Belle Epoque ?

In the years before World War I, the industrialised world became increasingly prosperous. In history, this period is called the Belle Epoque. But the optimism and development of the European superpowers was driven by selfish nationalism and colonialism. As a result, international tensions rose ever higher.

To enter the exhibition, you walk through a large screen showing footage depicting the euphoric atmosphere of the Belle Epoque. But the screen is about to collapse: that is exactly what happened when the war broke out.

the invasion of Belgium

On the large map of Belgium you step into the Great War. From east to west, you follow the German advance through the country week after week from 4 August 1914 onwards. Footage screens show the devastation that was caused in various places.

The German invasion of neutral Belgium provoked great international indignation. A wall full of propaganda posters from all the countries that got involved in the war bears witness to this. The posters called for a general mobilisation of the population: to take part in the battle, to help finance it, to strengthen the solidarity between allies, or to sharpen the enemy's image.

the First Battle of Ypres and the inundation of the Yser

After the fall of Antwerp, the war shifted towards the Westhoek and all movement came to a definitive halt. This happened during the Battle of the Yser and the First Battle of Ypres.

The course of both battles is projected on a white relief model. The canopy above it shows the two fundamentally different warzone landscapes: from Nieuwpoort to Steenstrate the battlefield was determined by the omnipresent water, whereas near Ypres it was characterised by the slight slopes around the town.

the Second Battle of Ypres

The industrial character of the war caused immense losses to all participants, while its main protagonists - artillery and machine guns - could not break the stalemate of the trenches. To force the situation, new weapons were invented and developed throughout the war. In the spring of 1915, the Germans chose the front near Ypres for the first use of gas.

Chemical warfare henceforth added a gas mask to the soldier's standard equipment. The protection against gas as a weapon was steadily improved. Different types of gas masks reflect this evolution.

the Third Battle of Ypres

The British commander Sir Douglas Haig decided in the summer of 1917 to attempt a breakthrough from the Ypres Salient to the Belgian coast. Three quarters of a million troops from all over the Empire were deployed, along with an unprecedented arsenal of artillery pieces and the British Army's tank corps.

Preliminary shelling and persistent rain turned the battlefield into a sea of mud. A 350 kg barrel of a British Mark IV Tank illustrates how unsuitable this new weapon was for this terrain.

The Third Battle of Ypres claimed no less than 175,000 lives. In the cinema room, the medical world adds a multiple of wounded to this number.

the Spring Offensive

On 3 March 1918, peace was signed between Germany and Russia at Brest-Litovsk. The German war effort now could focus on the western front, before American troops would mass. In Belgium, this German Spring Offensive brought the trenches to within 2.5 km of Ypres.

A film meticulously plots the military events between 9 April and the beginning of June on the calendar and in the landscape. At the same time, it describes the renewed suffering of the civilian population during these battles.

the Liberation Offensive

The calm that followed the German Spring Offensive of 1918 was short-lived. From 18 July onwards the French counter-offensive set off. On 8 August the British forces started the Last Hundred Days and on 28 September 1918 the Liberation Offensive in Flanders began.

For the temporary exhibition To End All Wars? (2018), the museum made a montage about these last months of the war. Now, this film is integrated in the permanent exhibition.

When armistice was declared, the world was euphoric, be it for some time only. Cause in the end all parties were equally exhausted and vulnerable, as was proved during the pandemic of the so-called Spanish flu.

the Reconstruction

When in 1919 the first inhabitants of the area returned home, they found nothing but devastation. As an interim step in the reconstruction, temporary baracks were built from 1919 onwards.

Behind the original facade of one of these wooden buildings, the reconstruction of Ypres is on display. Once this process started off, it went fairly well. By 1930, the agricultural surroundings had almost recovered, though industrial development would lag behind until late in 20th century.