The Western Front in World War one was actually quite long, stretching from the North Sea on the shores of Belgium down to the Swiss Border. That means that there is a lot of ground to cover, and considering that there was fighting along most of the front, there are lots of things to see if you, unlike me, decide to travel the whole length. From my travels there I have since discovered that while the trenches are now long gone, there are still relics, even a hundred years after the event, hidden in the fields, forests, and farms along that stretch of land. Further, you will also find numerous craters which were the results of huge amounts of explosives that were detonated underground. Piles of rusted barbed wire are dumped out the front of farmyards, and when roads and buildings are built, the bomb squad still needs to be brought in to make sure that there still isn’t any unexploded ordinance that could cause severe injury if accidentally detonated.
However, while the Western Front is quite long, most of the interesting things can be found where the major battles were fought. The memorials to those who fell dot the countryside, since at the time it was impractical to transport bodies back home. While a huge multitude cemeteries can be found along the entire stretch, there are large memorials which were gifted to the allies who had given their lives in defense of democracy (and that is what World War I really did boil down to, at least on the Western Front – it was a war between the advanced democracies of England and France, and the old order of the Prussian and Austrian monarchs). While further south, you will come to where the Americans fought, I only had enough time to visit two major battle sites – Ypres and the Somme, and it is these two sites that I will be looking at in this post.
So, in this post I will be exploring some of the museums, memorials, and other parks that I discovered on my trip to the Western Front.
If you click on the title of each of the pieces, a Google Maps page will open up to show you where the place is located.
Ypres is a small town in Belgium (Flanders to be precise – don’t try speaking French here) that was the focus of at least three major battles (if you can consider blasting your opponents with artillery and then sending troops over the top of the trench to charge machine-gun emplacements that weren’t destroyed a battle). The reason for these battles was to attempt to break through the lines, head north, and capture the Belgium port of Antwerp, which the Germans were using to launch their submarine campaign. Needless to say, there is quite a lot to see around here. While I have already written about my trip to Flanders in a previous post, I will return once again because it is such an important part of our history.
In Flanders Field Museum
This is by far the most impressive, and comprehensive, of the museums that I visited while traveling through the western front. It is located in the old town hall, one of the very few structures that managed to survive the war. While the museum looks at the war as a whole, being located in Flanders its main focus is on the fighting in and around Flanders. Inside you will discover comprehensive displays on anything and everything to do with World War I. You will learn about the causes, the initial invasion, the race to the sea, and of course the four year stale mate that resulted.
One of the interesting things is to see the evolution of the uniforms. When the war started the soldiers wore those gaudy coloured uniforms popular in the 19th Century, and regularly seen with the Napoleonic battles. This was no longer appropriate for this new style of industrialised war, and it was during the early stages that khaki was adopted. Along with the uniforms are magazine articles from the period, and restored equipment from all aspects of the war, both weapons (including machine guns), medical supplies, and even some vehicles (but no tanks – the only surviving tank from World War I, at least from the Germans, can be found in Brisbane).
The museum really clutches at your heart strings. Yet while it is very emotional, it is also very powerful, and certainly a must see.
The town itself has a few curiosities to explore as well. There are a couple of antique shops that sell numerous memorabilia from the war, in particular trench art, which was created by the soldiers who spent their days in these muddy hell holes. You will find everything from intricately carved artillery shells, to some rather interesting oddities that the creative minds brought up. You can also book tours from these shops, which is a great, and informative, way of exploring the region. Oh, one of them even has a rusted machine-gun in the window, but the owner assured me that it was not for sale.
I should also mention Cafe Boerenhal. From the outside it just looks like your typical pub, however for the price of a beer, the owner will let you descend into the cellar. Once again you have a recreated cave from the war, which included a place where soldiers slept, as well as a medical unit. The soldiers spent all of their time in the trenches, and as such because they couldn’t leave, they would dig into the ground to provide at least a mediocum of peace from the battles raging above.
This is more a memorial than a museum, and is a huge gate that sits at the entrance to the town centre. Actually, it is built at the entrance of the old town and the original moat still runs around the town (as do sections of the wall). The gate itself lists the names of all who died in the various battles that were fought here, so not surprisingly the gate itself is pretty big. The first time I saw it as I was wandering towards the town centre and it literally blew me away. However, while the gate itself is impressive, the story behind the gate is moreso.
Every night at 8:00 pm the Last Post his performed here by members of the British army. The ceremony has been performed every night since the end of the war, with the exception of the few years that the town was under German occupation (and even then the ceremony was moved back to England and continued to be performed). However, as soon as the town was liberated, they immediately started performing the ceremony again, despite the fact that there was still some resistance from the Germans.
Here is a video of the Last Post (though if you want to see it yourself it is best to get there early so you can get a good spot).
Hill 60 (aka Messine Ridge)
This was the first stop on our tour of some of the sights in and around Ypres. The place was actually purchased after the war in an effort to preserve some of the battlefields as a memorial of the horrors that befell the place. Hill 60 was actually the highest point in the region, which meant that whoever held this position was at an advantage, that that happened to be the Germans. However, during the war, while the allies were attempting to break through the lines, they decided to, instead of going over to top as they usually did, they burrowed underground. The story behind Hill 60 is actually the subject of an Australian movie – Beneath Hill 60.
The hill is still there, however once you reach the top you will notice that there happens to be a huge crater – the results of the mine that was dug underneath the German defences. However, the German Bunker still remains, and no matter how much people have tried since the war, these bunkers simply cannot be destroyed – they were built to last. Markers have also been set up around the hill to show us where the trenches ran, though it should be remembered that the location of the trenches were quite fluid.
It was thought that after the war all of the trenches had been destroyed. Well, quite a lot of them were destroyed during the war as well, but as well as farmers burying them and going back to farming the land, and a hundred years of European weather, as well as the effects of the war, pretty much nothing remained of the Western Front – or so it was thought. One afternoon, while some children were playing in a forest just outside of Ypres they came across some German trenches that had been quite well preserved (actually, I believe one of them fell into the trench, which had been covered up by the undergrowth).
The trenches were in a remarkably well preserved condition, which was a boon for historians as it meant they could study how the Germans had constructed them. The forest, and the trenches, has since been turned into a park, though it is still private property (and there is a small admission fee as well, though that was paid for through the tour).
Christmas Truce Memorial
This is one of those delightful stories from a war that really didn’t seem to have all that many. Basically it turned out that the saying ‘we’ll be home by Christmas’ didn’t quite work out, and the troops found themselves still stuck in the trenches. Anyway, as calm descended over the front the British heard singing coming from the trenches opposite, so they waived the white flag, came out of their trenches, and all of a sudden the war had come to an end. Basically the commanders had all gone home to spend Christmas with their families, leaving the soldiers stuck here. Neither side wanted to be here, and neither side really wanted to fight, so instead they decided to have a game of soccer (or football as it is known on the outside of Australia and the US).
The location has been preserved, though the trenches are long gone. A small pile of soccer balls have been set up as a memorial, and the location of the trenches (as well as a small section of preserved trenches) remain. It isn’t the easiest spot to find though, since it is located down a back road (though there is a sign pointing to it). Mind you, the truce didn’t last all that long, namely because when the commanders returned, they were incredibly upset that supposed enemies were actually having a good old time together, and ordered them back into the trenches and to start fighting again. As they say, this wasn’t a war between the men, but rather a war between the commanders – the men were only pawns.
These trenches were a little difficult to find, namely because they are hidden away in a park in the middle of an industrial area to the north of Ypres. Basically, I found myself driving around in circles, while avoiding trucks, until I found this park almost hidden out of site. Basically, like some of the other places around Ypres and the Western Front, this is a park set aside as a memorial, and from the name, I gather this is where a regiment from Yorkshire was stationed. It looks as if the trenches are rather new though, and the sandbags that were used in the original trenches have been replaced by cement replicas. Well, at least you get to wander through some trenches, even if they are just a mockup.
The western front was almost 1000 kilometres long, so I was only able to touch a small part of it in the limited time that I had on the continent. Anyway, Ypres and the Somme were the two major battles that stuck in my head in the years after I studied the war back in university (though there is also the Battle of Verdun, but that was a battle between the French and the Germans, even though it happened at around the same time as the Somme – in fact just slightly before it, which is why the Somme wasn’t the success that it was supposed to have been, but then again we are talking about World War I battle tactics).
The Somme was where the French and the British armies met – to the North were the British, and to the South were the French. The idea was to use this point to launch a concentrated attack on the German, and by surprise at that. It turned out that it didn’t quite turn out as expected, as the Germans had plans of their own – at Verdun. Further, like most battles during the war, it really didn’t matter how long or hard you pounded the opponents with artillery, it just didn’t seem to do all that much. As soon as the dust cleared, and the soldiers went over the top, the machine guns would be out, and the soldiers would find themselves trapped in a kill zone.
The Generals didn’t seem to particularly care though, because they continued to use similar tactics throughout the war, even if they did have some successes, they eventually lost it afterwards through a counter offensive. In a way this is probably why the Somme has gone down in history for breaking all the wrong records – Britian’s bloodiest battle, and the greatest loss of life for the British army in a single day. Still, at least the generals were sitting nice and comfortably in their houses far from the front line.
I should probably link to another video on World War I that I recently watched about the underground war, namely because Indi Nardal seems to explain it much better than I do, even though he doesn’t really mention this battle (though he does mention the battle of Messines Ridge) – actually, he does, but doesn’t mention the New Zealander’s involvement in it, which sort of shows a bit of a lack of research since the Quarry was named after the capital of the country, and if you actually visit Arras you will see it mentioned everywhere (though it does happen to be in French).
Anyway, Arras happens to be located on the top of a huge chalk deposit, and over the centuries chalk was mined from under the town. This has resulted in a huge network of tunnels stretching for miles. During the war, the allies decided to use this to their advantage, and dug a network of bunkers and barracks, as well as mines underneath the German position. Like a lot of the mines, these ones were designed to lay explosives, but the soldiers bunkered down here were also to come up behind the German lines and break through that way. This was actually quite successful, and the could have broken through and led to a much, much shorter war, if the Generals hadn’t decided to fortify their positions, thus giving the Germans breathing space.
You can actually go down into the mines, though only on a guided tour (which I believe leaves every half hour or so). The reason for this, as I mentioned above, is that since there are miles and miles of tunnels, it is very, very easy to get lost, and it is also quite dark down here as well, meaning that if unaccompanied one could get injured, and quite seriously at that. However, it isn’t just the story, but the tour because you travel around parts of the mine and seen the bunkers were the soldiers were holed up while waiting for the final order to be given. We were actually quite lucky to have got here in time to get onto the last tour because it was fascinating.
Australian National Memorial
As I have mentioned, there are quite a lot of memorials scattered along the Western Front, and a lot of them have been given as memorials to various allied governments (though, ironically, none of them are German, though I do wonder what happened to the German dead – where they shipped back to the Fatherland, or buried where they fell?). I was also going to mention that I noticed that these graves all belonged to Commonwealth soldiers, but then again the British were deployed to the north of the Somme.
While this memorial is referred to as the Australian Memorial, if you wander around the graves you will notice that there are soldiers buried here from all over the commonwealth, though they are predominantly Australian. It was interesting having a look at the various symbols on the gravestones representing the troops from the various parts of the commonwealth. While this isn’t a museum, it is still a memorial, and there is a tower at the far end where if you look closely you will see pockmarks from when the Germans swarmed over the area during World War II. I guess the main reason we ended up here is, well, because we happened to be Australian, and they tend to tailor the tour to those who happen to be on it at the time.
Oh, and there is also the story of the nearby village, where the streets are named after various places in Australia, and if you travel through there you will see a lot of Australiana. The main reason for this is because in the closing stages of the war, the Germans had managed to break through the lines, and literally had an open road down to Amiens. However, the Australians held them off at this village, and turned them back. Oh, the Australians also manged to capture a German tank, which is why there happens to be a German Tank in the Queensland Museum, which is the only one in existence by the way.
Loch Nag Crater
As I have mentioned previously, there happens to be a lot of craters scattered along the Western Front, and the main reason for this is because both sides made a habit of tunneling under their opponent’s position, loading the mine up with explosives, and blowing them sky high. This crater is one of them, and you can wander around the end of the crater (though they suggest that you don’t go down inside, even though there is water at the bottom). Along with the crater, there are a number of memorials here as well, in the form of planks and seats.
The town of Albert has a number of interesting stories associated with it, and also has a museum underneath the town square. The reason that it is underneath the town square is because it is located in some tunnels that meander from just next to the church, around to the local park, where you are dumped out into a shop (which shouldn’t surprise anybody in the least). Like many of the other museums that I visited, this museum has numerous displays on pretty much anything and everything associated with World War I, and a lot of things that are original as well. So you will find equipment, uniforms, weapons (both guns, knives, and bayonettes), down here, along with some personalities at the end of people who fought in the area (some famous, such as Tolkien, some not).
However, the story behind the town of Albert is actually somewhat more interesting. During the early stages of the war the church was hit by artillery fire and the steeple damaged, but not destroyed, In fact, the figure of Mary just hung there, suspended, for most of the war. Since the troops had to pass through Albert to get to the front, and had to pass under the church as well, they believed that in doing so they would receive the blessing of Mary. They also believed that once the spire collapsed, the war would come to an end, and the spire did so just before the end of the war.
Beaumont-Hammel Newfoundland Memorial
I’ll finish off with this park that has been set aside in honour of the Newfoundlanders that lost their lives during the early part of the battle of the Somme. At the time, Newfoundland wasn’t actually a part of Canada, but rather an independent colony, so you will discover that they had a different symbol to that of the rest of the Canadians. It wasn’t until later that it was incorporated into the country as a province (no doubt due to it’s size, and population, or lack of). However, one of the things that this memorial represents is the number of the Newfoundlanders that lost their lives during the opening days of the Battle of the Somme – literally its entire adult male population.
The park is now managed by the Canadian government, and the government even offers you high school graduates the opportunity to travel to France for six months to work in one of the memorials. As the young lady said who met us at the gate, to them it is a great honour for them to win this position (though one of the key requirements is to be able to speak French fluently, which is not as much of a problem in Canada where you still have an entire section of the country that speaks French).
The memorial has, well, a number of memorials scattered across the park, as well as the remains of some of the trenches. They aren’t in the condition that the ones at Bayenwald were in though, since the elements have slowly worn them down. In fact a number of them simply look like undulating hills, and the craters are just small pockmarks, most of them having been buried under the ground. They have set up a former trench near the main memorial, but once again it has been worn down by the elements.
Anyway, that is pretty much all we were able to end up seeing, namely because it was time to head back to Amiens. There does happen to be another memorial around here, that looks like the Menin Gate, but much, much bigger, however while we didn’t have time to visit it, we did manage to see it from afar, as well as a number of old German bunkers hidden away in some of the farms. In fact a lot of these bunkers have basically been forgotten about, and the only way to find them is to speak to people in the know. Once again, these bunkers were built to last, and with one them the farmer had so much trouble removing it, that in the end he just left it where it was for curio seekers to come and check it out.
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