The Last Offensives of the Great War
This tour takes you to sites of the battles of the last war year 1918. Start your journey at Kemmel where a lot of French soldiers were killed and the first real offensive by US troops in Flanders took place. Visit military cemeteries, the In Flanders Fields Museum, Visitor centres and other points of interest. Don’t forget to attend the very moving Last Post ceremony.
Start your day uphill at Kemmel where heavy battles took place in April and August 1918.
Many French soldiers were killed on the hill during the battle for Kemmel Hill (Kemmelberg). The ossuary contains 5,294 bodies of fallen soldiers, of which only 57 have been identified. A column stands at the centre of the cemetery and is topped with the traditional French mascot, a cockerel.
Vierstraat, Kemmel Hill (Kemmelberg)
After a short drive we reach the American monument. A heavy rectangular block on a wide rectangular platform honours the 27th and 30th American divisions, who recaptured the Hill. The monument was built in 1929 by the American Battle Monuments Commission on the basis of a design by George Howe of Philadelphia.
Sint-Laurentiusplein 1, Heuvelland
Drive up to Heuvelland to visit the newly refurbished, family friendly Visitor Centre. It houses a number of permanent WW1 exhibitions with a particular focus on the centenary of 'the Battle of Messines' or the 'Battle of the Mines' as it is also known, looking at the impacts on the landscape and the archaeology of the area. In 2018 there will be a temporary exhibition about the fighting around Kemmel Hill.
After lunch we go to the site of the largest of the mines blown in the Battle of Messines called The Pool of Peace. Before it was blown, the mine was 88 feet deep and contained 91,000 lbs of ammonal. Once it was blown, the crater was 250 feet wide (with a 90-foot-wide rim) and 40 feet deep. It changed hands twice more in 1918.
Wytschaete Military Cemetery
A post-war concentration cemetery where over two thirds of the 1002 buried or commemorated are unidentified. There are three sets of special memorial stones set behind the Stone of Remembrance to the right of the cemetery, commemorating soldiers originally buried in other cemeteries but whose graves were destroyed.
Grote Markt 34, Ieper
Finish the day in Ypres with a visit to the hub of the WWI commemoration in Flanders Fields - the In Flanders Fields Museum. Entry is with a white bracelet with a red poppy on it, instead of a ticket. This museum - located in Ypres’ impressive Cloth Hall - focuses on personal stories reminiscent of the invasion, the trench war and the remembrance ceremonies since the armistice. Take time to slowly climb the belltower to have a look at what were once the battlefields.
Take time to sample Flemish cuisine and the local beer before heading to the Menin Gate - by far the most famous Commonwealth war memorial in Flanders. On its white walls are engraved the names of 54,896 soldiers whose bodies were never found (the other 34,000 names we already saw at Tyne Cot Memorial this afternoon). Since 1928, each and every day, apart from the Second World War, the Last Post is sounded just outside these walls.
At the end of the day (8pm), this final experience is very emotive. The four buglers - in the uniform of the voluntary fire-fighters of Ypres - stand in line and the first notes sound like a call. If we can’t call the soldiers back to life, let’s send them “a final farewell at the end of their earthly labours and at the onset of their eternal rest”, as it reads on www.lastpost.be. There are many video clips of the ceremony on YouTube but as one comment on the videos says: “You must see this once in your life. If you are not moved by it, you’re made of concrete.”
Start the second day in Messines. In all, 1,503 soldiers are buried on Messines Ridge British Cemetery: 985 British, 322 Australian, 115 New Zealand, and 56 South African soldiers. Only 549 bodies could be identified. In this cemetery you will also find a Memorial to the Missing, that commemorates over 840 New Zealand Expeditionary Force soldiers who were killed in Messines in 1917–1918 and who have no known grave.
Markt 22, Mesen
In Messines there is also an unmanned tourist information point (TIP) that helps visitors to explore Mesen, Belgium’s smallest town. Modern museum techniques are used to tell the story of the First World War in and around Mesen. On the upper floor of the info-point you can find more information about the war in its wider context. In addition to the TIP, you can discover other relics of the war in Mesen via a sites-of-interest network.
Don’t leave Messines without visiting this monument. On the hills surrounding Mesen, soldiers from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, protestants and catholic alike, died during the First World War. The Peace Park was created by young people from both sides of the border. The Peace Park houses a round tower. This monument to honour all the fallen from the entire island of Ireland transcends religious and political differences. The tower was built as a symbol of reconciliation for the past, the present and the future. Commemoration ceremonies are held on 7 June and 11 November. The site is accessible independently.
Berten Pilstraat 5a, Zonnebeke
After lunch in Zonnebeke, visit Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 that presents the historic story of the First World War in a poignant and vivid way, with a particular emphasis on the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. The dugout tunnel with communication and dressing post, headquarters, workplaces and dormitories, provides an idea of how the soldiers had to live underground, like moles, because there was nothing left above. It’s impressive, as is the museum with its collection of historical artefacts,images, movies and dioramas. Complete your visit to the museum outside in the trenches before heading into the park that surrounds the museum. In 2018 there will be a temporary exhibition about the liberation of Zonnebeke and Passchendaele by Belgian troops in 1918.
With its arched wall and colonnades in white stone, the Missing Memorial of Tyne Cot Cemetery instils respect. This is the largest military cemetery of the Commonwealth in continental Europe. Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here. 12,000 white crosses, row after row. We stand in awe. On the Memorial Wall are the names of the 34,957 soldiers who fell after 16th August 1917 and whose graves are not known. In silence, we move on to another cemetery, this time on the other side of the front.
Wortegemseweg 117, 8790 Waregem
The Flanders Field American Cemetery is the only World War I US cemetery in Belgium. It lies on a battlefield where the 91st Division fought during the Ypres-Lys offensive, from 30 October to 11 November 1918. The majority of the 368 fallen soldiers lost their lives during those last days of the war. The Visitor Centre, in the former Superintendent's quarters, opened in spring 2017 and is devoted to the US involvement in Belgium during WWI. The activities of the four US divisions that fought in Belgium are explained, selected stories of soldiers buried in the cemetery are highlighted, and the ways in which we commemorate those soldiers, then and now, are described.
Holstraat 95, Waregem
As the city is internationally famous for its Flanders Horse Event this visitor centre looks at the role of horses during WWI. Thanks to photographs, film clips and audio files, authentic objects, an interactive quiz, and even a reconstructed horse hospital, you can discover some less familiar stories from the Great War. In 2018 there is a temporary exhibition about the liberation of Waregem and to the offensive between the Lys and the Scheldt during the last days of the First World War.
Poelkapellestraat 44, 8650 Houthulst
Before we go to Diksmuide we make a stop at Houthulst. This cemetery has 1,855 graves arranged in the form of a sixpointed star. The victims fell mainly during the liberation offensive of 1918. It is located in the heart of Houthulst forest and also holds 81 Italian soldiers.
IJzerdijk 65, 8600 Diksmuide
We drive to the centre of Diksmuide for lunch. Next we visit the trench of Death, the last remnant of the Belgian First World War trench system. The adjoining interpretation centre with interactive applications, life-size pictures, a collection of film footage, and over a hundred original objects allow visitors to discover the story of the infamous Trench of Death. A German bunker in the immediate vicinity of the Belgian trench is also included in the tour, allowing both sides of the story to be told.
On our way to Koekelare we make a stop at Vladslo (Diksmuide). This German memorial containing the remains of over 25,000 young men is in stark contrast to it’s British counterparts. With dark stones and multiple names per marker, there is a sense of great sadness and loss. This is made plain with the pair of sculptures entitled “Grieving Parents” by German artist Käthe Kollwitz who lost her youngest son to the war and is buried nearby.
Sint-Maartensplein 15, Koekelare
Beside “The Grieving Parents” at Vladslo more of Käthe Kollwitz work can be seen in the nearby Käthe Kollwitz Tower in Koekelare, which houses seven of her graphic works. Her art is characterised by a deep compassion for all victims of poverty, exploitation and oppression. Her pacifism and abhorrence of war can be clearly felt throughout her works.
Clevenstraat 2, Koekelare
Four miles from the centre of Koekelare the Lange Max Museum can be found. During WWI it was situated on the German side of the Western Front. This museum tells the story of one of the largest German cannon of its time, which was designed to bombard Dunkirk. The museum focuses on the German occupation of Koekelare with a unique exhibition on the organisation behind the front line and the production of army goods.