You cannot escape the reminders of war in Ypres, Belgium, and the surrounding area of Flanders Fields. Some 600,000 soldiers and civilians perished here during four years of battle, from 1914 to 1918. Prolonged fighting ravaged this section of World War I’s Western Front, leaving not one tree or building standing in Ypres (pronounced EE-pruh; Ieper in Dutch). Today, more than 100 cemeteries, from tucked-away plots to well-known sites, dot the northwestern section of Dutch-speaking Flanders. Museums detail the fighting and the losses.
But there’s more to the story. Amid the tales of death blooms a moving celebration of life. From the caretakers and interpreters of the graves and museums to the tens of thousands who come yearly to visit the war memorials, they remember together, sharing humanity. Ypres rebuilt itself a decade after it was razed, and its lively market square provides a counterweight to the area’s more somber sights.
The following Flanders sites remind visitors of yesterday’s sorrow and tomorrow’s promise.
Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 and Tyne Cot Cemetery
Museum adult admission: about $12
This museum in Zonnebeke is housed in a 1922 chalet on lovely grounds that include themed gardens. The museum focuses on the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the most brutal, which saw half a million casualties in just over three months. Re-created hideaway dugouts and battle trenches give visitors a glimpse of what the warfare was like. About 2 miles northeast is Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, holding nearly 12,000 servicemen, of whom more than 8,200 remain unidentified. On a long, bowed wall, you’ll find the names of an additional 35,000 soldiers who have no known grave.
Menin Gate and the Last Post
cwgc.org or lastpost.be/en/home
“He is not missing, he is here,” a speaker intoned at the 1927 inauguration of the Menin Gate, the massive triumphal arch straddling an Ypres entry road once used by troops on their way to the front. The memorial commemorates more than 54,000 Commonwealth officers and soldiers who died in battle and have no known grave. Their names and regiments are carved into rows and rows of panels.
That inaugural service ended with infantry buglers playing the “Last Post,” used at British military funerals and commemorations. With the exception of the German occupation of Belgium during World War II, volunteers have played the bugle call every evening since 1928 at the Menin memorial, the solemn sounds blanketing onlookers.
“The Menin Gate is the most iconic sight for the British—not even the most important but the most iconic,” said Allan Wood, a battlefield tour guide who visited with high school students from Hertfordshire, England. “Every school kid comes here at some point.”
His group and other visitors brought wreaths and small plastic poppies to leave at the memorial. The poppies found throughout Flanders refer to the flowers that grew over soldiers’ graves, eloquently written about in the 1915 poem by Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields.”
Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial
The Allied soldiers were mostly from the Commonwealth and France; however, the United States joined the war on April 6, 1917, sending members of the American Expeditionary Forces to Belgium. This small, park-like cemetery in Waregem, 32 miles east of Ypres, is the only World War I American cemetery in Belgium. With 368 graves, it’s also the smallest in Europe overseen by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Headstones are aligned in four symmetrical areas around a white stone chapel that lists the names of 43 missing soldiers.
In 2017, the commission built a new visitors center that includes photographs and multimedia exhibits. The local community has long embraced its American connection, made even stronger following President Barack Obama’s visit in 2014. Schoolchildren here learn “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which they sing during Memorial Day ceremonies, and locals tend to individual graves. Two other monuments honoring American troops stand in nearby Audenarde and Kemmel.
In Flanders Fields Museum
Admission: about $10; bell tower entrance: about $2
Before you immerse yourself in the wartime atrocities detailed at this well-done museum, first take in the building—the brilliantly rebuilt Cloth Hall, which is the city’s colossal landmark. Its pointed arches and 246-foot belfry (which visitors can climb) speak to the wealth of this one-time medieval trade center. The 1934 completion of the belfry’s postwar reconstruction symbolized to the community the completion of the city’s reconstruction, too.
The permanent exhibition focuses on the personal stories of ordinary people, with more than 2,000 original objects and documents, from artillery to medical supplies. Video projections, soundscapes, and narrated stories bring the war to life, both on the muddy frontline and at home. A particularly chilling section details the Germans’ first-time use of poison gas during warfare.
Where to Eat and Sleep in Ypres
Ariane Hotel, on a quiet street not far from the Ypres market square, sports upscale decor in a relaxed setting, with top-notch service. Wartime memorabilia line stairwells. Rates start at about $125. ariane.be. Closer to the center of town is the smaller Hotel O Ieper. Rates start at about $95. hotelo-ieper.be.
The popular In ’t Klein Stadhuis is tucked into a corner of the market square next to the town hall and serves comfort food in a cozy setting. Daily full lunch, about $20; four-course dinner with wine or beer, about $60. inhetkleinstadhuis.be/en. At the intimate Eethuis de Heerlyckheid, a small menu of pasta and meat dishes focuses on freshness. Main courses from $15. eethuisdeheerlyckheid.be.
Diane Daniel lives in Veldhoven, the Netherlands, and writes for the New York Times and the Washington Post.