Yser Tower & Museum
More background info:
In August 1914, at the beginning of WW1
, the German Empire invaded neutral Belgium
, after it had refused to grant Germany
free passage to attack France
from the rear from Flanders. After the fall of Liege and Antwerp, the Belgians retreated to a small stretch of Flanders west of the Yser River in October 1914. Meanwhile the German advance had been halted in the Battle of the Marne in France, now the Yser Front became a battleground.
The Belgians flooded the plains between the North Sea coast town of Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide by opening the sluice gates of the Yser at high tide, thus creating a natural barrier that was impassable for the Germans, and so the conflict concentrated on the area around Diksmuide.
Belgian King Albert decided to make a last stand against the Germans and the Belgians succeeded, albeit at the price of terrible losses (on both sides). But the front line more or less stabilized and battle action moved further south to Ypres
(the First Battle of Ypres). This was the time when the so-called “war of movement” ended (in particular the “Race to the Sea”) and the “war of attrition” began, as both sides dug in and trench warfare commenced
At least Belgium
managed to retain a small part of its territory still under Belgian control until the end of the war, though with much-needed support from Britain
, it has to be added.
But still, the fact that the Belgians managed to hold the Yser Front soon made it a focus of the emerging Flemish nationalist movement. Plans for a grand memorial honouring the Flemish soldiers who had fallen here already began before the end of the war, pushed by the Flemish nationalist “Frontbeweging”. In the end a large tower-like cruciform monument was constructed between 1928 and 1930. At the top the abbreviation of the Frontsbeweging’s motto “Alles Voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen Voor Kristus” (‘All for Flanders, Flanders for Christ’) featured: “AVV-VVK”.
Though nominally dedicated to pacifism, the monument became a symbol for Flemish nationalism in the interwar years. Since the Flemish Movement was accused of collaboration with the German Nazi
occupation of Belgium
, members of the Belgian Resistance in a covert act of reprisal now sabotaged the Yser Tower in 1946 – by blowing it up. A few years later renewed efforts were made to re-erect a monument here, now incorporating parts of the ruins of the destroyed tower. While these were kept and integrated into the larger memorial complex, a new tower was built from 1952, based on the first tower’s design, but now even bigger. The new tower was completed in 1965, and stands 275 feet (84m) tall.
The site’s association with Flemish Nationalism has remained controversial, though, especially in the wake of the resurgence of the movement from the 1990s onwards. The annual “Yser Pilgrimage” now also attracted neo-Nazis from other countries. As this was seen as being against the original dedication of the tower to peace (as in to motto “Never Again War”) it led to a deep division within the committee that organizes the pilgrimages.
This is somewhat offset now by the museum housed inside the tower, which is part of a network of Peace Museums (which also includes, among many others, the Mémorial de Caen
and the atomic bombing museums in Hiroshima
.) Thus the peace message has been somewhat restored. The message “No More War” is certainly promoted, spelled out in four languages at the bottom. And the word “PAX” (Latin for ‘peace’) on the gate leading to the tower.
Note that ‘Yser” in Flemish is (somewhat bizarrely) spelled “IJzer”, the Yser Tower is called “IJzertoren” and the museum’s name is “Museum aan de IJzer”.
What there is to see:
The Yser Tower is certainly something very unusual to behold. It’s like an elongated tombstone with a cruciform top in absolutely gigantic dimensions. Its angular shapes and red-brick sternness are very 1920s/30s in style. It does have an element of what’s been dubbed ‘intimidation architecture’ (something the Nazis
employed to great effect). The top bears the huge letters VVK horizontally and AVV vertically (for what it stands for see above
The entrance to the whole complex is through the “Peace Gate”, with the Latin word “Pax” on the front. This was constructed out of the rubble of the first Yser Tower that was dynamited in 1946. The stump of that predecessor can be seen just behind the gate. It is surrounded by a circular wall and has another “VVK-AVV” symbol on top.
As you approach the present Yser Tower and the museum entrance you pass various sculptures made out of rusty old WW1-era shells.
Then you enter the museum part at the bottom of the tower. An introductory video is shown featuring a (mock?) eyewitness talking about the time of the Battle of the Yser (in Flemish/Dutch with French/English/German subtitles). Then you get the lift up to the top of the tower where the exhibition begins. Before you enter it you can take in the views over the surrounding lands and Diksmuide town through the large glass panels to which the AVK-AVV letters are attached.
The exhibition is spread over 22 floors – that’s right, 22! Of course each floor isn’t very big – it’s usually four rooms wrapped around the central staircase, which features a timeline beginning in 1914 and progressing in time as you descend the floors.
All text panels are in four languages: Flemish/Dutch, French, English and German – many of the labels of individual exhibits, however, are only monolingual. The exhibition is organized partly chronologically, partly thematically.
It begins with the outbreak of WW1
and ordinary life before war hit
the region of Flanders. Many examples of war propaganda of the time are on display, as are newspaper cuttings of the early reporting on the war.
The next sections are about the war in Flanders
, the muddy terrain, and various artefacts are on display. A separate section deals with the use of poison gas
as a weapon of war. An unusual exhibit in this context is a station where you can sniff the odour of chlorine or mustard gas! (Cf. also Passchendaele 1917 Museum
and IWM North
!) Other objects are more conventional, and, as you would expect, include not only gas masks from both sides, but also various rifles
and machine guns
of all sizes, from small to absolutely massive. One section has displays of empty spent shells reused as urns. Another section is about animals in war, e.g. trench dogs or homing pigeons for carrying messages.
The medical side of war is another topic. And here one focus is the story of two British nurses, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm who arrived at the Flemish town of Pervyse by motorcycle and set up a first aid post right behind the front line, after they had observed too many soldiers dying on the long transports from the front to field hospitals located way behind the front line. Saving many a life that way, they acquired nicknames like “the Angels” or “the Madonnas”.
Another section portrays life in Belgium
under German occupation
and the day-to-day struggle for survival of the civilian population. Back to soldiers’ trench life, a sensitive subtopic is that of sexual deprivation, alleviated either by love letters, porn or “visiting” prostitutes.
The horrors of war wounds and mutilation are also covered, and this is contrasted with the tradition of handing out medals, adding questions such as “Would you want to be disfigured in exchange for a medal?” or “Would you give back your medal if this would also make your scars disappear?”
Also featured in the exhibition is a life-size reconstruction of dugouts and trenches populated by soldier dummies, resting, operating radios, carrying casualties, and so forth. Personal items found in the trenches and battlefields are also displayed. The long dark wood-clad corridors dimly illuminated by small red lights certainly convey a claustrophobic atmosphere.
Eventually we come to the end of the war
and the topic of post-war remembrance
and commemoration. Here the Yser Tower’s own history becomes an issue, especially the controversial associations with Flemish right-wing nationalism
). But these are declared to now be firmly “in the past”.
Back at the base of the tower
, there are yet more exhibition rooms
, with larger life-size dioramas of trench scenes, a dressing station, as well as a large painting. There is also a museum shop
that sells not just the usual brochures, postcards and so on but also bottles of beer with WW1
Outside, next to the tower is an original wooden shed of the type built en masse after the war as quick and easy housing for all those returning refugees who found their original homes destroyed by the war. Inside are yet more displays and audiovisual elements.
in a field just to the west of the small Flemish town of Diksmuide, in West Flanders, Belgium
, a good 10 miles (17 km) south of the North Sea coast and about 13 miles (21 km) north of Ypres
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track, but not difficult to get to (at least by car)
You can get to Diksmuide by train, but even though the train line passes the tower just metres away, the station of the town is a bit under a mile (1.3 km) from it, a ca. 15-minute walk. But it’s much more convenient to get there by your own means of transport. If coming by car (either from the north or south, e.g. from Ypres
, via the N369, or via the N35 if coming from the east or west), you can find a field-cum-car-park to the south-east of the tower.
Opening hours of the museum: daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., from 10 a.m. on weekends and public holidays, and closing an hour earlier in winter; closed altogether between Christmas and early January.
Admission: 8 EUR (children under 7 and people with disabilities 4 EUR)
Time required: around two hours
Combinations with other dark destinations:
A 20-minute walk or 4-minute drive (1.2 miles/1.8 km) along the Yser River north of the Tower and museum is another significant WW1
-related site, the so-called “Doodengang
”, or ‘Trenches of Death
’. This is a network of preserved/reconstructed trenches and bunkers from the Yser Front, now a memorial with a new visitor centre having been added for the Great War centenary (open Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on weekends and public holidays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission 5 EUR).
Further afield is Ypres
, about half an hour’s drive (15 miles / 25 km) away to the south of Diksmuide, with its plethora of WW1-related museums, memorials and war cemeteries of the Ypres Salient
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
This is not the most attractive part of the world, unless you like you scenery utterly flat and mostly featureless – but see under Belgium
- Yser 01 - IJzer Gate
- Yser 02 - tower housing the museum
- Yser 03 - heap of rusting shells outside
- Yser 04 - intro film inside
- Yser 05 - view down from the top of the tower
- Yser 06 - visitation starts at the top
- Yser 07 - then you work your way down the stairs
- Yser 08 - exhibition
- Yser 09 - war relics
- Yser 10 - helmets
- Yser 11 - war propaganda
- Yser 12 - gas masks
- Yser 13 - you can even sample the odor of poison gas
- Yser 14 - guns and big shell
- Yser 15 - shells on shelves
- Yser 16 - nurses
- Yser 17 - steps down to a dug-out mock-up
- Yser 18 - in the dug-out
- Yser 19 - trench warfare
- Yser 20 - casualty
- Yser 21 - extra exhibition rooms at the base of the tower
- Yser 22 - historic hut outside the tower
- Yser 23 - unusual site