Does the name Ypres (Ieper) ring a bell to you? What about Flanders Fields – the World War I battlefields in Belgium? If it does, you are now probably seeing images of the ‘great’ war, of the trenches and poison gas, and of hundreds of thousands young soldiers who lost their lives in the war…
Our day trip to Ypres and World War I Battlefields
Why did we choose Ypres and the WWI battlefields for a family day trip?
This part of Europe has been a battlefield for so many armies throughout history, and Belgian schools do their utmost to ensure that future generations do not forget. So it was not a surprise that our 8 year old son came home from school just before Christmas and told us what he had learned about the terrible battlefields in West Flanders where hundreds of thousands of soldiers from all over the world died in the mud. He learned about the use of poison gas, Yperite, life in the trenches and the fact that the soldiers were even eating their horses in order to survive in no-man’s-land.
We then realised that it was maybe time to bring him and his little brothers to the places he had heard and read about. In fact we felt a bit ashamed, because it’s less than 2 hours from where we live and we had’t visited Ypres yet, even though tens of thousands of people come from all over the world to visit Ypres and the war battlefields every year.
So right after Christmas we thought it was a good time to make some time for reflection and to go back in time a hundred years (or does that sound too serious now?) and we decided to make a day trip to Ypres and surroundings. We had a very interesting, moving and educational day and so I want to share our experience. Whether you live here or are visiting Belgium, Ypres and the WWI battlefields are certainly worth the trip!
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. John McCrae
Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial
It was a cold December day and when we arrived in the tiny village of Zonnebeke the faint winter sun was there to welcome us. It is here that some of the most infamous battles of WWI, the battle of Passchendaele (Passendale), took place in 1917, taking the lives of more than half a million soldiers.
Tyne Cot war cemetery is an obligatory stop when visiting the war battlefields in Belgium. It put us all in the ‘mood’ for the rest of that day: an impressive burial ground for almost 12,000 Commonwealth soldiers, most of whom the name/identity could never be established. The kids understood the meaning of a ‘world war’ after seeing headstones of soldiers from places as far away as Australia, New-Zealand, Canada, South-Africa or India in this tiny little village in Flanders.
The stone wall surrounding the cemetery makes-up the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. Seeing the names of almost 35,000 missing Commonwealth soldiers who died here after 1917 is very moving.
Practical information for visiting Tyne Cot:
- Tyne Cot is located approx. 10km outside the city centre of Ypres. Address: Vijfwegestraat, 8980 Zonnebeke
- The Tyne Cot visitor’s centre was closed during winter, but the cemetery can be visited anytime
After visiting Tyne Cot, we drove to the centre of Ypres where we had a quick lunch (not that easy to find something at a decent price and good quality in this tourist area), and then we visited the In Flanders Field museum.
Ypres – Ieper
Take the time to explore the small town centre of Ypres. Follow the signs for a tourist route.
In Flanders Fields museum and the Bell Tower
The In Flanders Field museum is situated right on the main square of Ypres town, in the impressive Lakenhalle building, or Ypres Cloth Hall. This is definitely a must if you want to get a picture of life during the war! We steered the kids away from some of the videos and photographs that were too shocking in detail, but they showed a huge interest in the stories told by children who survived the war, the weapons, the clothes and the various interactive displays.
For more information, check the official website of the In Flanders Fields museum.
We also climbed the 231 steps of the Bell Tower (Belfry) from where we had a fantastic view over the city, including the Menin Gate. It’s definitely worth the climb and the kids loved it!
The Menin Gate and the Last Post
The Menin Gate has the names of almost 55,000 missing Commonwealth soldiers who died in the area between 1914-1917. Hundreds of thousands of men passed through this gate on their way to the battlefields.
The size of the monument is very impressive. But it’s not before you see thousands of names on the endless walls that you really get a lump in your throat. There are flowers everywhere and many ‘We will not forget’ messages that people still leave here every day.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”Laurence Binyon
Every evening, at 8 PM, the Last Post is sounded at the Menin Gate. Following the Menin Gate Memorial opening in 1927, the people of Ypres wanted to express their gratitude towards those who had given their lives for Belgium’s freedom, and since that day for almost a century now, a daily ceremony is held at the Menin Gate. It’s a simple, but moving tribute.
The Last Post would certainly have been an unforgettable experience, but we also wanted to visit other places around Ypres, so we decided to leave this for a next visit.
The Ramparts of Ypres
If you have some time to discover Ypres more, it’s well worth to walk on the walls surrounding the city. The Ypres ramparts can be accessed via the Menin Gate. The official website of Ypres tourism has some more information about visiting the Ramparts of Ypres.
Yorkshire Trench & Dug-Out
The kids wanted to see the trenches, so we drove to the Yorkshire Trench & Dug-Out where we could walk through the restored trenches.
We had some difficulties finding the place in the middle of an industrial area. In fact the whole place has only been discovered in 1997 with the creation of the industrial site. While the kids walked through the trenches we read the explanatory signs. It’s so eye-opening to learn about life during the war.
Practical info for visiting Yorkshire Trench & Dug-Out:
- Yorkshire Trench & Dug-Out is not easy to find. It’s a very small place, amidst the industrial buildings, so drive slowly and look for a sign, on the left side if coming from Ypres. Address: Bargiestraat, 8904 Ieper
Langemark German war cemetery
We continued our trip and went on to Langemark, where the first gas attacks took place, to visit the German war cemetery. More than 44,000 German soldiers are buried here, almost 25,000 of them in a mass grave. If you come to meditate, this is a very good place to be. It was calm and quiet at the popular landmark like Tyne Cot, but this place was absolutely abandoned. The flat grave markers give this cemetery a distinct and modest look. The German graveyards are very different than the somewhat pompous Tyne Cot.
Practical info for visiting Langemark German war cemetery:
- Address: Klerkenstraat 64, 8920 Poelkapelle
Essex farm Cemetery
One of the best known WWI sites in Ypres is the Essex Farm Cemetery. If you have the time, it’s definitely worth a visit too. You can read more about it here: Essex Farm.
Yser Tower – IJzertoren Diksmuide
The kids wanted to see the Yser Tower (IJzertoren) so we drove to the nearby town of Diksmuide. The Yser Tower is a peace monument and commemorates the soldiers killed on the Yser Front during WWI. The Yser Tower, the highest peace monument in Europe, symbolises the demand for peace. Words ‘No more war’ are written on the tower in the four languages of the fighting forces in the area during the First World War (Dutch, French, English and German).
We knew it would be too late to visit the 22-floors museum (they close at 5 PM in winter), but we could at least make a walk around the peace site with the tower and the impressive Gate of Peace.
Trench of Death, Diksmuide
You can also visit the Trench of Death near Diksmuide. It’s a larger site than the Yorkshire Trench & Dug-Out. We skipped this as it was already dark by the time we were in the area. From what I understand, it’s a much more popular site with longer trenches, so if you have time to do just one, try the Trench of Death.
Here you can find more info for visiting the Trench of Death.
Vladslo German war cemetery
Our next stop was the Vladslo German war cemetery. It’s one of the many cemeteries in the area, with almost 26,000 soldiers buried there. It is an impressive place, with each grave stone containing 20 names of soldiers. But it is especially known for the Grieving Parents statues by Käthe Kollwitz, whose son is buried in this cemetery.
It was getting pretty dark by now and walking amongst the graves of so many young men who lost their life here was a moving and unusual experience. Although it all happened a hundred years ago we could still feel the pain, the suffering and the death around us.
Visiting Ypres and the war cemeteries was a unique experience, also for the children. We won’t quickly forget it. If you are visiting Belgium, I highly recommend paying a visit to the Flanders Fields. If you have just a day to visit the area, here is the suggested itinerary.
Suggested one day itinerary for Ypres and the World War I Battlefields in Belgium
Vladslo German war cemetery – the Trench of Death – Yser Tower and the Gate of Peace – Tyne Cot – Essex Farm or Langemark German War Cemetery – Ypres
Tips for visiting Ypres and the WWI cemeteries
- Plan ahead what you want to see, read about the places you want to visit, and decide on your itinerary in advance. There is so much to do in the area! If you travel with kids, you may want to tell them some history so that they know what to expect and understand what they see. Ypres has an excellent website to help you prepare your trip.
- Leave early in the morning, especially in winter. Or stay overnight and take your time to explore the area more in depth. You can find the best deals for Ypres accommodation here.
- Take picnic lunch if you are visiting the cemeteries during the day. We went to Ypres for lunch, but wasted so much time for this.
- Dress warm for the cemetery visits. There is a lot of wind in the area.
- You can book an organised tour to Ypres from Brussels. This might be a good day trip to consider if you are staying in Brussels for a few days. Alternatively, you can rent a car, or visit by train. But the latter is not really an option if you want to see more than the centre of Ypres. Here are two different tour options for visiting Ypres from Brussels: group tour and the private tour.
- There are also organised tours to Ypres that leave from Bruges. Bruges is very close by, so this is something definitely worth doing if you are staying there for a few days. Check this highly rated tour to Ypres from Bruges.
Books and movies about the WWI
If you like history and want to know a bit more about World War I, here are some great book and movie suggestions:
- The guns of August by Barbara Tuchman – about the start of WW I
- The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War by Peter Hart
- Voices from the Front: An Oral History of the Great War by Peter Hart
- Movie: Passchendaele (2010)
- Movie: First World War: Complete Series (box set – 2014)
Visiting Belgium? Check out our other posts about different places to see and things to do in Belgium.
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