Flanders Fields and the town of Ypres in Belgium will always be associated with the events of World War I. For more than four years, battle after battle raged in this area. Today, you can tour Flanders Fields and visit many World War I sites within just a few miles of Ypres.
Before you go, you will want to know at least a little about the war in Flanders. In August of 1914, at the war’s beginning, the Germans invaded Belgium on their way to France. The Germans also wanted to capture and use Belgian ports like Antwerp. At Ypres, the German advance was stopped by soldiers from Belgium, Britain, and France. In the winter, the armies dug in, building trenches they would occupy for years. The few miles of land in Flanders changed hands over and over, and little headway was made by either side. Many died in the fighting and in the mud of the Ypres Salient. Disease ravaged the armies, and poison gas, first used by the Germans in 1915, added another layer of gruesome injury and death.
Today, Flanders Fields is peaceful farmland, but it is also full of cemeteries and memorials. Even now, more than 100 years after the war’s end, unexploded artillery sometimes comes up during plowing. And soldiers long buried in the land are still being found and returned to their families.
Here are nine memorable World War I sites you can see in one day in or near Ypres. They can be seen in any order. You can visit Ypres and the Menin Gate in the daytime, and then return for dinner and the Last Post, for example. If you stay longer than a day, you can also visit places farther out.
The small town of Ypres is central to Flanders Fields. During World War I, Ypres was located within a few miles from the front as the fighting stagnated. Four major battles raged here in the Ypres Salient. Much of the town was destroyed.
A visit to Ypres is a must if you are touring Flanders Fields. You can eat here, shop here, stay in a nice hotel, and enjoy the town’s charming architecture without learning about any of its history. But once you discover what happened here during the war, you will see the area in a whole new light.
Since the war, the town’s buildings have been reconstructed in their original medieval style. Cloth Hall occupies the center of town. You can’t miss this tall, colorful building decorated with spires. Inside, you’ll find tourist information and a visitor center. The Yper Museum is here, offering interactive exhibits that cover 1,000 years of area history.
Another section of Cloth Hall houses the In Flanders Fields Museum, with its wealth of information about World War I in Flanders. You’ll see photos showing parts of Belgium that were totally destroyed during the conflict. One of the exhibits, Reconstructing Flanders Fields, is billed as “an ode to the resilience of forgotten men and women who cleared rubble and rebuilt their country after the First World War.”
Pro Tip: If you are in town for lunch or dinner, choose a patio table at De Trompet on the Market Square, next door to Cloth Hall. You’ll get a front-row seat to life in the busy town, and the salads and fish are delicious.
2. Menin Gate And The Last Post
At the entrance to Ypres is the Menin Gate, a beautiful war memorial to the British troops who died here during World War I. Names line the walls — more than 54,000 of them. These soldiers remain lost in the fields more than 100 years later. They hailed from Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
The gate, which existed before the war, was chosen for a memorial because hundreds of thousands of men passed through it on their way to the nearby battlefields.
Often, as farmers plow the fields and construction projects begin, the bodies of these soldiers are found. If a body is identified, the soldier is given a proper burial in a cemetery, and the name is then removed from this wall of the missing.
If possible, plan your time in Flanders Fields so that you can attend the Last Post under the arches of the Menin Gate. This ceremony takes place every evening at 8 p.m. The tradition started in 1928 and has continued every evening except during the time when the Germans occupied the town in World War II. Buglers from the Fire Brigade play, and families carry flags to honor the dead.
The Last Post bugle call is a song played by the British Army to mark the end of the day’s labors. At the Menin Gate, the music represents a final farewell to the fallen and signals their eternal rest. This ceremony of remembrance of those lost is short, but incredibly moving. The large crowd gathered each evening remains in total, respectful silence.
Be sure to arrive early for the ceremony. People stand on three sides of the gate, and the space fills up. Plan to be on your feet for a while, since there is no seating.
3. Tyne Cot Cemetery And Memorial
Located near the town of Passchendaele, the site of three major World War I battles, Tyne Cot Cemetery is a resting place for and memorial to the fallen soldiers from England, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. It’s telling that out of the 12,000 graves, about 8,000 are marked unknown. These battles were so brutal that many of the young men who died could not be identified.
Tyne Cot, which first housed a barn, marks the farthest point reached by British forces in Belgium until near the end of the war. After the armistice, fallen soldiers were brought here from nearby Passchendaele, Langemarck, and other battlefields.
The Tyne Cot Memorial borders the curving rows of gravestones to the north. You can walk inside this memorial and see the names of nearly 35,000 men from the United Kingdom and New Zealand who died in the Ypres Salient after August of 1917 and were never found.
4. Hooge Crater Museum
This area saw fierce fighting from the fall of 1914 to the spring of 1918. A mine blew a crater here during one of the battles. Shortly after the war, a cemetery, church, and schoolhouse were built at Hooge. Today, the church holds the Hooge Crater Museum, with its collections of uniforms and weaponry. Plenty of artillery shells decorate the outside. Inside are displays of gas masks and other World War I artifacts.
The large cafe in the former schoolhouse serves delicious local foods. Consider planning your day so that you can be here at lunchtime. Relax on the patio and enjoy a ploughman’s lunch of meat and cheese or toasted ham and cheese, all served with fresh vegetables. The ice cream is a treat, too.
5. Hill 60
This area, the site of a notable battle of World War I, is preserved as it was during the war. The tunnels dug under Hill 60 were mined by Australians and blown up under enemy lines. The close proximity of the front lines is noted by the signs in the sidewalk. A German bunker also survives.
Australians took the Hill in June of 1917, Germans took it in April of 1918, and British and American troops took it back in September of 1918.
6. The Brooding Soldier
The Brooding Soldier looks down at you from atop a 33-foot granite column. Canadian troops held the line here in the face of the first poison chlorine gas attacks released by the Germans. More than 2,000 soldiers died. Notice that the memorialized soldier faces the direction from which the poison gas arrived.
7. German Military Cemetery
Of course, thousands of German men died in Flanders, too, and many are buried in the lovely German Military Cemetery just north of Ypres in Langemarck. The cemetery is one of four German cemeteries in Flanders. Under the shade of tall trees near picturesque farmland, more than 44,000 German soldiers rest. Gravestones laid flat are inscribed with the names of those in each site. Most moving is the Comrades Grave, the common grave of almost 25,000 unknown men.
8. Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station And Cemetery
Attached to Essex Farm, just outside Ypres, the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station and Cemetery is a poignant place to visit.
The grave of one of the youngest of the fallen is here, and for that reason this is the World War I cemetery most visited by schoolchildren. This young man, only 15 years old, should have been in school, not on the battlefield, and that resonates with students.
The medic John McCrae worked in the field dressing station in primitive concrete bunkers at the edge of the cemetery. He is the author of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
McCrae did not survive the war.
Take time to enter the primitive bunkers. Imagine the challenge of treating severely wounded men in this dark, dank, and dirty place.
9. Yorkshire Trench
The Yorkshire Trench system outside of Ypres has been restored to its original dimensions and exact location. The ground lay undisturbed until the 1990s, when construction workers started digging. They discovered a trench system just below the surface. Fortunately, part of the line of trenches is preserved and open to visitors. It’s amazing to walk in the footsteps of the men who lived and fought here 100 years ago.
Hill 62 is another place where the trenches have been restored and can be visited.
What To Know Before You Go
You could rent a car to see these World War I sights, or you could ride a bicycle. If you want a guide to inform you of the battles (and keep you from getting lost on the winding farm roads), I can recommend Quasimodo Tours. The guide is a local who is very knowledgeable about the history of Flanders Fields. The tour comes with an option to stay for the Last Post in Ypres.
The beauty of Flanders Fields comes as a surprise, considering its gruesome history. But just off the road, around a corner, or at the edge of a farmer’s crops, you’ll find memories of World War I. This war changed the world. By touring Flanders Fields, you’ll learn how it also changed the lives of many individuals, known and unknown.