West Flanders: Trench of Death and the Yser Tower museum for peace

Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum for peace)

We just made our now semi-annual pilgrimage to Westvleteren to pick up more of the “best beer in the world.” We admit it; we’re hooked…and are possibly beer hoarders as well. But, this post isn’t about beer, it’s about our latest exploration of West Flanders which took us this time through picturesque countryside and villages to the restored WWI Dodengang or “Trench of Death” and the Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum) housed in the 22-story tall iron cross tower that’s both a memorial to Flemish soldiers who died in WWI and a sometimes-controversial rallying point for Flemish Belgians.

Brussel sprouts in a western Flanders field

Leaving the Sint-Sixtus Abbey (where Westvleteren beer is brewed), we drove rural back roads past fields of brussel sprouts and farm animals. It always pains me to think of the absolute destruction wrought by WWI on this peaceful countryside. And, of course, WWII was no kinder to Belgium.

Flemish work horses
Happy Flemish cows

We stopped in the pretty little village of Lo-Reninge, lured by the medieval West Gate beside which stands a tree to which, legend claims, Julius Caesar tied his horse. We admired the UNESCO-designated town hall and belfort, and a lovely old Sint-Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church) before continuing on to The Royal Museum of the Army’s venue at the Trench of Death outside of the town of Diksmuide.

West Gate in Lo-Reninge, one of the few surviving medieval gatehouses in the region, built sometime around 1250. (And the “Caesar tree”)
Lo (now part of Lo-Reninge) UNESCO-designated city hall and belfort
Sint-Pieterskerk and a WWI memorial to war dead from Lo

Diksmuide is strategically important in WWI history as the site of a line held by defenders after the Belgians flooded large portions of their country to stop the German advance.

The Trench of Death museum was refurbished in August 2014 as part of the WWI centenary and includes videos, photographs and memorabilia from the Royal Army Museum’s collection.

Trench of Death Museum, a venue of the Royal Army Museum
Exhibits in the Trench of Death Museum

Modest-sized, but effective, exhibits on the second floor (1st floor, european) attempt to tell the story of the Trench of Death from both Belgian and German perspectives. A rooftop viewing deck lets visitors get an overview of the trenches and the adjacent Izjer River before descending to walk the extensive rebuilt trenches.

View of the Trench of Death and the Ijzer River from the museum’s rooftop

The museum’s website tells the story of the Trench of Death in 100 words as follows: “In 1915 the Belgian army tries to dislodge the Germans from the petrol tanks north of the city of Dixmude (Diksmuide). After two failed attempts the Belgians decide to dig a trench towards the drums. The Germans however manage to capture part of it. In order to suppress the German threat, Belgian military engineering creates, by the end of 1915, a breach in the Yser dike. The two camps are now only separated by a mere ditch. The trench is then transformed into an impregnable position, called Trench of Death because of the victims buried there after the German attack.”

Beginning the walk from the museum to the Trench of Death

The museum is well-done and the trenches, like those at the Passchendaele Museum, give a sobering glimpse of trench warfare.

Km 16 marker, the Trench of Death

Germans attacked the Belgians on three sides. German trenches lay less than 50m from the Belgians. Belgian soldiers lived under the constant threat of both conventional and gas attack, and kept gas masks with them at all times.

Concrete bags in the shape of the original sandbags have been used to rebuild the trench. Gravel spares visitors the mud that WWI soldiers endured.

A mere 1.5 km away and visible from the Trench of Death Museum stands the 22-story tall Museum aan den IJzer tower and museum (also “Yser” in English), a giant iron cross in the shape of Flemish headstones used to mark the graves of Flemish soldiers.

A large stone “peace arch” with the inscription “PAX” stands at the entrance to the museum grounds. It incorporates the rubble of the original Ijzer tower which was dynamited following WWII in protest of Flemish Nazi collaborators. (Apparently, the Nazis often exploited separatist sentiments to try to drive wedges between social groups in the countries they sought to invade and conquer.) The remains of the original memorial tower are surrounded by its crypt and a circle of Flemish headstones.

The “crypt” with Flemish gravestones at the base of the destroyed first Yser Tower

Later, as we toured the museum, we learned that after the war, the Belgian government decided to install uniform headstones for Belgian soldiers killed during WWI; the headstones were inscribed “Mort pour la patrie” (died for the homeland), in French, with no Dutch (the Flemish language). Existing Flemish headstones were removed and, in at least once case, broken up and used to make a road. Flemish outrage led to the construction of the first memorial Ijzer Tower, constructed as is the present tower in the form of Flemish gravestones with the letters AVV-VVK, representing “Alles Voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus” or “All for Flanders-Flanders for Christ.” Given how much time we’ve spent in Belgium in recent years, we’re always trying to understand the complicated history of Belgian society and the rifts between French and Flemish Belgians. Here was a new and fascinating learning opportunity.

22nd floor of the Museum aan den IJzer

Proceeding past the crypt to the tower, we immediately took an elevator to the 22nd floor, the topmost enclosed floor of the tower. There we found 360 windows surmounted by a painted panorama showing the surrounding countryside as it looked during WWI. Labels with directional lines indicated the names of villages, cemeteries and other sites.

Climbing a few more flights of stairs, we came to the open-air rooftop offering an even more dramatic view. The afternoon sun cast the shadow of the tower well beyond the crypt and peace arch below and into the town.

After taking in the views, we began the floor-by-floor descent through the museum. With so many levels to work with, some of the floors were almost throw-aways, one offering only wall-sized black-and-white drawings and another displaying shelf-upon-shelf of ordinance. But, there were fascinating floors as well. One had us wandering a wooden maze of recreated trenches while speakers played the labored breathing of gas attack victims. Around some corners, a large photograph of victims would suddenly light up. A particularly poignant floor offered a display of clothing along with photographs of Belgians fleeing the war. It posited the question, “What would you take if you had only moments to choose before fleeing your home?” It reminds people that their grandparents were the ones fleeing war with the clothes on their back just as today other peoples are fleeing wars in distant lands. The museum is dedicated to peace. “No more war” is printed in Dutch, French, English and German on the four sides of its base.

Clothing display with photographs of Belgians fleeing WWI along the “Via Dolorosa”

Leaving the museum, we walked back past the crypt with a new understanding of what we were seeing. Looking back at the enormous tower with its “AVV-VVK” we now knew that it, and its predecessor, had become a rallying point for Flemish Belgians and has been the site of annual gatherings. After WWI, the Flemish Movement organized pilgrimages to the graves of fallen Flemish soldiers and the first Yser Tower was built in 1930. After the first tower was destroyed in 1946 and the new tower was built, “Flemish minded people” continued to hold large gatherings at the site that attracted a radical, separatist element as well that was sometimes invited, sometimes not. In the 90’s, the organizing committee distanced itself from this radical element. The current museum focuses on promoting peace and tolerance. While the red poppy is the symbol of WWI remembrance for soldiers, the Museum aan den IJzer chose a white poppy with the word “peace” at its center to commemorate all victims of war, both civilian and military. The Museum asks the question, “What remains of life?” addressing the ongoing loss after war, including the mental suffering and difficulties adjusting to civilian life of returning veterans.

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Practical info: The Royal Army Museum’s center at the Trench of Death is located at:
IJzerdijk 62, 8600 Diksmuide
051 50 53 44
Open daily from 10am-6pm, April 1- Nov. 15, Tues. & Th. only the rest of the year. (Check online for details and holiday changes.); admission €4 for adults, children under 8 are free.

The Museum aan den IJzer (Yser Tower Museum) is located at:
DE IJZERTOREN – IJzerdijk 49 – 8600 Diksmuide – T 051.50.02.86 – info@aandeijzer.be
Open daily, check online for seasonal variation in times.
Entrance is 8/adult, 2.5 for children 7-17, and free for children under 7. 

 

Comments and questions are welcome!