Corner of a foreign field where the ghosts of war still walk

European Times YPRES

"SOME DAMNED foolish thing in the Balkans," was, as Bismarck so fatefully predicted, what lit the fuse that would ignite all of Europe in 1914.

Eighty years after the November 1918 armistice, the Balkan conflicts are still with us, and the people of Ypres are still trying to make sense of how they came to have inherited the killing fields of Flanders, and to be living among the graves of half a million men.

Modern-day Ypres, (Ieper in Flemish, or "Wipers" as the British soldiers christened it) stands at the heart of a prosperous pig-farming region and centre for the computer software industry.

The fields around Ypres are also one huge cemetery, with rows and rows of headstones at every turn, marking the graves of those who were not blown to pieces but merely died from wounds, disease or by drowning in the sea of fetid mud. Farmers still find boots,or helmets or unearth deadly unexploded mines or chemical warheads. You can see what remains of the Messines Ridge, the only First World War battle where Irishmen from north and south fought side by side, or Ploegsteert Wood, where on Christmas Eve 1914, carols echoed from the trenches and the Germans offered cigarettes to the British in exchange for bully beef.

Ypres is dominated by a splendid Gothic Cloth Hall, a fine cathedral and a bustling main square. But in 1918, all that remained were two stumps and an expanse of rubble. One of the stumps was the Cloth Hall which has been restored to its former medieval state and is now the site of the permanent exhibition In Flanders Fields.

"Our grandparents told us about their experiences. About the big guns, the gas, and the horses, about the camps, the Chinese [the Chinese Labour Corps hired by the British] and the aeroplanes," says Frans Lignel, chairman of the museum committee.

"But the generation of eyewitnesses has gone. It has fallen on us to pass on their testimony of what war is really like." The title of the exhibition is inspired by a poem written by the Canadian officer John McCrae "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow ..." and poetry, like diaries, letters, witness accounts, snatches of film, photographs and paintings, is much relied on to convey the experience of the tens of thousands of soldiers, nurses, doctors, priests, and civilians whose war was in Ypres.

"We have avoided the traditional lists of names, facts and dates," Frans Lignel stresses, "Ieper has chosen to focus on the little people."

Visitors get a pink card which is barcoded and carries the name and photograph of one of these "little people". By swiping the card through terminals at different points around the museum, you learn of his or her fate and get the feeling you are walking through the war with your own personal ghost.

The museum follows no chronological order and is deliberately confusing perhaps to give you a sense of the confusion and helplessness of ordinary people, like 12-year-old Fientje Knockaert, a Flemish girl, who described seeing 30 or 40 gassed soldiers lying in a room.

You also hear shells exploding, and the terrifying sound of the artillery fire, which gunned down thousands, as they emerged from the trenches into No Man's Land. And you see the cylinders which contained the chlorine gas used for the first time as a weapon of war near Ypres in April 1915. In clear plastic towers you see the yellowish clouds wafting around gas masks and hear the words of the poet Wilfred Owen describing the death throes of a young soldier who could not get his mask on quickly enough:

"And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...

"Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

"As under a green sea I saw him drowning.

"In all my dreams, before my helpless sight.

"He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning."

Katherine Butler

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

SAP BW BO

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW BO - 6 MONTHS - LONDON London (Gr...

HSE Manger - Solar

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: HSE Mana...

Data Governance Manager (Solvency II) – Contract – Up to £450 daily rate, 6 month (may go Permanent)

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently looking...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried