Memorial Museum Paschendaele 1917
More background info:
Passchendaele (old spelling), alternately Passendale (current spelling) and sometimes corrupted to “Passiondale” by English-speaking soldiers, is a village on the Ypres Salient
on a ridge, which made it a strategically valuable position in WW1
. In the British offensive that became the Third Battle of Ypres, this ridge was one of the key battlefields and hence the name often stands for the entire operation: Battle of Passchendaele.
The village of Passendale, alongside a few further villages along the ridge, was completely obliterated. The British/Commonwealth “push” did succeed in capturing some previously German-held ground, but only about 5 miles (8 km) deep, and at a terrible cost. Estimates of the number of casualties on both sides usually exceed 400,000, the museum itself quotes 600,000 fallen in just 100 days. Operations were complicated by extremely adverse weather, with heavy rain making the battlefield moonscape, ploughed through from constant shelling, a bog of slimy mud, in which it became as good as impossible to move.
Eventually the Allies managed to establish a new front line and began digging in – as above ground no cover from enemy fire in the form of trees or buildings was left. The tunnelling companies who had been successful in setting off 19 deep mines below German lines in the previous Battle of Messines (see Ypres
, Hooge Crater
) were sent north to the new front around Passchendaele and hundreds of dugouts were constructed – whole towns underground, for thousands and thousands of soldiers.
After the war the entrances to these underground structures were covered and they became more or less forgotten, unless an opening in the ground with an old dugout beyond is discovered by accident, as has happened on a few occasions. Some of theses tunnel systems are said to be relatively intact still, though mostly flooded by groundwater and inaccessible to the public. But at the Passchendaele 1917 Museum the basement has been turned in to a relatively convincing replica dugout, so you can get an impression today of what these structures were like.
The Museum began on a smaller scale, occupying just the second floor of the Zonnebeke Château under the name of Streekmuseum from 1989 until 2002. After extensive refurbishment and enlargement it reopened in 2004 under its current name. In preparation for the war’s centenary the open-air replica trench systems outside were added as well as further exhibition elements.
What there is to see:
As you approach the pretty building that the museum is housed in you pass some flag poles flying the national flags of the various countries that were involved in WW1
. By the entrance is some artwork fashioned from an old shell and battlefield debris. Inside on the ground floor are already a few exhibits but the exhibition proper starts upstairs.
Like at the other significant WW1 museums in the region (In Flanders Fields
, Yser Tower
), the text panels are multilingual: Flemish/Dutch, French, English and also German (though not throughout, if I remember correctly).
On display are thousands of objects: soldiers’ personal belongings, dummies in various uniforms, helmets, communications and listening gear, field hospital equipment and so on and so forth, as well as literally hundreds of shells, many in bright colours. Standing out is the section on the use of chemical warfare. In addition to various gas masks from both sides, there is also a station where you can lift little lids to poke your nose into the cavity beneath to get a whiff of the odours of four types of poison gas!
There are other interactive elements too, including even a British steel helmet that visitors can try on – and view themselves in a little mirror. In addition to all the artefacts, there are also photos and videos showing scenes from the war.
One side topic is the role of women in the war – ranging widely from being the objects of sexual fantasies and pornography for soldiers (cf. Yser Tower
, which has some of the same photos on display) to active service in the military hospitals and to the introduction of women finally being allowed to vote, as one positive outcome of the war for women’s rights.
A specific highlight in this museum is the dugout reconstruction in the basement. As a prelude there’s a display of items retrieved from old dugouts against a photo from such an archaeological site. Then you go down the steps to a full-scale dugout replica, based on those archaeological finds. It’s really quite impressive. You pass sleeping bunks, communication posts, a first-aid station, a kitchen and even latrines, all peopled by dummies in period dress/uniform (in the case of the dummy on the latrine, the trousers are down).
After the dugout part the exhibition continues with displays of yet more colourful shells, big guns, mortars, machine guns, and so on, but also some prosthetics for those who lost limbs as a result of the shelling. The topic of death is also signified through a life-size cart with wooden coffins. On a smaller scale are various models/dioramas including WW1-era planes.
You then move on to the trench reconstructions, both in the Allied and the German styles (cf. Bayernwald
). You can walk through the trenches and enter shelters made with corrugated steel plates which are from an original archaeological site.
The latest addition to the complex is the American Relief House, which, as you might expect, focuses on the impact the USA
’s joining the war had, late in the war in combat, but before that also through the relief efforts made to alleviate the suffering of the civilian population. Finally there’s a scale model of more dugouts underneath some ruins above ground. The museum also has a shop selling the usual brochures, books, postcards and so on, as well as Passendale beer!
All in all, this is a nicely varied museum, with a good mix of artefacts (a bit en masse in the case of the shells), interactive elements, photographic and video material, and especially some life-size reconstructions, namely the truly impressive dugout reconstruction and the (somewhat less impressive) trench reconstructions outside. Certainly one of the better WW1 museums in the area.
inside and around the Zonnebeke Château (Kasteel Zonnebeke) in the village of the same name, ca. 5 miles (8 km) north-east of Ypres
Access and costs: easy by car, less so by public transport; mid-priced.
Details: Getting to Zonnebeke by public transport is possible, there are buses from Ypres (line 94), but you’d have to get out either at Klooster or Plaats and walk the rest. If coming by car, take the N332 eastwards and in Zonnebeke turn right into Berten Pilstraat, from where the car park for the museum is signposted. Parking at the site is free.
Opening times: daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed between 16 December and end of January!
Admission (audio guide included): 10.50 EUR (some concessions apply)
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Right behind the museum is a large park and memorial garden featuring various monuments for the different nations who fought in WW1
, so that makes a natural add-on.
The closest other WW1 site nearby is Tyne Cot cemetery
, which is within walking or cycling distance along a dedicated path; or a short drive away.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The museum is surrounded by a pleasant park and memorial garden around a lake, so it’s quite a nice spot in itself. The region otherwise isn’t overly rich in tourist attractions. WW1 really dominates the industry here.
- Passendale 01 - pretty museum building
- Passendale 02 - shell man
- Passendale 03 - downstairs
- Passendale 04 - exhibition upstairs
- Passendale 05 - gas mask
- Passendale 06 - another, cruder type of gas mask
- Passendale 07 - sniff the odor of four types of poison gas
- Passendale 08 - medical kit
- Passendale 09 - war-era porn on display
- Passendale 10 - going down
- Passendale 11 - steps into the dug-out reconstruction
- Passendale 12 - underground sleeping quarters
- Passendale 13 - Brit at work
- Passendale 14 - underground hospital
- Passendale 15 - kitchen
- Passendale 16 - latrine
- Passendale 17 - colourful shells
- Passendale 18 - big gun
- Passendale 19 - mortar
- Passendale 20 - helmets
- Passendale 21 - carrier pigeon
- Passendale 22 - try your steady hand at defusing a shell here
- Passendale 23 - prosthetics
- Passendale 24 - death
- Passendale 25 - trench reconstructions outside
- Passendale 26 - model
- Passendale 27 - with dug-outs