Many activities to commemorate WWI will be taking place at battlefields in Belgium and in France over the next four years, whilst in the UK, museums and galleries are currently preparing special exhibitions. In this issue Brenda Watkinson, Peter Stonham and Val Baynton give an insight into the varied activities that groups will be able to visit.
Brenda Watkinson recently travelled to Flanders to discover what new attractions and events are being planned and why it is so important that ‘we do not forget’.
For first time visitors to Flanders, an appropriate place to start your discovery and understanding of World War I history is the In Flanders Fields Museum in ypres, which has been recently renovated to prepare for the commemorations. The city of Ypres was at the heart of all the suffering and sacrifice that took place during the four long years 1914 – 1918 and every building was reduced to rubble. Today, the city has been rebuilt as it once was, and, housed in the dramatic cloth hall, the In Flanders Fields Museum takes a very personal view of the war, giving visitors the feeling that they are actually talking to men who lived and died on the front line. Each visitor is also given a poppy bracelet, which gives access to four personal stories. A full programme of events is planned at the IFFM over the centennial with a series of smaller temporary exhibitions about each battle. The exhibition ‘The Battle of the Yser and the First Battle of Ypres’ will run from 1st October 2014 to 4th January 2015.
The whole area around Ypres, known locally as Westhoek, was badly scarred by the First World War and there are reminders everywhere. You don’t have to travel far to see military cemeteries, monuments and war relics at every corner. Many have been renovated or are currently being renovated in the run up to the centenary years.
One such cemetery is the lijssenthoek military cemetEry, the largest of the hospital cemeteries on the outskirts of poperinge, west of Ypres, where more than 9,500 soldiers found their last resting place. In September last year, a new visitor centre at the cemetery opened giving visitors a better understanding of the efforts and challenges of those involved in the medical profession during the war. As well as facts and figures, it tells many personal stories of the people behind the statistics.
As you leave the visitor centre and enter the cemetery, a row of 1,392 wooden poles is a stark visualisation of the number of burials that took place over the war years, with each pole representing a day in which at least one man was buried at the cemetery. Guided tours of the cemetery can be arranged in advance. One of the major events set for next year at the cemetery is the lijssenthoek termius, a musical theatre production based upon the personal stories of the fallen soldiers. The play will be multi-lingual and will be set in an open-air theatre next to the cemetery (August to September 2014).
The town of Poperinge was directly behind the front lines and played a huge part in the rest and recuperation of Commonwealth servicemen. In the centre of town, Talbot House, the famous club for soldiers, is an essential part of a visit. Thousands of British soldiers passed through talbot house during the three years from the end of 1915; this haven of peace gave soldiers the rare opportunity to relax, write letters and meet friends. Everyone left their rank at the front door and everyone was offered a traditional cup of English tea, which has not changed to this day. Guided tours can be arranged in advance. Talbot House is currently undergoing renovation work including restoration of the rear garden and this will be completed on 15th June 2013. The 100th anniversary of Talbot House is actually 11th December 2015 and a Piano Festival is planned in Poperinge from 11th to 13th December 2015.
Back on the frontline and located east of Ypres, the memorial museum passchendaEle 1917 commemorates the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, in which there were over 500,000 casualties in 100 days simply to gain a few miles of frontline. Major renovation work is nearing completion at the museum and will include an extension to the existing museum and also a trench experience. Some of the new permanent galleries will look at the different nations involved in the battle of 1917, the British (including sections on the English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh units), Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians. There will also be information about the German forces. the trench experience will be completed this summer and will complement the already comprehensive exhibits. Guided tours can be arranged in advance. Nearby and included on most itineraries, the tyne cot cemetery is the largest British military cemetery in the world. The visitor centre contains display panels and video film explaining the history of this part of the battle. As well as the rows of white grave stones, the tyne cot memorial to the missing, with 34,887 names of lost soldiers, is another poignant reminder of the cost of this war.
A very different project to mark the centenary is an artistic commemoration entitled gonewest, which was recently announced by the Province of West Flanders. This project will compile a list of approximately 600,000 names, both civilians and soldiers who died in the First World War. From this list, a sculptural art project remember me will evolve. It is planned that 600,000 people from around the world will participate in creating this huge art project with each participant taking part in a workshop to produce a clay figure, each one representing someone who lost their life in the First World War. From autumn 2013, daily workshops will take place in Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast and in Schore, a small village in West Flanders. By 2018, the figurines will be brought together to create the piece of art. Workshops will be organised by GoneWest to run between 2014 and 2018. Many musical events are also planned as part of the programme.