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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £23,000

£13500 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning, Bolton base...

Recruitment Genius: Client Account Executive

£23000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client Account Executive is r...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing Executive

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Full Time position available now at a growing...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future