8 World War I museums to visit
Patricia Stoughton picks 8 museums on the Western Front that chart the horror and history of World War 1 and sees how they explain the conflict to modern audiences, and show the conditions that soldiers endured in the trenches
Le Musée de la Bataille de Fromelles, Nord
The Battle of Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916, which claimed the lives of more than 1,700 Australian soldiers and 500 British troops, and left nearly 5,000 other casualties, will be commemorated at a new museum in the commune of Bois-Grenier just west of Lille. The attack was mounted in a failed attempt to draw the Germans away from the bigger battle on the Somme. Although the tragedy was eclipsed in Britain by the slaughter on the Somme, Fromelles is remembered in Australia as the worst 24 hours in its military history.
The old museum in the mairie has been closed and its collection of uniforms, equipment, photos, documents and battlefield objects will be displayed in its replacement, which is due to open early in 2014 next to Pheasant Wood Cemetery.
Fromelles has taken on added significance since the Commonwealth War Graves Commission oversaw the exhumation of the remains of 250 Allied soldiers, 119 of whom have been identified. In 2010 the Prince of Wales inaugurated the cemetery (pictured above) where the troops were reinterred, the first to be built by the commission for 50 years.
Tel: (Fr) 3 20 77 98 54
www.ccweppes.fr Maison Forestière, Ors, Nord
New projects along the Western Front that have already been completed include the house just outside Ors where, sheltering in its cramped cellar, the 25-year-old English poet Wilfred Owen wrote a final letter to his mother on 31 October 1918. He was killed in action on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal on 4 November, just a week beforethe Armistice.
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The house has been transformed by the British artist Simon Patterson into an all-white building (including the blocked-in windows) as “a commemoration of Owen, a venue for poetry, a place for contemplation rather than a museum or monument.”
Viewed from behind, the roof appears like an open book, placed face down, with light flowing in through a sloping window representing the pages. Inside, stripped of its internal structure, the walls are lined with opalescent glass engraved with the draft manuscript of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. Poems are projected on to the walls during readings recorded in English and French by the actors Sir Kenneth Branagh and Philippe Capelle respectively. The effect is both beautiful and haunting.
The tiny crypt-like brick cellar where Owen took refuge is the most direct link with the young poet. Apart from repairs, it has been left exactly as it was. The poignant recording of his last letter to his mother reaches out across time.
Tel: (Fr) 3 27 77 62 10
www.wilfredowen.org.uk/the-foresters-house Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, Somme
An international museum and research centre, the Historial takes a historical and cultural approach to World War I, with clear explanations of the conflict, its origins and lasting effects. Not only are there comparisons between the armies of Britain, France and Germany, but also a focus on the experience of soldiers and civilians.
There is a fine collection of maps, uniforms and equipment, propaganda posters and battlefield artefacts, but to experience the harsh impact of war, go to the Central Room. Here, life-size and larger photographs of people from all round the world before the outbreak of hostilities are contrasted with Der Krieg (War), a series of powerful prints by the German artist Otto Dix. He was deeply affected by his experiences in the trenches and it was not until 1923 that he felt able to work on his ‘50 moments of horror’. These nightmarish, pain-racked images were his attempt to force society to face up to what it had allowed to happen. It does not make easy viewing, but brings home the reality of war and its emotional effects.
In 2012 the museum put on an exhibition, Missing of the Somme – Missing but not Forgotten, to mark the 80th anniversary of the official opening of the Thiépval Memorial about 30 kilometres to the north-west. It was curated by Pam and Ken Linge, who set up a research project run from the Thiépval Memorial Visitor Centre where 72,000 officers and men with ‘no known grave’ are commemorated.
The centre opened in 2004 and has close links with the Historial. Information and photographs come from families and regimental historians, and the database is updated regularly. Anyone with information is asked to contact email@example.com
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 83 14 18
www.historial.org Fort de Seclin, Nord
This museum is housed in a camouflaged fort that was built as part of Lille’s defensive system in 1874 after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, but never used. When Lille fell at the outbreak of World War I, the Germans turned it into a barracks and munitions store. Its decommissioning by the French army in 1996 came at a perfect time for the Boniface family, who were looking for somewhere to house their collection of World War I artillery pieces and memorabilia. They bought and restored the building, before opening the well-designed galleries in 2003. Visitors come across the fort almost by surprise as it is hidden from above by grass and trees growing from the roofs.
Tel: (Fr) 3 20 97 14 18, www.fortseclin.jux.com Musée Somme 1916, Albert, Somme
This fascinating museum is set in part of a system of tunnels that first acted as a refuge from invaders in the Middle Ages. Running from under the Basilique Notre-Dame de Brebières to a nearby park, the main tunnel is 10 metres below ground and 250 metres long, and illustrates conditions during the battles of the Somme.
Life-size scenes include sleeping quarters, military operations rooms, hospital wards, store rooms and – new for 2013 – a sniper position and a German trench. Museum president Thierry Gourlin said: “Every year during the winter closure, the museum acquires new artefacts, often from the public, which enhance the authenticity of the scenes.”
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 75 16 17
www.musee-somme-1916.eu La Caverne du Dragon, Musée du Chemin des Dames, Oulches-La-Vallée-Foulon, Aisne
The Dragon’s Cave museum south of Laon is a gloomy underworld that was used as barracks by both sides during the war and where visitors are immersed in the precariousness of daily life at the Front as they explore a series of galleries.
A strategically important defensive position for the French, it was seized by the Germans in January 1915. After extensive tunnelling, they linked two quarries and hollowed out a complex of rooms and passages 15 metres below ground, all equipped with water, electricity and other amenities. There were firing positions, first-aid posts, a hospital, dormitories and a chapel. In the chaos of war, the position changed hands several times and for three months in 1917, French and German troops were living within a few yards of each other underground.
The museum’s focus on remembrance includes the light installation Flambeaux de la Mémoire, a display of trench art and exhibitions on aspects of the Chemin des Dames, a ridge-top road that saw several battles. The peaceful Aisne countryside today belies the slaughter that took place less than 100 years ago.
Tel: (Fr) 3 23 25 14 18
www.caverne-du-dragon.fr The Western Front museums are taking part in The Great War Remembered, a project to gather information about individual soldiers and support staff, and what happened to them. Visit www.1418remembered.co.uk BELGIUM
Several museums across the border complement the work of those in France. They include:
In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres
Reopened in June 2012, in the restored Cloth Hall in the centre of Ypres (Ieper), the museum explores the history of the battles of Ypres through interactive maps, uniforms, life-size dioramas and an imaginative use of technology.
Photographs include images of the present-day landscape juxtaposed with those showing the wartime devastation. There is also a collection of modern aerial photographs showing surviving traces of the conflict.
The museum focuses on individual stories and displays of personal effects: a film shows soldiers on the battlefield interspersed with medical testimonies, and visitors can wear a ‘poppy bracelet’ that activates the personal experiences of four combatants. The combination of harrowing photographs hidden within four tall, wraithlike cloth structures and haunting music by English rock singer Stuart Staples take the overall historical experience to a deeper level.
The town pays its own tribute at 8pm every day when traffic stops as The Last Post is sounded at the Menin Gate in memory of the fallen.
Tel: (Bel) 57 23 92 20
www.flandersfields.be The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, Zonnebeke
Set in a rebuilt château, the museum charts the five battles of the Ypres Salient, focusing on the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, which left half a million casualties.
Photographs, battlefield objects and life-size scenes show the military and technical evolution of the war, while a reconstruction of a front-line dugout contains a communication post, dressing station and sleeping quarters. The museum has expanded to include a remembrance gallery, open-air trenches and an underground wing devoted to Passchendaele.
Tel: (Bel) 51 77 04 41