Markt facing the dark Gothic splendour of the Cloth Hall. Here Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, had just unveiled In Flanders Fields, Ypres' new interactive museum.

While in office, Clark visited Ypres more than any other world leader. (Like Gallipoli, Ypres has a special place in the Australian and New Zealand psyche; it's a battlefield where the heroism and sacrifice of their soldiers was particularly poignant.)

The museum takes its name from the title of a poem by a Canadian medic, John McCrae, who treated the wounded of Ypres. It is the second museum of that name to be built inside the hall. The original, along with the Menin Gate, has pretty much been responsible for the tiny city having so many visitors, given that so few trenches survive.

The German advance on Paris was halted in 1914 in what was known as First Battle of Ypres. For most of the war the city was the scene of a vicious stalemate. The Germans almost took the city in 1915 using gas at the Second Battle of Ypres. In 1917, at the Third Battle, the Allied armies managed a costly victory but failed to bring about the end of the war.

These days, two out of every five visitors to this small blood-soaked point of pilgrimage are British. Coach parties - from school age to old age - pile into Ypres. This is one of the places where the British experience of the First World War is most keenly felt. There is an English church, St George's, built in the 1920s by the Imperial War Graves Commission. The city even had its own English enclave up until 1940 when the German army returned and threw them out.

The Cloth Hall - like everything else in Ypres - is a complete rebuild. German artillery had reduced it to a pile of masonry by 1917. After the Armistice, German reparation money rebuilt the entire medieval city, gargoyle by gargoyle.

At the entrance to the museum I met Piet Chielens, the curator responsible for the total rethink. The first In Flanders Fields opened in 1998, but Piet said the approaching centenary of the war's outbreak prompted the move to enlarge and completely rebuild it.

Since 1998, many new exhibits have also come to light: a horse-drawn ambulance truck from the 3rd London Field Ambulance Division (captured and painted grey by the Germans); hundreds of photos bequeathed or handed over by combatants; and a unique collection of First World War uniforms from a private collector.

The construction of a new business park outside Ypres had also unearthed a British HQ abandoned by the 38th Welsh Division during Passchendaele. By the time they regained the ground it was completely flooded, but recent underwater archaeology has unveiled a military Marie Celeste of weapons, helmets and field glasses.

The new museum is dramatic, technically advanced but also very moving.

Music by Stuart Staples of Tindersticks creates an atmosphere of abiding sadness but the experience is highly personalised; as I entered I was given a wristband on to which was programmed my age, gender, place of birth and language. At various points around the museum I could look inside small viewing boxes and the wristband would automatically select a personal testimony by someone from my part of the world.

There will soon be 800 of these "encounters" on file. At the end, visitors can download their personal encounters to smartphones or have them emailed home.

The other innovation that impressed was the 10 "iconocharacters" who stood behind glass screens talking to me. These life-size figures from Belgium, France, Britain and America are actors recorded in high definition speaking the written testimony from the time.

Two British nurses were particularly moving. Writing in 1917, Ellen La Motte and Enid Bagnold spoke of their revulsion at the extreme injuries and having to patch up a soldier who had tried to kill himself.

"We had to make him capable of standing up against a wall so he could be executed."

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