Since the early 1920s people have been making their way to the battlefields of WWI. Some have gone in search of answers, to find closure and connect with a loved one lost, out of curiosity or a simple interest in history. The reasons are as many as the sites that may be visited. I have been fortunate enough to have visited many of the WWI battlefields in Belgium and France, both with students studying the war and out of my own interest in commemoration. One of my favourite sites, and perhaps one of the best to visit if you are looking for a learning experience, is Hill 60 Trench Museum and Memorial.
The Hill 60 Trench Museum sits to the north-east of the town of Ypres in Belgium, on the edge of what became known as the Ypres Salient. During the First Battle of Ypres in the Autumn of 1914 the German Army established strong positions on the high ground surrounding the town of Ypres. The town was the last piece of Belgian territory held by the allies and the Belgian, French and British were determined to keep it, making the Ypres Salient witness to some of the bloodiest conflict of WWI. It was here, during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, that the Germans for the first time unleashed their new terror weapon – poison gas. French colonial troops were decimated by the unknown cloud that descended upon them, creating a gap in the line they had held. However, before the Germans could take advantage of this the Canadians moved forward to hold the line, taking 7,000 casualties in two weeks. During April-August 1916 they would again play a significant role in defending Ypres and keeping German attention away from the build up taking place in preparation for the great Somme offensive.
While the landscape of the Ypres Salient has changed significantly since 1918, Hill 60 offers a glimpse of what was. The story is told that when the farmer who owned the land returned at the end of the war he decided to create a monument to what had taken place. He did this by keeping some of the trench network intact, and to maintain a collection of all the bits and pieces he continued to plough up in his fields. The result is a most unusual and eclectic collection that can, for some, be challenging to comprehend.
Upon arrival I always begin with a short walk up the hill to the Canadian memorial. Built out of a 30 ton piece of Quebec granite, the simple yet moving memorial and surrounding gardens makes the perfect place to begin your tour and reflect upon what you will be seeing. From the monument you can see the spires of Ypres Cathedral, offering much the same view as what the Germans would have had in 1914. This vantage point also allows you to gain a sense of the surrounding landscape, and how it impacted upon the battles that were fought. Hill 60 does not really look like a hill at all, and is not much more than a small bump in the relatively flat, low-lying landscape that makes up this part of Belgium. A small hill, yes, but one that gave the Germans a distinct advantage, leaving the French and British armies an uphill struggle from often deplorable, water-logged conditions.
From the memorial walk back down to the Hill 60 Trench Museum. This museum is unusual and not for everyone, yet one of my favourites as it challenges many of your preconceived ideas of what a museum should look like. As you enter it looks much like what you expect – polished items in cases on display. However, this is quickly shattered by the stereoscopic viewers that allow you to view images from the war – the kind of images that were rarely if ever released to the public. From here you make your way into the back of the museum. This room has been recently upgraded, but still maintains much of its earlier ambience of a metal shed stuffed with all the bits and pieces that were dug up over the years: rusted barbed wire, shell casings, parts of rifles, boots and all sorts of items, many of which are almost unrecognisable. Many find this part of the museum very disturbing as it looks as if little care was taken in creating the displays or looking after what had been found. But that is really the point, as the war was not clean and ordered and rust free; it was a war of mud and rust and death.
As you exit the rear of the museum you enter a small wooded area that has what remains of the trenches. You can walk along the trenches, following the zig-zag pattern, examine the metal supports holding back the earth, and even walk through several of the remaining tunnels. Be advised though, they are very dark, often muddy and home to the occasional furry creature. The trees that make up the woods are relatively recent, the original woods being obliterated by shell fire. However, a number of original stumps remain that still show the scars of the battles they lived through. There are shell holes throughout the woods, often filled with stagnant water, giving a small sense of what it would have been like to be living and fighting in the area.