The Passchendaele 1917 Museum was not one I had researched or planned to visit during this trip. Not sure what there was to see and do, but having spotted leaflets just about everywhere we went in Flanders I thought we might as well go since we were in the area.
The little village of Zonnebeke is only five miles north-east of Ypres, a tiny place and we parked on the main (only) street and headed in through the museum gates. A gorgeous setting, there was a lovely park and gardens beside a lake. Later we discovered the museum is housed in what was once a castle. After it was bombed in World War 1 they built a chalet style mansion house instead – not your typical museum for sure. A playground and plenty of space to run around and let off steam before the serious stuff indoors worked well for Son.
The museum focuses mainly on the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Entrance was remarkably cheap, I thought it would be a small place and we’d spend an hour or so inside. Wrong on all counts – it was huge, extensive and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring. Split into several different sections, the first part was just like a traditional museum. Full of artefacts and exhibits in glass cases explaining the background to the battle and other aspects of the war. Husband and I found it all compelling, Son not so much. We were rushed through more than a bit by him, he found it a little dry and had no concentration or desire to read all the heavy stuff. There were a few hands on items which he enjoyed, but eager to move through quickly, we had no choice but to follow.
A fascinating area lay just ahead – an impressive reconstruction of the dugouts. We went down a whole series of steps and ended up twenty feet under the ground. An extensive warren of corridors to explore, lots of rooms, nooks and crannies to look in and touching was not off limits. This definitely appealed to Son – well all of us actually. We checked out the first aid room, Son tried out a very uncomfortable soldier’s bed and was more than a bit interested in those communal toilets. Dark and gloomy with sounds and smells of the time made for a very effective and memorable experience.
We emerged above ground and found a more modern area with exhibits on the Commonwealth battalions and soldiers. They had weapons displays and an absorbing film in a little cinema all about the Battle of Passchendaele.
The highlight was yet to come. Having been in the real trenches that morning, we were all fascinated to be able to explore an extensive replica trench here. They have a reworking of the British and German trenches using the same materials and same methods of construction as those in 1914-1918. Intriguing to see how the trenches would have looked and plenty of information to read and take in throughout this little tour.
The last and final part of the museum was more reflective. Assorted artefacts and artwork on display and a real focus on the futility of war. Absorbing and a fitting end to what turned out to be the most incredible museum. If you are ever in this area, don’t miss this place.