With the centenary marking World War I in full swing, the Western Front in Flanders, Belgium, has become a draw for Americans with a travel bug for history.
War tourism is thriving a century later in Ieper and the quaint towns that surround it.
The Belgian town was rebuilt from the ground up since the destruction of World War I, with much of the ancient Flemish style preserved brick by brick.
After the population was evacuated to safer territory, the worst stone in the shoe of the German Imperial Army was reduced to ashes and rubble in three extended, pitched battles over the course of the war, but Germans never held it.
Walkable and beautiful in that cobbled, Old World way, with striking architecture and a venerable cathedral and cloth hall (now the In Flanders Fields museum and research centre), Ieper feels like 1913 has come to life as a town-sized museum.
A well-development map of activities and museums immerses visitors in the Ypres Salient.
Between Belgium, France and England, there are 29,265 known burial sites, 1,656 unknown (not identified) American war graves, and 4,452 missing commemorated. Total combat death toll in WWI for America is set at 53,402.
THE FLANDERS FIELD AMERICAN CEMETERY AND MEMORIAL: Waregem, Belgium — Located on the battlefield where the U.S. 91st Division suffered many casualties near the war’s end securing Spitaals Bosschen woods between Oct. 31 and Nov. 10, 1918 — one day before armistice. It bears the insignia of the four American divisions that fought in Belgium (27th, 30th, 37th and 91st) and is the only American World War I cemetery in Belgium. There are 368 graves, 21 of them belonging to unknown soldiers. On May 30, 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew over this memorial to salute his fellow countrymen, and dropped poppies, nine days after his historic solo flight. There’s also a American memorial in Oudenarde, Belgium, and more in Kemmel and St. Mihiel, France. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. A staff member is on duty in the visitor building during open hours to answer questions and escort relatives to grave and memorial sites, and can help find graves of American soldiers who died in World War I who are buried in other graveyards.
IN FLANDERS FIELDS MUSEUM: The ancient cloth hall of Ieper dates back to 1304. Once the center of an international textile industry, Ieper saw trade from as far away as Novgorod. Transformed into a museum about the Ypres Salient, the museum tells the stories of the front. It features interactive exhibits, including digital records to look up Commonwealth soldiers. Actual gear and kit of American soldiers and other militaries preserved on site.
LIJSSENTHOEK: At Lijssenthoek, a self-guided interactive museum documents the Commonwealth regional military hospital that operated from 1915 past the end of the war at the site of a farm belonging to a widow with seven children. Unlike battlefield cemeteries like Passchendaele where only some of the graves are identified with the bones that lie beneath them, at Lijssenthoek, almost everyone is identified, because before they were corpses, they were patients in varying states of triage.
Check out the unique fence, where each picket represents a day, and is engraved with notches for the number of soldiers that were buried there.
“This cemetery reads as a block calendar of the Great War. For every day of the year, somebody is buried in the cemetery,” said history buff and battlefield tour guide Luc Dequidt.
MEMORIAL MUSEUM PASSCHENDAELE – MMP17: In just 100 days in 1917, half a million soldiers died over the most contested patch of ground. On a small pond in Zonnebeke, Belgium, the original grand farmhouse has been refurbished and filled with memorabilia and exhibits where you can wear a Commonwealth soldier’s helmet, try to hoist protective armour, or even smell the harmless versions of the lethal gases first employed on unsuspecting Allied troops at the Western Front. The museum’s impressive underground dugout route extends 600 meters, with meticulous reproduction trenches that give an eerie sensation of being in the war, complete with sandbagged outdoors trenches and cave-like tunnel trenches populated with mannequin soldiers. (Closed from Dec. 16 to Jan. 31 each year).
TALBOT HOUSE: Billed as “an oasis of serenity in a world gone mad,” Talbot House combined a retreat atmosphere with the USO, church, even Vaudeville in an hospitable effort to provide respite to the Commonwealth soldiers desperately in need of R&R and a shower and a shave in Poperinge, Belgium. Remarkably, during the German occupation of World War II, the facility was left mostly undamaged. Separately, the quarters are also a bed-and-breakfast.
THE LAST POST AT MENIN GATE: Every evening at 8 p.m., the "Last Post" has been sounded since 1928 (except during World War II) under the imposing arches of the Menin Gate. Shaped like a Roman triumphal arch, it displays the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers went missing in action around the Ypres Salient in the Great War through Aug. 15, 1917. (Those 34,984 missing after Aug. 16 are carved into the Tyne Cot Cemetery at Passendale. The Last Post ceremony, which attracts thousands every night, rain, snow or hail, is deeply moving.
ESSEX FARM CEMETERY: The Advanced Dressing Station where Dr. John MacCrae triaged soldiers at the front and wrote the most famous war poem ever can still be visited in its bunker. The ceiling has sunk a bit with weathering, but the small rooms are intact. Visitors can see where soldiers were brought for treatment (on stretchers if they couldn’t walk).
At the Essex Farm Cemetery on site there are 1,200 soldiers buried.