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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

Exploring the Flanders region with it’s World War history

Updated: Feb 17

Europe is a fascinating place to explore with so many beautiful destinations to see, cultures to check out, food to try but also it is full of history. However, a lot of history is very dark, especially when it comes to war. The continent has many of these but not as bad as the First World War and the Second World War. The country of Belgium on the north-western mainland of Europe has been caught up in it twice in a very big way and to be honest, my knowledge of the events which took place here isn’t that great but when I spent a lot of time in Flanders (the western region or otherwise known as the Dutch region), over the last decade, I have explored various sites. I used Brugge (Bruges) as a base and the following can be done within a thirty minute to an hour’s drive or train journey. I start off in this post with the World War history before mentioning the ‘fun’ touristy stuff further on. 

Canals of Brugge, Flanders region of Belgium
The beautiful buildings overlooking the canal in Brugge

Quick overview


Wanna know how World War One started? Then go to your library and read up about it, otherwise I will be writing a book. However in a nutshell, there was some tension with that Austrian-Hungarian Empire, someone shot a man called Franz Ferdinand whilst touring the Balkans, Austria wanted to declare war on Serbia but wouldn’t in case Russia who supported Serbia would come barge in in from the east and give the mighty Austrian-Hungo Empire a good run for their money. However Germany reassured Austria that they would join forces, declared war on Serbia and whooooaaaaa, it all got a bit crazy with all the European powers and Germany/Austria-Hungarian Empire taking on all of Europe. However Germany took on most of the attacking and did a lot of naughty things like killing people, taking land etc. Eventually the Austrian-Hungary Empire collapsed, Germany defeated, a few treaties signed and the world was at peace, for now.  

Belgium border at De Panne, Flanders.
Welcome to Belgium (de Panne)

Belgium was at the forefront of most of the attacks as Germany conquered Western Europe. However with Allied forces from the likes of Great Britain, United States of America and Canada to name a few coming over the water for a little game of ‘Go away Germany for peace sake’, a lot of battles took place in this part of the world as well as Northern France. A lot of trench warfare took place around the town of Ieper (Ypres in French) and that’s where I will start. 

Hill 62, Flanders region, Belgium
Checking out a trench at Hill 62 near Ieper

Ieper (Ypres)


The town is located a few miles from the French border and was one of the major hotspots of the war. Famous for being a linen town and has stood here since the first century AD (the Romans came through here and raided of course), the town has been under lots of different empires and countries over the years but eventually came under the Kingdom of Belgium when formed. The town became famous for its position in the First World War and about three battles were fought here or on the outskirts of town. The most famous battle was Passchendaele in which Allied forces fought for months, only to push the Germans back a few miles. Over half a million people lost their lives on both sides and the town of Ieper was totally obliterated by artillery fire. During the war English-speaking soldiers often called the town (Ieper/Ypres) Wipers, a funny mispronunciation which caught on and English folk still call the town that today. Other mispronunciations in the town are Whyteshaete (White Street) and Ploegsteert (Plug Street) and there is probably a list somewhere out there with more crazy street names which were mispronounced. Getting back to the war, Ieper was one of the places that hosted an unofficial Christmas Truce in 1914 where German and British soldiers put down their guns and played a game of football, had tea (maybe some fish and chips from nearby Oostende) and sang carols. It didn’t last long of course before the bloodshed began.


Another fact I found out is that Adolf Hilter during the First World War fought for the Germans (despite being Austrian-Hungarian Empire back then) and got injured nearby, so he got sent back to Germany to be repaired so that in later years after starting a political career, he became that ‘man’ who started World War Two and part of his army came back to Ieper for another battle in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s. I bet the locals or the British were thinking they should have killed him off whilst they had the chance.


Walking around Ieper I also learnt that the United Kingdom’s King George V awarded the city the Military Cross, awarded for bravery, loss and spirit to all the local people and army personnel. Ieper was one of only two cities to get this award, the other being Verdun in France. This happened in 1920 and a few years later, the cross (along with the French cross which was also awarded to the city) was added to the city’s coat of arms. Ieper also has the title of ‘city of peace’ and has a close friendship with another town on which war had an impact on and that is Hiroshima in Japan. Both towns witnessed the war at its worst, Ieper was one of the first places where chemical warfare was used and Hiroshima saw nuclear warfare being used for the first time. 


That’s the history story I learnt about the city but here are the top sights to see. The city was rebuilt after the First (and more rebuilding done after the Second) World Wars, which was mostly paid for by Germany in reparations (you destroyed us, you rebuilt us!) with buildings such as the stunning Cloth Hall and Town Hall with the main square to its original appearance. The rest of the town looks more modern. The Cloth Hall is the main building in the centre of the city and hosts the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ which is a fantastic museum to visit and most of it is dedicated to the city’s role in the First World War. First built in the thirteenth century, the Cloth Hall was one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages. There is also a belfry in the middle of the building and in 1999, the Cloth Hall was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cloth Hall in Ieper, Flanders region of Belgium,
Cloth Hall in Ieper

Nearby is Saint Martin’s Cathedral which was built in 1221 but again was reconstructed after the war in its Gothic-style facades. The only difference now is that the spire is a lot higher.

 Saint Martin’s Cathedral, Ieper, Flanders, Belgium
Saint Martin’s Cathedral

However for me the main landmark has to be the Menin Gate. This massive memorial is dedicated to those soldiers of the British Commonwealth (but not including Newfoundland and New Zealand) who lost their lives in Ieper and surrounding area during the First World War before 16th August 1917 and have no known grave. Other servicemen who died after that date are named on the memorial at Tyne Cot elsewhere in Belgium. When a serviceman is identified, a grave is made for them and their names are removed from the gate. 

The gate itself is located on the road which heads out east (to which most of the fighting took place as the German army came from the east) and many of the solides never returned. Now I was fortunate enough to have a beer in a bar next to the gate and one evening before 20:00 (with a pint of one of Belgium’s beers), I stood outside and heard the ‘Last Post’ (which is a bugle call used by the British and Australian armies), being played. This has happened every evening since it started in 1928 (apart from that dark time known as the Second World War when Ieper was occupied by Germany - again!). The local fire brigade are the guys who play this to honour the memory of the British and Commonwealth armies who fought and died in the area. It is quite a moving experience and did have a tear from one eye as I watched on. I also noticed all the local traffic stopped and the engines switched off. The locals know what to do when 20:00 approaches every day and they are very respectful when honouring this moment. A few minutes later life got back to normal, cars are moving and I was back in the bar talking to the barman about Belgian life.


"Who will remember, passing through this Gate,

The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?"

-- Siegfried Sassoon, On Passing the Menin Gate

Sanctuary Wood Museum (Hill 62)


Exactly three kilometers from the Menin Gate (heading eastwards - signposted of the N8 road between Ieper and Kortrijk), is Sanctuary Wood (also known as Hill 62) where a lot of bloody warfare took place. However after the First World War a farmer returned to his land and checked out the woodland he left four years earlier. He cleared a lot of the debris and trenches by the Germans (and casualties of course), but for some reason he left the British trench system alone. This is now one of the original trench systems which has been left alone and visitors can check out. Most trench systems in the area were filled in and plowed over by returning farmers.    


There is a museum here which is privately owned by the grandson of the farmer who reclaimed his land in 1919. Inside is a lot of equipment and other materials which were found in the fields which were used during the war. There were some interesting findings and probably one of the best museums I have come across for World War history. 


Diksmuide


22km north of Ieper is the small town of Diksmuide and not too far from the coastline of Belgium. The town also got caught up in heavy fighting in World War One and like Ieper was completely destroyed and was rebuilt in the 1920s. The town is famous for having one of the Belfry’s which is part of UNESCO's world heritage site list and is famous for the dairy industry in the area. However there is a huge tower next to the canal which can be seen for miles and that is the Yser Tower (IJzertoren). This is a huge memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Battle of the Yser during the First World War. There is a lot of history regarding this tower, so forgive me, here are my findings from my two trips to the memorial which also hosts a museum inside the tower (and I also got amazing view points from the top).

Belgium, Belgium, Belgium, how I love my neighbours across the sea. However Belgium back in the day before the First World War was very French speaking (especially in the Army) and Flemish folk (who spoke a Dutch language but with little differences to their neighbours to the north in the Netherlands), were always being felt if they were left out. Well, during the First World War, a lot of soldiers were recruited to join the fight and get down those trenches which were popping up all around the area. However most of the soldiers were Flemish and after the war, Belgium after doing the figures, had about 80% of the army who were Flemish! Now you could imagine how the locals felt around these parts so during the war the Flemish Movement was created and the demand for more Flemish rights in Belgium was the aim of the game.

After the war the Yser Tower was built and was built by an organisation of former Flemish soldiers. The main language in the army and in government was still French and then Hilter and his buddies from the east came storming through Belgium very quickly at the start of the Second World War. Some of the Flemish folk gained sympathy for the Germans as their politics fitted in with theirs, the language was easier to understand than the French and they were kinda hoping the Dutch language would be recognised in Belgium (but German-occupied) politics. Eventually the Second World War was over and the Belgium government got really pissed off with some of the Flemish folk who got involved with the Germans, so in the end 242 people were convicted and executed, most of whom were in the resistance. A lot of monuments were destroyed which included the Yser Tower. In the 1950s the second Yser Tower was built on the same site and there is also a new Gate of Peace built at the entrance of the grounds. And coming up to the present day, the tower is still a symbol of Flemish nationalism.

The tower, memorial and museum is a great way to get a good understanding of the battles which took place in the fields around here and to get some idea of Flemish nationalism. I spent a good couple of hours here taking in all the information, looking at posters and above all, taking in the peaceful views from the top. 


So these are the top sights I would recommend visiting this part of Flanders in Western Belgium. However everywhere you go there will be history. Every town, village, field will have something to do with both wars. There are cemeteries everywhere as well. For me personally, I don’t think I have any family members who fought in the battles here, (my mother found three of our family members who died at Loos and in the Somme in France and my blog post can be found here), but it is still a touching experience to go to these places and really get a few of what the locals, the armies, the cowes were facing when the Germans decided to pop through twice and caused a lot of bloodshed.


We shall not forget.  

Brugge (Bruges in French) 


Brugge is a fantastic destination to visit whilst in Belgium and is known as the ‘Venice of the North’. I have been here countless times and at one point, was coming here every weekend so I could see Olga (my wife) before we got married many years ago.


I totally love Brugge. I love walking down the cobble streets on quiet evenings, going up the belfry tower to see all the rooftops down below, taking in the canals and of course, cycling in the area as I never felt so safe before. Brugge is one of those cities where all the top things to do and see can be done in a day but like the locals say, why rush the trip? Stay longer and see what else there is to do. However the surrounding area has a lot going for itself also so in this guide I also added what there is to do nearby.

Starting off with the main square in the heart of the city (known as Markt) which is the most visited place. The Belfry is the most noticeable sight overlooking the square and was the main lookout point for the city, to see if advancing armies were coming or a fire burning down a building. These days visitors to the city can walk up the staircase to the top of the tower (which was used in the film ‘In Bruges’ with Colin Farrell in 2008). The views from up here are amazing and I love checking out the rooftops of the city.

In the middle of the square is the statue of Pieter de Coninck and Jan Breydel who are heroes of the city as they resisted French oppression when the French wanted to take over the area in the 13th century.

Brugge, Flanders region of Belgium

The buildings surrounding the square are beautiful. In fact, I find them amazing. However, one of my favourites is the Provincial Palace which has a Gothic feel to it. The building was used to be a warehouse where goods were loaded and unloaded along the canals that run alongside the square (but only until the 18th century). Did you know that the canals are still here next to the square, but they have been covered over by buildings and roads.

Provincial Palace, Brugge, Flanders region of Belgium

Not too far away and behind the Provincial Palace is Burg Square. First inhabited in 2AD, the square with its buildings around it became the base for the Court of Flanders. There is a building here which started out as the Palace of the Liberty of Bruges before being turned into law courts. Now the building stands as the City Hall. To the left of the city hall is the old Court of Justice (amazing Renaissance architecture here guys!) and to the right is the Basilica of the Holy Blood. 

Burg Square, Brugge, Flanders region of Belgium

One of my favorite places to get a fantastic picture-postcard photo of old buildings in a city with a canal has to be on the road known as Rozenhoedkaai. This is probably the most romantic place in the city and a great place to stop and reflect about life. Even in the evening there is a sense of ‘love in the air’ here.

Did you know the second tallest church tower in the world is located here in Brugge? Well, you do now. At the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Museum of the Church of Our Lady), the 115.5 metre-high tower can be seen for miles (as Brugge and the rest of this region is very flat). Inside the church there is a lot of art to check out which includes Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Don’t forget to check out the crypts. 


Shopping and food in the city: This is a big thing to do in the city and I love coming here to shop. There are so many shops selling clothes, health and beauty products, food but seriously, I love coming here for the chocolates and beer. They are everywhere and a lot of chocolate shops will do tastings before you buy. Also a big appeal for shopping here is that most of the streets around the main squares are traffic free and people can move around freely. Don’t forget to try Belgium Fries (French fries come from Belgium) and waffles!


Talking about shopping, Brugge is one of my favourite places in Europe to go for Christmas Markets. I love walking around the cabins, checking out the gifts, food, and drink on sale. There is usually an ice rink in the middle of Markt square. Combine this with a meal at a nearby restaurant or drinks in a bar, walking along the canals, the magic of Christmas combined with the stunning buildings and surroundings and the warmth of the local people makes this a truly beautiful experience.  

Gent (Gand/Ghent)


Another charming city to explore in the region is Gent which lies a thirty minute train journey south-east of Brugge. The centre of the city is a car-free zone and with its charming medieval architecture, walking around taking in the urban street views is a pleasant one. The main highlight when in Gent has to be a visit to the Gravensteen, a beautiful castle next to the river which has stood here since 1180 and the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafs) with its impressive tower on the western facade. For me, I personally like checking out the riverside in the heart of the centre and going into the bars and restaurants on the main square which is a great way to end a pleasant day’s sightseeing.

Damme


A nice little side-trip has to be the village of Damme which is only 6km north of Brugge. The best way to get here is to cycle along the canals (one can hire bikes at the main train station) and check out the windmill (which is pretty we may add) before hitting up the centre of the village (the cycle route follows the canal from Brugge passing Damme to Sluis in The Netherlands which isn’t too far to cycle and is also an excellent day out from the centre of Brugge). Here there is a very small square with the main town hall in the centre with quite a few dining out options (and of course a few local bars to enjoy the beers). Near the centre is the ‘Church of our Lady’ where in the ground there is a famous sculpture by Charles Delporte called ‘Blik van Licht’ (A view of light). A little bit freaky with three faces on a head but worth getting freaked out.

De Panne 


The westernmost town in Belgium is on the North Sea coast and has beautiful sandy beaches nearby (but only go on a very hot day here otherwise it can get very cold and windy). The town is an important transport hub for cars (as it's on the main highway between Dunkerque and Brussels) and in the past a lot of drivers would stop here to go ‘shopping’ for cheaper goods like tobacco (on their way to France or Great Britain) and also one of the main train lines from Brussels terminates here (in the past there was a train line from here to Dunkerque but hasn’t operated in years but there are plans to bring it back, instead a bus service operates).


Essential information


How to get to Brugge: Brugge is fairly easy to get to by air, rail, road and even by boat as major cruise ships stop off at nearby Zeebrugge (Brugge by the Sea) and passengers make their way inland to explore the city in a day. The nearest international airport is Brussels and is easy to get to by rail with a connection in the city centre. The main rail route is Ostend to Brussels which goes through Gent (Gand, Ghent) but there is also a railway line which goes south towards Lille in Northern France. If coming from the United Kingdom, there are Eurostar trains from London to Brussels and then a quick change of trains there will see passengers due the journey in around four hours. By road, Brugge has highways going towards Antwerp, Brussels (for roads linking to Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg), Lille (and the rest of France), and Calais/Dunkerque (Dunkirk) for ferries and the Channel Tunnel car-train to the United Kingdom. No excuses, Brugge is easy to get to. From my home town of Stevenage in the UK and Brugge with connections, I can do the journey in under five hours.


Flying into the area: Then we would recommend using Skyscanner to find flights as that is our first point of call. Then if necessary use the airlines directly to find a good deal. We sometimes use Momondo as well to compare prices before booking. Nearest international airports is Brussels, and for budget airlines there is Lille (northern France), Charleroi (south of Brussels) and further afield with good transport links are Luxembourg, Eindhoven and Amsterdam airports. 


Getting around Brugge: Central Brugge is one of those cities which can easily be done on foot especially if staying in accommodation nearby. However if needed there is the local bus service which is operated by De Lijn where one way tickets can cost €1.30 - €2.00 and covers the central zones. However I prefer to cycle and renting a bike is a fantastic way to explore the city. Full-day rentals can cost around €12 and there are plenty of cycle rentals around the city. My top tip for this section is do not get a taxi (sorry taxi firms), but most trips within the centre cost €13.

Bar in Gent, Flanders, Belgium
Gotta have a Leffe whilst in Belgium!

Accommodation: There are a lot of accommodation options and a lot of websites which can do some great deals. Our first point of call is always Booking.com and can offer a range of hostels, hotels, campsites, apartments, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts. After that I always have a look through AirBnb for great deals on apartments and other lodgings especially when traveling as a family. When I go to Brugge, I use the IBIS Budget at the train station which also has a great car park nearby.   


Currency: Belgium uses the Euro currency which is also widely used in most European countries. Currency can be exchanged at the two airports on the island so we would recommend either going to a currency exchange place downtown, to a bank (if they have good rates) or if you got a good bank account with fantastic exchange rates, then use an ATM machine (may incur a small fee but we always do this option as I got good bank accounts). 


Language: Belgium has three official languages. Flemish (Dutch) which is mainly used in the west of the country, Belgium-French which is mainly used in Brussels (Bruxelles) and Wallon region (mainly used in the south and east of the country) and German, which is used by 77,000 people (1% of the population) in the areas ceded by Belgium by the former German Empire in the east of the country. English is spoken a lot by younger people.  


Travel insurance: This is essential to anywhere you go in the world. I always carry travel insurance. Having travel insurance will cover you from theft, illness and those annoying cancellations which can happen on the road. 


Need a visa for Belgium? Always check if you need a visa when coming to Belgium, especially for those who come from outside Europe.


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Disclosure: Please note that while I was not working with any companies in Flanders,  my review and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support! There maybe some links above which are affiliate and are at no additional cost to you. If my readers use them, I earn a commission to buy their products and remember, I only mentioned products and companies I use. The income from this keeps this website going. Thank you.

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