A New Front in World War I Museums

Here’s my latest in The Wall Street Journal.

And, as you know, my new battlefield guidebook, “The Western Front in a Week: A Beginner’s Guide,” is coming out in a few weeks.

Stay tuned.

The Heart of No Man’s Land
By Mark Yost
The Wall Street Journal

Zonnebeke, Belgium

There was a time when understanding World War I required stops in Albert, Péronne and Verdun. All three French towns were home to what many considered the best museums of the Great War.

The statue of the Virgin Mary atop the church steeple in Albert. Both sides believed that when she fell, the war would be over.

The statue of the Virgin Mary atop the church steeple in Albert. Both sides believed that when she fell, the war would be over.

Albert and Péronne were important because some of the deadliest British battles (and casualties) took place along the Somme, the verdant river valley about an hour north and east of Paris. Verdun was equally as important (and devastating) for the French because the sleepy little rail hub southwest of Luxembourg was where Erich von Falkenhayn, the German chief of the General Staff, vowed to “bleed France white.” But now, as we approach August’s 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the French museums have been unseated from pride of place on the Western Front by Belgium’s newly expanded Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, housed in a château in this picturesque suburb outside Ypres.

This is largely because the curators have made creative use of the large space to allow the war to unfold slowly and tell its own story, and because the presentation includes a gripping display of historic and modern-day footage that I’ve seen at no other museum.

Early maps and panels explain Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, which stalled outside Paris in September 1914 and resulted in the Western Front—a 400-mile-long maze of trenchworks from the Swiss border to the North Sea that separated some combatants by half a mile and others by half a football field. Next, a series of dioramas, uniform and weapons displays, and interactive kiosks take visitors methodically through the key battles around Ypres, including the 1917 battles for Passchendaele, the high ground to the east that was occupied by the Germans. As museum-goers travel from room to room in the château, strategies, tactics and everyday life on a battlefield that moved hardly at all for four years are explained in ways that are informative yet not so detailed as to lose the average visitor.

For instance, we learn that on April 22, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans opened canisters of chlorine gas, letting the winds carry some 171 tons across No Man’s Land. It was so effective that it struck some 10,000 Territorial French and colonial Algerian and Moroccan troops, with half dying within 10 minutes of the greenish-yellow gas reaching the front line. Two days later, the Germans gassed the 1st Canadian Division outside St. Julien. Display cases not only show the masks, uniforms, shells and mortars that the Germans used to carry out these attacks, but visitors can try on gas masks or stick their noses into a wooden box to sample what some of these gases smelled like.

For the next two years (1915-17), the lines around Ypres remained basically unchanged. But several dioramas and display cases show a massive array of knives, brass knuckles, clubs and other homemade weapons that small units used on nightly trench raids, where the hand-to-hand fighting was as brutal as any ever seen.

The Ypres Salient heated up again from July through November 1917 with a series of battles, including the First and Second Battle of Passchendaele, which the Australians called “passion dale” or “valley of suffering.”

“As we dug, our shovels encountered guns, ammo belts and cartridges from 1914, proof this wasn’t the first time this ground had drunk blood,” says German Lt. Ernst Junger of the 73rd Fusilier Regiment on one of the wall panels.

Rain was an enemy on a landscape whose trees and other foliage were destroyed by near-constant shelling. This is shown in grainy photos of dozens of men struggling to move artillery pieces, and is brought into clear focus by a quotation from Lt. Patrick Campbell of C Battery of the 150th Royal Field Artillery: “It had been a green hill when I first saw it,” he wrote of Passchendaele, “but now it is just beige mud.”

One of the bunk rooms in the underground portion of the Passchendaele museum.

One of the bunk rooms in the underground portion of the Passchendaele museum.

By 1918, both sides had been entrenched for nearly four years. This is where the museum goes underground, showing what life was like 20 feet down in some of the 200 deep bunkers built on this section of the front. In addition to displays of tools, uniforms, air pumps and dioramas re-creating bunk rooms, aid stations and toilets, there are artificial sounds of explosions, drilling and digging. Adding further to the authenticity are the creaking boards that give under your weight as you walk along subterranean passageways amid dim lighting.

The Shell Room.

The Shell Room.

At the end of the bunker complex is a large room with a 15cm Schwere Feldhaubitze M13, a German howitzer in the center, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling display cases filled with examples of the four million shells the British fired at the Germans over just 10 days in July 1917.

Tyne Cot Cemetery.

Tyne Cot Cemetery.

Next is a short film, presented in English, that ties it all together like no other I’ve ever seen. There is a large screen and an interactive map below it. At the start of the film, the map is mostly dark except for one corner near Ypres that was held by the Allies at the start of the 1917 offensives. As the Allies advance in the film, the map lights up, showing their progress. On the screen, historic footage is interspersed with modern-day aerial shots showing the terrain as it looks today. This is especially helpful because after viewing the museum many visitors will go to the battle sites mentioned in the film, such as Polygon Wood and Tyne Cot cemetery, one of the most revered sites in British military history.

What’s really stunning is the final analysis of the 1917 Passchendaele battles: 245,000 Allies and 215,000 Germans killed during a 100-day battle to gain just 5 miles.

Part of the trenches at the Passchendaele museum.

Part of the trenches at the Passchendaele museum.

The museum concludes outdoors with a maze of trench works showing how they differed depending on the occupiers. For instance, the British were fond of reinforcing the sides of the trenches and creating dugouts for command posts using corrugated metal. Other trench designers used mesh wire or a latticework of twigs to support the walls. Almost all of these trenches had floorboards to help the soldiers keep their feet dry.

The museums in Albert, Péronne and Verdun are certainly still worth a stop. But if you can visit just one museum on the Western Front, Passchendaele is the place to go.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Houston. His newest book is “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir” (Stay Thirsty Publishing).

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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