Flanders Fields

Flanders Fields is a common English name of the World War I battlefields in an area straddling the Belgian provinces of West Flanders and East Flanders, as well as the French department of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, part of which makes up the area known as French Flanders.   The name Flanders Fields is particularly associated with battles that took place in the Ypres Salient, including the Second Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Passchendaele.  For most of the war, the front line ran continuously from south of Zeebrugge on the Belgian coast, across Flanders Fields into the centre of Northern France before moving eastwards — and it was known as the Western Front.  The fields were unmaintained for years before they were made into a memorial. 

From 1914 to 1918 Flanders Fields was a major battle theatre in the First World War.  A million soldiers from more than 50 different countries were wounded, missing or killed in action here.  Entire cities and villages were destroyed, their population on the run.  Ypres and Passchendaele became worldwide symbols for the senselessness of war.  Today, the peaceful region still bears witness to this history in monuments, museums, cemeteries and the countless individual stories that link it with the world.

Today Flanders Fields is home to a number of memorial monuments, cemeteries, reconstructions of trenches and trails.

85th Canadian Memorial:  his monument was the first one to be erected in the region. It honours the memory of the 85th Canadian Nova Scotia battalion which suffered heavy losses during the Third Battle of Ypres at the end of October 1917.

American Monument, Kemmel:  A heavy rectangular block on a wide rectangular platform honours the 27th and 30th American divisions. The monument was built in 1929 by the American Battle Monuments Commission and was created after a design made by George Howe from Philadelphia.

Bayernwald:  This is a unique reconstructed German site, consisting of two German mine tunnels, a mine shaft, and a system of trenches with five bunkers. The site can be reached through a pathway through the restored trenches. Information panels tell about events in the war and life at the front. 

Bedford House Cemetery, just outside Ypres, is one of the largest British cemeteries in the Westhoek. Amongst others, it holds 20 Indian graves. Bedford House Cemetery stands in what was once the park of Rosendael Castle, which the British troops renamed “Bedford House” during WWI. The castle served as a headquarter and as a medical aid post. Several small cemeteries were started in the castle grounds. The magnificent garden architecture makes Bedford House Cemetery a unique WWI site.

The Belgian Military Cemetery, Houthulst is the most well-known Belgian war cemetery, with 1,855 graves arranged in the form of a sixpointed star. The victims fell mainly during the liberation offensive of 1918. It is located in the heart of Houthulst forest and also holds 81 Italian soldiers.

The Black Watch Memorial—a statue of a Black Watch soldier, unveiled in May 2014, at the southwest edge of the Polygon Wood, is situated at almost exactly the same place that made history as the “Black Watch Corner” on 10 / 11 November 1914 when a German advance was halted.  It constitutes a permanent tribute to the steadfastness of the legendary Black Watch Regiment and honours nearly 9.000 officers and soldiers killed and more than 20,000 injured during WWI.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has opened an information Centre in Ypres close to the Menin Gate.  The centre offers a wide range of services and information.  It also offers a general overview of the CWGC work, the cemeteries and monuments in Flanders, and the possibility to look up graves of relatives.   

From October 1914 to October 1918 the battlefield of the First World War was located a mile or two from the centre of Ypres. The trenches described a curve from north to south around Ypres.  No fewer than fifty bloody battles were fought in that notorious Ypres Salient.  In October 2015, three new entry points opened along the Ypres Salient.  Today’s landscape is shown as a witness of the past, 100 years ago, in a historical film, three walking routes, a digital application and a cycling route that connects the three points.  In the east, the entry point is located at Hooge Crater Museum along the Menin Road opposite Hooge Crater Cemetery.  This entry point illustrates the creation of the front in the centre of the Salient near Bellewaerde Ridge.  Besides the historical film, the emphasis here is on the beautiful Castle parks that studded the landscape around Ypres before the destructive war.  The walking route here passes – among other things – the monument to the Liverpool Scottish and Maple Copse military cemetery.

The south has two remarkable sites at the Entry Point.  The Entry Point itself is located in the provincial domain of De Palingbeek at the historical site called The Bluff.  There you can start your explorations on a recently installed walking path / platform through the former No man’s land, along various craters.  The historical film shows how the underground war built up in the southern Ypres Salient, where numerous mines exploded.  Along the extensive walking circuit, you’ll reach the second site, Hill 60. You’ll have stunning panoramic views of the centre of Ypres there and can also reach the large Caterpillar Crater.

Crest Farm Canadian Memorial marks the place where the Canadian corps saw fierce fighting during the second Battle of Passchendaele and won possession of the high ground at Crest Farm.   Canada Gate is the second of two so-called “portals of remembrance.”  The first monument, installed last year on the Halifax waterfront in Canada, marks the departure from Pier 2 of 350,000 soldiers who boarded ships bound for the battlefields of Belgium and France.  Canada Gate marks the arrival place of a lot of Canadian soldiers.

A total of 1,185 soldiers are buried at Essex Farm, including one of the youngest casualties of the war—Valentine Joe Strudwick—was just 15 years old when he was killed.  Next to the cemetery, you can still see the concrete bunkers in which a dressing station was housed.  It was in one of these primitive dug-outs that the Canadian military doctor, John McCrae, wrote his world-famous poem In Flanders Fields at the beginning of May 1915.

The Flanders Field American Cemetery is the only World War I US cemetery in Belgium.  It lies on a battlefield where the 91st Division fought during the Ypres-Lys offensive, from 30 October to 11 November 1918.  The majority of the 368 fallen soldiers lost their lives during those last days of the war.  The Visitor Centre, in the former Superintendent’s quarters, opened in spring 2017 and is devoted to the US involvement in Belgium during WWI.  The activities of the four US divisions that fought in Belgium are explained, selected stories of soldiers buried in the cemetery are highlighted, and the ways in which we commemorate those soldiers, then and now, are described.

Just north of Ypres lies one of only 4 German cemeteries in the Flanders Fields area.  There are others spread around the rolling Flemish / Belgian countryside and this one is not the largest.  The German Military Cemetery Langemark, which has evolved from a small group of graves, has seen numerous changes and extensions.  Today, 4 imposing bronze statues of mourning soldiers watch over the graves of more than 44,000 German soldiers.  There are no individual graves.  Multiple soldiers are buried together in a grave plot, with their names inscribed in the horizontal laying gravestone.  It’s the final resting place of 3000 unexperienced young soldiers that died in the First Battle of Ypres, many of them students, which is why the cemetery is also known as the Studentenfriedhof (Student’s Cemetery).  But even more heartbreaking is the mass grave that marks nearly 25,000 men, the so called ‘Comrades Grave’. 

Major William Redmond MP (known as Willie Redmond), was one of the Irish Nationalist soldiers who fought side-by-side with Irish Unionist soldiers in the Battle of Messines Ridge on 7th June 1917. Hit by shrapnel, he was attended to by a Unionist soldier, Private John Meeke, who was himself wounded. Meeke received a Military Medal for his gallantry. Redmond was evacuated to the dressing station at Dranouter where he died of his wounds. He was buried in the grounds of the Catholic convent at Loker and, at the request of his widow, his body remained there. The site is now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The Waregem visitor centre dedicated to World War I opened on 11 November 2017.  There are two permanent exhibitions: the first looks at the role of the Americans in World War I and the second at the role of horses in the war.  The two themes have strong Waregem connections, as the city is internationally famous for its Flanders Horse Event and the Flanders Field American Cemetery is located in Waregem.  Thanks to photographs, film clips and audio files, authentic objects, an interactive quiz, and even a reconstructed horse hospital, you can discover some less familiar stories from the Great War.  Waregem is situated between Kortrijk and Ghent in West Flanders.

This newly refurbished, family friendly Heuvelland Visitor Centre houses a number of permanent WW1 exhibitions with a particular focus on the centenary of ‘the Battle of Messines’ or the ‘Battle of the Mines’ as it is also known, looking at the impacts on the landscape and the archaeology of the area.

With its life size representations of war scenes, the extensive collection of weaponry, the uniforms and pictures, the Hooge Crater Museum is highly recommended, both for the tourist and the collector.  This unique museum is a must when visiting the Ypres Salient.  In the cosy theme café you can see an impressive collection of chiselled shell cases (so called trench art) while having a snack or a drink.

The Indian Forces Memorial behind the Menin Gate is dedicated to the 130,000 soldiers of the Indian Forces who served in Flanders during the Great War.  9,000 members of the Indian Expeditionary Force died as casualties in France and Flanders, not only due to the nature of their injuries in battle, but also due to the severe winter weather conditions they were exposed to.

Mesen is a small town with a touch of Irish charm.  On the hills surrounding Mesen, soldiers from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, protestants and catholic alike, died during the First World War.  The Island of Ireland Peace Park was created by young people from both sides of the border.  The Peace Park houses a round tower, a monument to honour all the fallen from the entire island of Ireland, which transcends religious and political differences.  The tower was built as a symbol of reconciliation for the past, the present and the future.  Commemoration ceremonies are held in June and November.  The site is accessible independently.

The French Ossuary at Kemmel Park contains 5,294 bodies of fallen soldiers, of which only 57 have been identified.  Most of these French soldiers were killed on the hill during the second battle for Kemmel Hill.  A column stands at the centre of the cemetery and is topped with the traditional French mascot—a cockerel.

From 1915 to 1920, the hamlet of Lijssenthoek (Boescheepseweg) was the site of the largest evacuation hospital along the Ypres Salient and is now the second largest commonwealth cemetery in Belgium.  Today, Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery bears witness to more than four years of warfare, with the graves of 10,784 soldiers, mainly British, but also some French and German soldiers too.  It also holds the grave of the only woman to be buried in a CWGC cemetery, a nurse by the name of Nellie Spindler.  The Visitor Centre, situated next to the cemetery, offers information on this unique site, including details about daily life in the hospital and the creation of the cemetery.

Lone Tree Cemetery contains 88 graves, six of which are unknown.  Nearly all the graves are those of soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles, who fell on 7 June, the first day of the Battle of Messines.  Some of them were actually killed by the explosion of the Spanbroekmolen mine, which was blown around 15 seconds later than planned, as they advanced.

Although a fierce opponent of British rule over Ireland, Francis Ledwidge joined up after his girlfriend had left him.  He wrote many of his famous poems during this last phase of his life.  He was killed during the Battle of Langemark in the summer of 1917.  Ledwige rests at Artillery Wood Cemetery and has his own memorial close by.

The New Zealand Memorial at Graventafel commemorates the New Zealand Division’s participation in the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917.  This attack by ANZAC forces successfully pushed forward the allied trench line in the early part of the Passchendaele offensive, but was followed by the inadequately prepared attack of 12 October 1917.  The memorial was unveiled on 2 August 1924 by the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, Sir James Allen, who had been Minister of Defence in New Zealand during the war.

The Nine Elms British Cemetery was first used from September to December 1917 for burials from the 3rd Australian and 44th Casualty Clearing Stations, which had been moved to Poperinghe (now Poperinge) in preparation for the 1917 Battle of Ypres.  The cemetery was used again by fighting units between March and October 1918, the period of the German offensive in Flanders.  The cemetery contains 1,556 Commonwealth burials of WWI and 37 German war graves from this period.  There are also 24 WWII burials in the cemetery, all dating from the Allied retreat to Dunkirk in 1940.  The cemetery was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.  Among the 270 New Zealanders buried here is Dave Gallaher.  David “Dave” Gallaher (30 October 1873 – 4 October 1917) was a new Zealand rugby union footballer, best known as the captain of “The Originals”, the first New Zealand national rugby union team to be known as the All Blacks.  Gallaher fought in the Boer War serving as a corporal in the 6th and 10th New Zealand Contingents of Mounted Rifles.  Although exempt from conscription due to his age, Gallaher volunteered to fight in WWI, and apparently altered his date of birth to 31 October 1876.  He saw action at Ypres but was killed during the Passchendaele offensive on 4 October 1917.  His gravestone in the cemetery bears the silver fern.

Apart from the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers in Ramparts Cemetery, there are Canadians, New Zealanders and Australians here.  On 31 december 1917, a working party of the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion was shelled near Ypres and their remains also lie in this beautiful cemetery.

Saint George’s Memorial Anglican Church was built to commemorate the dead, to serve as a meeting place for visiting relatives and to keep alive the memory of the sacrifices made in Ypres and the Ypres Salient.

The Scottish Memorial Frezenberg is the only one on the former Western Front dedicated to all Scots and all those of Scottish descent, who fought in France and Flanders during WWI.  It is now the main site of remembrance activities for all Scots.  This memorial also remembers those men of the South African Brigade who, throughout the war, fought with the Scots as part of the 9th (Scottish) Division.

When the German Army unleashed the first chlorine gas attack in WW1, the Canadians bravely held the front line and in just two days, over 2000 died.  Marking their efforts is The Brooding Soldier, a 10 metre tall white granite column, at the top of which is a solemn, downward looking bust of a soldier.  Found in Saint-Juliaan, the soldier is bowed, standing in the direction from which the chlorine arrived.

Historically, the Menin Gate of Ypres was simply a crossing point over the moat and through the ramparts of the old town fortifications, on the road to the nearby town of Menin.  It had a special significance for the troops though.  It was from this spot that thousands of soldiers set off for the part of the Front called the Ypres Salient – many destined never to return.

This became the chosen site for one of the grandest and most haunting memorials of the Great War.  The new Menin Gate was built in the form of a Roman triumphal arch, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.  During the inauguration ceremony, in July 1927, the Last Post was played for the first time by buglers from the Somerset Light Infantry.  Since 1928, buglers from the Last Post Association have been playing it in this very spot every night at 20.00, regardless of the number of attendants or weather conditions.

The vast, white, Portland-stone walls of the Menin Gate are engraved with the names of nearly 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lost on the field of battle, but with no known graves—a son, a father, a brother.  In fact the walls of the Menin Gate were not big enough.  A further 34,957 names of the last and untraced are inscribed on the walls of Tyne Cot Cemetery to the east of Ypres.

Be prepared to be overwhelmed upon arrival at Zonnebeke’s Tyne Cot Cemetery.  With nearly 12,000 buried soldiers, this memorial is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world, for any war—a sad claim to fame.  Dizzying rows of white gravestones line the grass, overlooking sweeping views of the bucolic countryside.  The site’s surrounding wall is a memorial to the missing, bearing the name of nearly 35,000 men from the UK that were never found and presumed dead.

Vladso German War Cemetery contains the remains of over 25,000 young men.  It is in stark contrast to it’s British counterparts.  With dark stones and multiple names per marker, there is a sense of great sadness and loss.  This is made plain with the pair of sculptures entitled “Grieving Parents” by German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who lost her youngest son to the war and is buried nearby.

In the Welsh National Memorial Park at Langemark, the red dragon, built on a dolmen (in Welsh “cromlech”), stands in the middle of an area that was conquered by Welsh troops on 31 July 1917.  It looks in the direction of Passchendaele, the village that would only be taken three months later at the expense of half a million victims.  The surrounding park is dedicated to all Welsh people involved in the Great War, both soldiers and civilians.