Significant investment in Flanders in the run-up to the 2014-2018 Centenary Commemorations and an ongoing programme of events and exhibitions means that the area has more to offer pupils than ever before in their experience of WW1 cultural heritage.
With the number of annual tourists visiting West Flanders almost doubling from 415,000 to 800,000 in 2014, investment in five key areas: Ypres, Diksmuide, Nieuwpoort, Zonnebeke and Lijssenthoek has enhanced the visitor experience in numerous ways, including its emphasis on technology to offer interactive displays, improved accessibility for visitors with disabilities and the emergence of numerous quality educational initiatives.
The current generation of school children now have an unprecedented opportunity to fully understand the sacrifices made by the fallen of the Great War. But on time‑pressured tours, typically of just two to five days, how can teachers make sure that students make the most of this often once in a lifetime opportunity?
As Emma Carney, Head of History at Kings High School, Warwick explains, the sheer volume of ‘must-visit’ sites in the area is remarkable.
She said: “I have been lucky enough to visit the wonderful and incredibly historical region of Flanders for the past eight years as a leader of numerous school visits. Both my previous students at Thomas Telford in Shropshire and my current girls at King’s High Warwick, adore these trips. They gain so much from being immersed in such an evocative landscape.
“From the beautiful town of Ypres to the trenches and cemeteries of Lijssenthoek, Passchendaele and Langemarck, this is a place of great warmth, yet it remains tinged with the marks of tragedy, bitter conflict and human lives lost. These fields have witnessed incredible bloodshed yet the resilience of the people and their settlements remain. It is a truly unforgettable place and I would recommend it to any teacher of History, English or indeed anyone with a great respect for the past and the determination to overcome such obstacles with great fortitude.”
With so many historical sites to consider, teachers must be selective to ensure that children are able to take full advantage of the cross-curricular learning potential on offer. From gaining a first-hand understanding of the tragic influences of the War Poets, to lessons into politics and insights into significant events in history, the landscape of Belgium has much to offer on a range of subjects. Fortunately, thanks to technology, there are many learning resources available to teachers and students these days, from websites to apps, films and touchstone. All of these tools serve to reinforce classroom studies and support the valuable experiences gained on tours to the First World War battlefields.
Speaking of the poignant and lasting memories WW1 tours give to pupils, Ian Coyne, commercial director of Anglia Tours comments: “For many, the horror of the Great War can be summed up in two words ‘The Salient’. The medieval town of ‘Wipers’, as it was known to thousands of British soldiers, lay at the eye of the storm which raged across the fields of Flanders and which, to this day, bears witness to the cataclysmic cost of the Great War.
“Each year Anglia Tours has the privilege of providing thousands of British students with a chance to see for themselves the impact this conflict had on Flanders, Britain and the world. Few pupils will forget walking through the trenches, standing surrounded by headstones in Tyne Cot or listening as the bugles play the ‘Last Post’ under the Menin Gate. Each visit creates memories which, like the locations themselves, will endure for years to come.”
The current programme of commemorative events occurring across key WW1 battlefield sites in West Flanders is enabling students to understand experiences in the trenches and the sheer scale of human sacrifice at profound levels. For instance, the ‘Coming World Remember Me’ art project, allows visitors to Flanders to participate in workshops where they can make one of 600,000 sculptures out of clay: one for every victim of the First World War in Belgium. Each sculpture will be marked with the name of a soldier killed in battle and in the spring of 2018, the installation will be mounted in the frontline around Ypres, placed between two large works by the artist Koen Vanmechelen as a lasting tribute from our times.
Gill Harvey, general manager of the School Travel Forum, says: “Our members organise over 3,500 school trips to the WW1 areas of Belgium and Northern France each year. Their local knowledge and detailed itinerary planning aligned to the current curriculum is essential to the success of a visit.”
Visit Flanders’ new Educational Guide highlights key historical sites to consider, the educational resources available and offers general advice for all teachers planning to undertake a First World War battlefields tour with their students as part of the centenary commemoration.
Places to Visit
In Flanders Fields Museum, a newly renovated museum housed in Ypres’ reconstructed Cloth Hall, offers a host of interactive features designed to engage pupils, including touch screens, video projection and soundscapes. The premier museum of the Great War Centenary in Flanders has over 2,000 original objects and documents on display and visitors are invited to share the stories through interactive kiosks, touch screens, interactive poppy bracelets, video projections and soundscapes. The Bell Tower also offers a panoramic view of what was once a scene of devastation.
Elsewhere, close to In Flanders Field Museum, is the Menin Gate, where the poignant ‘The Last Post‘ ceremony can be attended. The most famous Commonwealth War Memorial in Flanders, tens of thousands of soldiers passed through on the way to the front. Opened in 1927, the memorial bears witness to nearly 55,000 soldiers, who were reported missing in the Ypres Salient. Since 1928, apart from during WW2, every night at 8 o’clock sharp, the buglers of the Last Post Association, who are members of the Ypres Voluntary Fire Brigade, play the Last Post as a homage to the fallen. Students can participate in the ceremony by laying a wreath in person.
A trip to the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in the world, provides a poignant experience for school groups to observe the 12,000 white tombstones. Students can also ‘march’ to the newly opened visitor’s centre from the Memorial Museum of Passchendaele as part of an experience-orientated themed walk, ‘The Road to Passchendaele’.
Where to go, what to see
Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery’s visitor centre will offer some perspective of the large volume of war casualties, charted on a timeline and exemplified by a line-up of 1,392 poles indented to indicate a daily death toll. Teachers can base their visit around the ‘story of the day’ revealed on a block calendar, showing the day’s date and revealing the name and back‑story of a soldier who died on the same day.
A key town behind the Front Line, Veurne Town Hall offers insights into the everyday life of both citizens and soldiers during WW1. An exhibition in the old town hall, formerly used as the headquarters of the Belgian army in 1914, aims to tell the unique, personal and remarkable stories of the townspeople, divided into themes including religion, jurisdiction, diplomacy and medical care. Of particular relevance to school groups is the section on education, where students can appreciate what it was like to be a school pupil during the war and learn about the temporary schools where they were taught.
Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 (MMP 17) is a museum dedicated to the story of Passchendaele and its battle in 1917. Located in the village of Zonnebeke in former chateau, it focuses on the material aspects of World War I. Its first floor houses a unique collection of historic objects, life-like dioramas, and photo and film footage. In the basement, a unique Dugout Experience reconstructs lifelike communication and dressing posts, headquarters and sleeping accommodation. The museum was also extended recently to house a completely new underground building about the Battle of Passchendaele and the International Commonwealth’s involvement in the battle. A new Trench Experience now houses a network of German and British trenches together with original reconstructed shelters.
The renovated Yser Tower Museum atxDiksmuide offers a sensory experience for schools, revealing the story of the Belgian‑German confrontation including the political consequences of the war which led to the Flemish emancipation. Groups can experience the 273ft high view from the top of the tower, scramble through a reconstruction of life in the trenches. Teachers wishing to extend their visit to Diksmuide can combine a tour of the museum with a trip to the Trench of Death and German military cemetery at Vladslo; just a short coach ride away.
Centenary of Battles of Messines and Passchendaele 2017. It was in June 1917 that the Mine Battle of Messines took place and its deafening explosions could be heard as far away as London. This battled ensued to become The Battle of Passchendaele and resulted in the tragic death, injury and disappearance of over 400,000 soldiers over just four months. A number of commemoration ceremonies, events and exhibitions will take place in and around the area of Messines and Passchendaele to remember these devastating events.
The War in Short Pants, 14 October 2016 to 2 April 2017 at St Pieters Abbey – Ghent. War in Short Pants takes a look at the history of WW1 from a child’s perspective, with children taking centre stage. Among others, the exhibition portrays the stories of children who stayed in Belgium during the war, but whose lives irreversibly changed due to the occupation. The exhibits are mainly relics from the children’s everyday lives: drawings, toys, songs, glossy magazines, and possibly also letters and diaries. Objects from the ‘adult’ world, such as pictures, posters, post cards and films are also featured.
14-18 On Film for Tablet gives an overview of what there is to see and do in Flanders ﬁelds and aims to provide teachers and students with inspiration for their ﬁeld trip. As part of the commemoration of World War I in Belgium, young people have the opportunity to create their own ﬁlm projects using digital storytelling, which stimulates critical and creative thinking. They learn how to analyse historical photographs, write a script and score a ﬁlm.
The emphasis is placed on how and from what perspective they tell their story. The exercise sharpens their sense of history and the cross-curricular approach can function as a stimulus for a school project focused on WW1. This application is designed for students in the second and third year of secondary education.
The Touchstone 14-18 commemoration seeks to provide support for individuals who are involved in or who wish to undertake a project on WW1. For this purpose, Touchstone ’14-’18 was developed, a tool and guide to bringing a project to fruition. ‘Learning from the War’ is an aspect of war studies that the Province of West Flanders has been keen to promote for a very long time. The story of the war should be one with a clear message of peace.
Remembrance education is based on three very important factors: (1) knowledge and insight; (2) empathy and solidarity and (3) reﬂection and action. We elaborate on these three factors using challenges, ideas, opportunities and concrete educational projects. We also link this programme with educational attainment targets.
Lastly, there is an appendix: background information on WW1. This touchstone wants to help as many people as possible to develop interesting and worthwhile projects on the Great War.