Hooge Crater has a recreated trench, an authentic pillbox, a café in which we ate lunch, and an excellent museum that contains many artifacts from the war including a wide variety of artillery and mortar shells. Here, too, is a graveyard in which many British Commonwealth are buried. As I wandered in and around the trench system and pillbox, something odd caught my eye. Within a fenced-in field was a strange-looking animal that looked like a deer. Earlier in the day I thought I’d seen a deer within a fence elsewhere but figured I’d been mistaken. Since I couldn’t get that close to this mystery animal, I snapped some photos using my camera’s excellent zoom. Because the sun prevented me from seeing its screen, I didn’t have a chance to look at it until I was back in the coach.
It was indeed a deer. I asked our guide if the Belgians keep deer as pets. He explained that Belgians living in rural areas such as this get a tax break if their house is part of a farm. Many of those living in the country don’t have a working farm per se, but so long as they keep certain kinds of animals on the premises, their place qualifies as such, and deer fall into this category.
At the town of Mesen (Messines), the site of another of the battles between the British and Germans, we visited an excellent little museum. We also stopped at a church with a crypt the Germans used as an aid station in which Corporal Adolf Hitler once received medical treatment. Here, too, is a tomb containing William the Conqueror’s mother-in-law, Saint Adèla, Countess of Flanders, whom William hadn’t especially liked and thought she was best left here rather than being brought to England for her eternal rest.
So far we’d look primarily at the actions of the British Expeditionary Force, but the Belgians hadn’t stood idle while the Germans invaded. To keep these intruders from easily passing in the north, the Belgian army decided to open up the canal lock gates in the city of Nieuwpoort to flood the area to the south. This they did on October 25, 1914, and it worked better than they could have hoped. The major detour it forced the German army to take slowed its timetable enough that it failed to take Paris as planned.
Soon enough the Germans headed back to Nieuwpoort in an effort to outflank the Allies, who did likewise. This "Race to the Sea” ended at the North Sea, making the city the northernmost point of the trench system that extended all the way south to the Swiss border. Upon arriving in the city, we stopped at the new visitor center, a place capped with a massive monument to King Albert I, Belgian’s ruler during the war. With our time short and the cost of going through the museum something like €7, no one in our group paid to get in, meaning that none of us could take the elevator to the monument’s top to get a good view of the city.
Left on our own soon after, my mother and I decided to look at the monument marking the northern end of war’s trench system. At first I mistook it for something else because it said, “Touring Club of France.” It wasn’t until I looked on its other side that I found information about the spot’s importance. The Touring Club had sponsored the monument’s construction.
Sainte-Waudru Cathedral (Mons)
Some Belgians keep deer fenced in so their properties qualify as farms so as to receive a lower tax rate.
King Albert I of Belgium
Nieuwpoort Visitor Center
Northernmost Point of World War I’s Trench System in Nieuwpoort
Much to the distress of the people of Antwerp, nineteenth century Belgium’s leadership decided to make the city the “National Reduit,” the place where the government and army would fall back in case an invading force could not be stopped. To defend the city, the Belgian army build a series of fortresses, which were periodically upgraded over the years to defend against new types of weapons. Several of these forts still stand, Fort Liezele among them.
Although all its original artillery pieces and other weapons were removed long ago, the rest of the structure remains intact. Among other places, we climbed to its top, entered a gas-proof room, and visited an entry bridge that, when retracted, reveals a deep, water-filled pit. In the room where the main gun once stood, I asked if those firing it had needed ear protection, or if anyone at time even thought that necessary. Our fortress guide informed me that sound went right out through the same ventilation system that kept the air fresh, so those firing the gun were spared the loud booms it made.
Because the fort is in part privately funded, the group that operates it, Stitching Fort Liezele vzw, has to raise funds for the many repairs it still needs to do on its own. One of the stranger money making schemes is the sale of the beer it brews. It also sells a booklet in English about the fort. This latter costs €4 and I would encourage visitors to buy one or the other. Stitching Fort Leizele vzw has a passion for the fort’s preservation and, while some of the displays look a bit amateurish, this is clearly for lack of funds and not competence.
On the last day of the tour we returned to London with a brief stop or two along the way. We saw far than I’ve related here, learning much. I found the trip invaluable as a research tool for my book Americans in a Splintering Europe: Refugees, Missionaries and Journalists in World War I. The trip was one of the best, if not the best, vacations I've ever taken. For those who desire to take a historical tour of Europe, I recommend Leger Holidays. Our guide, Marc Hope, did an excellent job, and several of my fellow travelers who’ve done other tours by Leger said they were excellent as well. If Leger doesn’t offer the tour you want, you can either ask someone there to create it, or try one of the many other companies that do the same kind of thing.