The journey to Flanders Fields: A meaningful component of your trip to Europe
Over the course of the four horrific years of the First World War, hundreds of thousands of soldiers fought in the muddy and shelled landscapes that are now known as Flanders Fields. Today, thousands of those men still rest in Flanders Fields, Belgium, far from the homelands they were raised in. They are remembered in the monuments, cemeteries, and places of learning that serve to commemorate their sacrifices.
Whether you have a family connection to the Great War or are simply interested in learning more about WW1 history, here is why a journey through Flanders Fields during your trip to Europe will honour the memory of those who fell and ensure their stories are not forgotten.
What can I visit in Flanders Fields?
If you are interested in visiting Great War sites in Flanders Fields that connect you to soldiers from your home country, these itineraries can help you plan your journey.
Most visitors recommend starting their journey at a museum that gives insight into the Great War. The most popular options are the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres or the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke. Both museums offer comprehensive insights, with the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 emphasizing the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as The Battle of Passchendaele. As many trenches and dugouts were filled in after the war, as farmers re-claimed their fields, the museum contains replica trenches and a dugout to give insight into conditions soldiers from both sides experienced when at the front lines.
In Ypres, The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing commemorates over 54,000 soldiers who have no known grave, of which more than 6000 Australians. Volunteers of the local fire brigade honour them with a nightly Last Post Ceremony that takes place promptly at 8 PM. The imposing memorial was still not large enough to honor all the missing soldiers from the Commonwealth, so the Tyne Cot Memorial at Tyne Cot Cemetery commemorates an additional 35,000 of those with no known grave. Soldiers from New Zealand are listed on their own memorials: one also at Tyne Cot, another at Buttes New British Cemetery and Messines Ridge British Cemetery.
Memorials to forces from the UK, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, France, India and many other countries whose soldiers fought in WW1 are also scattered around Flanders Fields. A full list can be found here.
No less than 247 cemeteries, large and small, dot the landscape of the Ypres salient in Flanders Fields. Of these countless cemeteries, Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing is the largest Commonwealth cemetery, not only in Flanders, but in the world. Lijssenthoek Cemetery, Buttes New British Cemetery, and New Irish Farm Cemetery are also significant in size. John McCrae, the poet behind In Flanders Fields, wrote his famous poem at Essex Farm Cemetery after burying his friend and brother-in-arms Alexis Helmer.
Cemeteries and memorials stretch from the coastline, past Ypres, all the way to the French border. If seeking out a personal connection to a battle, it’s best to make a list of the ones you would like to visit, before starting your journey.
There are four German cemeteries also located in Flanders Fields. Vladslo is home to the “Grieving Parents” sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz. Langemark German Military Cemetery is the burial place of more than 44,000 soldiers, 25,000 of whom are buried in the “Comrades Grave.”
While most original trenches have been filled in or lost to time, a few restored examples still remain. The Trench of Death at Dixmude is the last remnant of the Belgian First World War trench system. Closer to Ypres, Bayernwald is a restored German trench system. Here, you can also learn how underground tunnelling played a role in the battles of WW1.
During the Battle of Messines, the work of Commonwealth tunnellers played a heavy role in not only battle, but in physically changing the landscape of Flanders Fields. In the summer of 1917, 19 massive underground mines were detonated, the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Evidence of these massive explosions can be seen at the Caterpillar Crater (Hill 60), the Pool of Peace, and more. The shelled landscape can still be viewed at Hill 60, as well as bunkers from both German and Commonwealth forces.
German bunkers can also be seen at Polygon Wood closer to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, and in many other places.
2018 marks the last year of the Great War Centenary in Flanders Fields, with many commemorative events marking the 100 year anniversaries of key events, such as the Centenary of Armistice Day or the ComingWorldxRememberMe land art installation, commemorating the 600,000 men and women who died in Belgium because of the war. Visit this calendar for the most up to date information on these ceremonies and special exhibits.
Where is Flanders Fields?
Flanders Fields is located in the western part of Belgium, one of Europe’s low countries, and is bordered by the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Luxembourg.
For most of the Great War, the Western Front ran from the Swiss-German border north toward the Belgian Coast and Ypres (Ieper) is commonly known as the centre of the Flanders Fields region. Many Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the Great War on the Ypres Salient would likely have passed through the medieval town. Located very close to the front lines, Ypres was heavily damaged by four years of nearly constant shelling. Presently, it has been restored and is the largest town that serves as a travel base for visitors to Flanders Fields in Belgium.
How do I travel between key sites in Flanders Fields?
Once you’re in Ypres, there are a few ways that you can travel to key sites. It’s important to keep in mind that nowadays, Flanders Fields is a quiet, rural area and that cemeteries and memorials are spread out over the region, so you will need some kind of transportation to make the most of your trip.
A day tour would be the easiest option for those who prefer to let someone else do the driving and ensure you have a factually correct tour of the surrounding area. Certain tour guides can also personalize the day’s itinerary to align with your interests or to follow in the footsteps of a family member.
From Ypres, bus and taxi options can deliver you to key sites. You can cycle the relatively flat trails in Flanders Fields or rent a car and follow one of the WWI car routes. It’s the ideal way to see the sites you have prioritised and also discover smaller sites along the way. A popular route might be to start at Tyne Cot cemetery, and then take the informative walking trails nearby to get to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 and Polygon Wood.
How long would I need to explore Flanders Fields?
Depending on your interests, whether you are visiting to remember a relative, and the length of your overall trip in Europe, a lot of factors contribute to the decision of how much time to spend in Flanders Fields.
A trip of about two nights is sufficient for many, as this allows for time to explore the area with a personal guide, or to book onto a guided tour. It also gives enough time to ensure that you get to pay your respects during the Last Post at the Menin Gate at least once.
For those who have a family connection to the area, at least two full days on the ground (three nights) will allow a little more time and flexibility in your schedule to follow in the footsteps of your ancestor. It allows you the chance to explore the region and key sites at your own pace. As Flanders Fields is a very emotional destination for visitors, many appreciate a little extra time to reflect and spend as long as needed at cemeteries, memorials and battlefields.
How To Get To Flanders Fields?
Ypres sits about an hour and a half drive to the west of Brussels. It is under an hour’s drive from Bruges, Ghent, and Ostend on the coast.
If visiting from France by car, the drive from Paris to Ypres is about three hours. For those visiting WW1 memorials in France, Ypres is under an hour’s drive from Vimy Ridge and about 90 minutes from key sites in the Somme region.
If you are choosing to arrive in Flanders Fields via rail from Paris, it would be best to investigate trains from Paris to Lille, and then Lille to Ypres, or to look at schedules between Paris and Brussels that connect onward to Flanders Fields. From Amsterdam, trains to Ypres will likely connect through Antwerp in Belgium.
For those on a tight schedule, day trips from other Belgian cities like Ghent and Bruges are also possible. Brussels City Tours also arrange day tours from Brussels. If the Last Post at the Menin Gate is going to be an important experience during your trip, it’s best to make sure the tour company you choose doesn’t leave Ypres before the ceremony at 8 PM, or that they have an option that will allow you to stay for the service.