The First World War: 1914-1918, 100 years ago, more than 600.000 casualties along the Ypres Salient.
What I knew about the First World war, was the stuff we all learn in history class: facts and numbers.
But getting back down in the trenches along the Ypres Salient changed that.
In Flanders Fields Museum
I started my visit in Ypres at the In Flanders Fields Museum, which is dedicated to the history of the First World War in the West Flanders front region.
The museum has a renewed exhibition with video projections, sound bytes and state of the art multimedia applications.
More important is that the museum has also invested in great storytelling.
I was immersed in the front life through the tales of ordinary joes.
The tales of the first gone-bad toxic gas experiments, the lack of medical knowledge and supplies truly confronted me with how gruel-some this war had been.
The First World War was fought down in trenches. Soldiers on both sides dug in and fought back to back. The only exception being christmas, when enemies exchanged cigarets and songs instead of bullets and blood.
Hill 62 Sanctuary Museum is one of the museums that claims to still have original trenches, though I strongly doubt it. It looked as if the owner had done a bit digging himself. That being said, I still got an idea of what it must have been like on a rainy cold day. My feet got all wet in a few seconds.
Living down there for years must have been pure misery.
Living down the trenches got even more miserable when the underground mine war started. Soldiers dug tunnels and used deep mines to blow up and breach the enemy lines.
Exploding mines resulted into big craters, changing the landscape drastically.
One of the places to get a sense of this changed landscape is at Hill 60.
The Menin Gate – The Last Post
The man to man fights along the trenches and the deep mine ware fare resulted in many casualties. Tens of thousands of soldiers passed through the Menin Gate on the way to front, many of them never to return.
After the war, The Menin Gate became a commonwealth war memorial displaying the names of 54.896 soldiers who have gone missing in the Ypres Salient.
Every evening at 8pm the Last Post is sounded by the Menin Gate in their remembrance.
I learned a lot about the First World War by visiting the In Flanders Fields Museum and the trenches, but nothing made the hair on my arms rise as much as standing on a war cemetery.
It wasn’t the amount of white crosses, lined up one after the other, but the inscriptions on the graves – 21,18,17,19, father, brother, friend, beloved son – that gave me goosebumps.
Getting back down in the trenches along the Ypres Salient is what turned facts and numbers into tales of soldiers and families left behind.