"In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow. Between the crosses row on row..."
So begins the poem for which a World War I museum in Ypres, Belgium, is named.
The famous poem, written by Canadian military surgeon and poet John McCrae and first printed in Dec. 8, 1915, sets the tone for In Flanders Fields Museum, which offers a stark portrayal of the realities of combat in Ypres.
About a two-hour drive from Mons, Ieper is fairly close to U.S. personnel stationed in Belgium.
The museum is housed in the city’s Cloth Hall on the market square. While the building may look centuries old, it actually is less than 100 years in age. In fact, no building in Ypres is more than 80.
The city was quite literally leveled during fighting in World War I. A scale model of Ypres near the end of the museum shows nothing more than a few stacks of rubble and fighting trenches. That’s how intense the fighting was.
The museum gives visitors a harsh look at the trench warfare of World War I. Perhaps the most gripping exhibit is an audiovisual presentation that attempts to re-create what it was like for soldiers charging into the no man’s land between friendly and enemy trenches. Fighters would get stuck in the mud and, if not shot by the enemy, could drown in water pooled in craters left from shelling.
Another exhibit in the museum has clear columns in which smoke drifts up past gas-mask-covered faces. You begin to realize the multiple dangers troops faced in World War I. With loud booms, bright flashes and haunting images, the exhibits might not be for those sensitive to such scenarios. On a recent visit, a Belgian woman whose grandfathers fought in the war was moved to tears in the museum.
The Flanders Fields museum isn’t one in which you have to commit yourself to reading every word on its placards. The audio and video piped throughout give even a casual visitor a sense of what took place in Ypres. Just strolling through, you can hear stories such as the Christmas truce of 1914, in which British and German soldiers shared cigarettes, shook hands and exchanged gifts.
But not everyone played along, as one soldier involved in the fighting pointed out.
"All sorts of stories have been circulated regarding the meeting of the enemy and British troops between the trenches," according to the Jan. 14, 1915, diary entry of Bryden McKinnell, a captain with the 10th King’s (Liverpool Scottish). "Luckily the troops holding our immediate line of trenches just waited until the Germans got out of the trenches, then they let them have it, rapid fire; it stopped any of this ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ sort of nonsense."
Overall, the museum conveys a decidedly "war is hell" theme through many exhibits atypical of war museums. Quotations printed in large type throughout the Flanders Fields museum beat the point home.
"There was not a sign of life of any sort," according to a 1918 quote from Pvt. R.A. Colwell, who fought near Ypres. "Not a tree, save for a few dead stumps which looked strange in the moonlight. Not a bird, not even a rat or a blade of grass. Nature was as dead as those Canadians whose bodies remained where they had fallen the previous autumn."
In Flanders Fields Museum seeks to give visitors a glimpse of the hell troops went through. It may be a glimpse some may not be comfortable seeing.
Directions: Ypres is Ieper in Flemish, so don’t let the spellings on road signs fool you. Take Autoroute 19 to the Ieper exit (Ieper-Heuvelland-Zillebeke), and turn left. In about two miles, at a roundabout, look for signs to "Ieper centrum." At the next roundabout, take Rijselsepoort straight ahead toward the railway station. If you have GPS, enter the address as Grote Markt 34, Ieper, Belgium.
Times: The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily April 1 to Nov. 15. The rest of the year, hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Costs: Admission is 8 euros for adults, 4 euros for ages 7-15, free for children younger than 7. Families (two adults and an unlimited number of children from the same family) pay 19 euros.
Food: The museum is in the middle of Ypres, so there are plenty of cafes and restaurants within a short walk.