One hundred years after World War I, the visible traces of the world’s first global conflict continue to bear testimony to the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of men and women in Belgium. Bunkers, monuments, cemeteries and cratered landscapes are so many reminders frozen in time that beckon to remembrance tourists.
Ever since the end of the war, former combatants, relatives or simple visitors have flocked to the battlefields to discover or rediscover the war in all its horror. While the Belgians commemorate the end of the conflict on 11 November each year, it is mainly Britons who make the pilgrimage to the fields of Western Flanders, where hundreds of thousands of their compatriots died in 1914-1918.
The memory of the First World War remains vivid on the Western side of the English Channel and also in the countries of the Commonwealth, whose sons also lost their lives in the mud fields of Westhoek.
Each year, thousands go to the Ypres area to honour their ancestors and visit the museums, battlegrounds, bunkers and other reminders of the carnage of 1914-1918. For dozens of years now, places like the Trench of Death in Dixmude, the Bayernwalde in Wijschate and Sanctuary Wood in Zillebeke are unavoidable destinations.
Visitors are also offered “14-18” tours, as well as the Last Post Ceremony, organised each evening under the Menin Gate at Ypres in honour of the soldiers who fell on the field of honour.
Itineraries designed by the Ypres Tourism Office enable them to drive along the former frontline, for example. This type of itinerary had already been mapped out since the 1920s, by the Wauthier landmarks, to immortalise the frontline and guide the first motorists out for discovery.
In 2014, year in which the commemorations were launched, about 800,000 tourists visited the Ypres area. Since then, more than two million people have visited the Westhoek, according to the West Flanders Tourism Office. Most of the foreign tourists came from the United Kingdom.
The former Western front has no monopoly on remembrance tourism. Sites in Wallonia have also retained traces of the first global conflict. In Ploegsteert and the Comines area, the former frontline also has many monuments and museums, such as Plugstreet 14-18, and guided visits are organised around the front.
Also in Hainaut, Saint-Symphorien Cemetery recalls the battle of Mons in 1914, and contains 500 tombs of British and German soldiers who fell during World War I.
In the Liège area, the forts of Flémalle, Boncelles, Lantin and Barchon, the first to witness the 1914 invasion, are also must-see sites.
However, beyond the big monuments and battlefields, every village and town of the country keeps alive the memory of the victims whose engraved names are a reminder that Man always pays the heaviest price in war.