Icon Logo Gun Mart

In Flanders Fields Museum

In Flanders Fields Museum

In May 1915, at the height of the Second Battle of Ypres, at an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) known as Essex Farm, a young Canadian doctor with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps was treating the wounded. During his brief moments of rest, he was moved to compose a poem which has become known as ‘In Flanders Fields’. After appearing in popular publications of the day, the poem became a phenomenon in Britain, Canada, and later in America. Sadly, John McCrae died from pneumonia in January 1918 but the legacy he left behind has had a powerful effect on generations since then.

The poem is studied today by students in Canadian schools and the title is adopted as its name by the museum in the centre of Ypres city in Belgium, which tells the history of the Ypres Salient. The city was famous as a centre of the textile industry and included a magnificent building called the Cloth Hall. During the fighting, the city was all but obliterated by shelling, which destroyed the Cloth Hall. A rebuilding programme to bring the community back to life was started and today the resurrected building, rebuilt in the original style, is a landmark of the town centre.

From ancient building to modern museum

The Cloth Hall had long been used as a museum where artefacts were displayed but in the 1990s, it was decided to create a formal exhibition and the museum adopted John McCrae’s poem as the name by which it is known today. Entering through the doors, the main display area is on the upper floor, where it is divided into smaller display areas. Visitors are given a wristband that carries a small microchip that is then scanned at the bottom of the stairs and activates the entrance barrier allowing access. In Flanders Fields is a very modern museum using interactive stands and by ‘swiping’ their wristbands, visitors can hear audio descriptions. There are larger multi-lingual audio-visual presentations for groups to experience.

Lighting in certain sections is subdued but still provides good visibility. The spacious layout allows good movement throughout without bumping into other visitors. Display cabinets are sufficiently large to permit several visitors to look at the exhibits without crowding. Permanent displays exhibit weapons such as rifles, machine guns, and trench mortars, which will be familiar to collectors. Visitors who are not familiar with these items will find them very interesting. Personal items and photographs add to the displays and the breastplate and helmet made for a young boy, probably to copy his father’s regiment, is very touching.

story continues below...

The audio-visual presentations with recited extracts from letters and diaries written at the time are also very moving and bring events alive to connect with modern visitor groups, many of whom are very young. Overhead space is also used for displays, including a shrapnel shell exploding in mid-air to show how the steel ball bearings were expelled like a large shotgun cartridge. These anti-personnel shells were lethal in the open, but in trenches, there was some shelter to be had. A life-size diorama of a horse reminds visitors how many animals were used, along with mules and even dogs. A great deal of care and attention has gone into creating the museum, and this applies to the temporary exhibitions which are part of the annual calendar of events. Details of these events are announced on the website and have previously looked at the civilian aspect in WWI, propaganda posters in war, and the survival of the Ypres community.

The display cabinets are not jammed with items, evoking the adage that ‘less is more’, by allowing more detail of the artefacts to be seen properly. In one part of the exhibition hall, there are five individual displays, each of which concentrates on one of the five nations involved in the fighting on the Western Front – Belgium, Britain, Australia, America, and Germany. Each cabinet contains a full layout of the uniform, kit, and equipment carried by individual soldiers, including webbing, steel helmets, ancillary items, and boots. This attention to detail makes for a display which highlights the personal side of the war.

A community rebuilt

All the time whilst inside the museum, visitors are aware of their surroundings and, through the displays, realise the community was destroyed in the war. It is remarkable to think the building in which they are standing was only finished after WWII. Like many other parts of the town centre, including the cathedral and private dwellings, the Cloth Hall has been rebuilt in the original architectural style using authentic building materials. The effect is to evoke history throughout. This is a very popular museum and although it does become busy at times with group visits, there is sufficient room to spread out and still look at everything in turn.

As with all museums, military or otherwise, the time spent looking at the exhibition depends on the individual. This is something different and a suggested average length of visit would be about two hours. However, you could spend all morning looking at each item in turn. Some things will be familiar but seeing them presented in a different way is always interesting. Outside the museum, visitors remain surrounded by the events of WWI, with a short walk to the Menin Gate, where almost 55,000 names of those who have no known graves are listed by regiment. The ramparts of which the Gate forms part of were the city’s defences and these can be walked partially, giving a perspective on the years between 1914 and 1918.

On exiting the museum, visitors can either deposit their wristbands at collecting points for recycling, or they can retain them as souvenirs. The museum has a well-stocked shop, with books, maps, and other little mementoes. An on-site café serves light lunches, with full access for wheelchair users. The local tourist office is also located in the building and directions can be obtained from here to visit other sites of interest. Details of opening times, and other information, can be found at www.inflandersfields.be