New WWI Museum in Belgium The Best?

Update: author Mark Yost posted a WSJ follow-up on the Menin Gate ceremony, Crowing Out the Memories, and has a blog on WWI site travel, The Western Front in a Week.

In The Heart of No Man’s Land for the WSJ (paywall), author Mark Yost claims the new Memorial Museum Passchendaele is the best museum among the sad remnants of the trench warfare that tore up Western Europe a century ago.

But now, as we approach August’s 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the French museums have been unseated from pride of place on the Western Front by Belgium’s newly expanded Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, housed in a château in this picturesque suburb outside Ypres.

This is largely because the curators have made creative use of the large space to allow the war to unfold slowly and tell its own story, and because the presentation includes a gripping display of historic and modern-day footage that I’ve seen at no other museum.

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What’s really stunning is the final analysis of the 1917 Passchendaele battles: 245,000 Allies and 215,000 Germans killed during a 100-day battle to gain just 5 miles.

The museum concludes outdoors with a maze of trench works showing how they differed depending on the occupiers.

The author mentions other key memorial sites that suggest a loop out of Brussels that I am exploring for the fall. A circle of Brussels – Passchendaele, Belgium – Albert, France – Péronne, France – Verdun, France – Luxembourg City, Luxembourg (country collecting!) – Brussels looks to clock in at about 9 hours of driving time so very reasonable for a 3-4 day trip. Diverting at the beginning to Dunkirk sounds interesting for its connection to another war, though it seems there is much less extant reminder to visit.


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Readers, have you visited any of these WWI battlegrounds? Your recommendations?

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  • My wife and I did a similar tour a few years back, though we left out Brussels. If in Passchendaele for the museum, consider staying a night in Ypres and checking out the Last Post ceremony at the Menin gate. Get there a little early for a good spot and hold firm to that spot. We were there early enough but let some students encroach in and so lost a lot of that advantage.

    We stayed at B&B Fresco and were really amazed at the value of the place. The hosts were friendly and had many tips for exploring the area.

    Right before Ypres we stopped at the Westvleteren brewery. If you’re a Belgian beer fan, it might be worth the stop as it’s very difficult to get their beer without visiting the monastery. Usually you need to order beer months in advance, but they also have a bar on premises. I was disappointed to see that the bar was being renovated when we went, but a fellow from Luxembourg who had driven with his family to pick up several cases that weekend (he had ordered 5 months before!) let us know that you can drive up and buy up to two sampler packs per person, with no reservations. The trip was saved!

    But beer aside, our best takeaway from driving in Belgium was being able to wander around country roads and happening on the WWI cemeteries and memorials that are scattered everywhere. The smallest memorials still had much to see, and had we been taking trains or buses around, we never would have been able to track down any of them. Driving was definitely the ideal way for us to see Belgium/northern France.

  • We happened to be in Ypres on Armistice Day in November 2012, and it was a surprisingly moving experience. The nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery was also memorable, striking a good balance between instructional and somber. We did this as a 1-day loop from Bruges and there were definitely more sights to be seen if we’d had more daylight. We have some photos up on http://www.ericandleandra.com/wp/2012/12/06/belgium-2012-driving-in-southwest-belgium/

    +1 for Westvletern (In de Vedre is the cafe and shop) if you like beer; being Belgium, there are quite a few other good spots that could be sampled too. Driving the backroads of Belgium

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Chris F – thanks for the detailed recommendations, that will really help flesh out a trip. I will make sure to view the Last Post ceremony. The beer I will have to do or my father will scold me.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    Eric – thanks for sharing your experience and photos. Armistice Day being in November that could work well for me. I generally give Europe a pass in the summer. November is a great time to travel there.

  • Gus

    There is a very good museum near the enormous memorial at Thiepval; both are definitely worth a look. And the battlefield at Vimy Ridge is worthwhile. A few of the mine craters will amaze you as well. Wholeheartedly endorse attending the service at the Menin Gate in Ypres too.

  • When discussing the best beers in the world, the Westvleteren beer is usually near the top of that list. A large part of it could be that it can’t be sold outside of the monastery, but they were some great brews all the same.

    And like Eric said, being Belgium there are so many fantastic little bars and pubs around that you can’t really go wrong. Our circuit took us a bit further to the north than yours so I can’t make any more recommendations, but if you swing by Antwerp or Bruges I have some more ideas. Bruges was fantastic even without the beer, and we ended up spending an extra two days there than we intended.

    I lived in Lille for a year before and I see you moving through there. Most of my favorite places in France’s north are a bit to the west, like Bergues. If you do swing by Dunkirk, Bergues is pretty close, so maybe pay a visit there. In late September they do a night tour of the city with everyone in character of the period when Spain controlled the town, which was fun. The whole town is incredibly friendly — weirdly just like in the movie, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis. We thought we’d be there just for the afternoon but ran into some people preparing for the night tour up on top of the citadel hill, who then opened up all the locked towers and let us wander around, gave us a tour of the city hall and introduced us to the mayor, who had to nix the plan to take us to the top of the water tower for a good view of the city due to recent construction. It was odd being so welcomed by complete strangers, but it was a wonderful small, small town atmosphere where everyone knew everyone.

    I’m writing a blog post myself here, but if stopping in Lille, check out the Grand Place and the nearby old town. Right by the Grand Place is the old stock exchange building that now hosts used book vendors, and if you like chess, there’s usually a chess board set up in the center of the building to play against one of the vendors if they’d like a break.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Gus – thanks for the extra suggestions. I see my trip growing and growing.

    @Chris F – I appreciate every word, thanks for the time and the indsider’s take. In only knew Bruges from the delightful film. I am not so much for historic old towns though may need to make an exception.

  • Rapid Travel Chai;

    Thanks for posting my piece from the WSJ. I had a follow up piece on the Menin Gate ceremony that ran on July 24. And a World War I blog: westernfrontinaweek.wordpress.com.

    And I offer advice for Great War tours. Just drop me a note.

    Mark Yost

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Mark Yost – thanks for sharing your blog, I have subscribed and look forward to putting this trip together. WWI has long been overshadowed and this year has been fascinating to revisit the period when the world was lurched into a violent new modernity. I am updating the post with the new article and your blog.