Dikesmuide stands on the river Ijzer which became the front line in 1914. Dikesmuide, and the surrounding villages, was virtually wiped out and was rebuilt after the war. The Townhall (above) was built between 1923 – 1925 with features from late medieval times.
We followed the town walk and visited the Begijnhof, one of only 3 left in West Flanders (Bruges and Kortrijk). It was rebuilt after the war but the beguines had disappeared. Since 1990 around 20 adults with disability live here and the little shop sells items made by them.
Ijzertoren – Yser Tower
The best known war monument in Dikesmuide is the Yser Tower which houses the ‘Museum aan de Ijser’. The tower is 22 storeys high and provides a view across the entire front region.
There is a lift to take you to the top floor and then you work your way down floor by floor learning about the Belgian-German confrontation and the Flemish emancipation. I found it to be a very detailed and yet accessible museum given the separation of each floor and the use of short animated films (sound but no words) to highlight issues. On one floor you have to walk through a ‘trench’ which I found rather unnerving given the height and the darkness. The conditions the soldiers had to endure in the trenches was indescribably harsh.
As we were leaving, we met the young man in charge of content of the museum and he spent quite some time explaining about the tower to us – helped to make sense of information read about the Flemish nationals but not fully understood. It is run by a not for profit organisation and he was obviously very committed to his work and the Flemish community.
Basically there are 2 languages in Belgium – French and Dutch (Flemish is often seen as a dialect of Dutch). French was the language for education, government, justice etc but many poorer people didn’t have access to education and so they did not learn to speak french. And yet during the war these Belgians also joined the forces, fought & died, alongside their french speaking compatriots. But Belgian army graves only bore a French inscription: ‘Mort pour la Patrie’ (Died for the Homeland).
Flemish minded groups started a movement to honour the Flemish fallen soldiers with a heroes tribute headstone: ‘Alles Voor Vlaanderen. Vlaanderen Voor Kristus’ (All for Flanders. Flanders for Christ).
After the war the Belgian authorities decided to provide all war graves with a uniform Belgian headstone – in French – which meant that the heroes’ tribute gravestones were to be removed. In Adinkerke the rubble from the headstones was used to build a road. The Flemish were indignant and the Yser Pilgrimage Committee saved as many gravestones as possible and gathered them in a field in Diksmuide. After the war the Frontbeweging (Front movement) started an annual Flemish, pacifist pilgrimage to the graves of the Flemish soldiers.
The Tower was built in 1930 – designed by Joe English & based on the shape of the heroes’ gravestone, a Celtic Cross marked with the letters A V V – V V K (‘Alles Voor Vlaanderen. Vlaanderen Voor Kristus’). The tower was blown up after the WWII as retribution for the Flemish collaboration with the Germans. Nazis exploited the Flemish dissatisfaction in order to further divide the nation.
A new, even higher Yser tower was then built and the annual Yser Pilgrimage developed into mass meetings of Flemish-minded people. Extreme right factions attended but were then marginalised. Peace and tolerance became as important as the concept of freedom with the Ten Vrede (At Peace) organisation.
Today the Yser Tower stands behind the PAX Tower, which was built from the rubble of the heroes’ gravestones.
While we were there they were preparing for a big event – the ‘Floating Dreams’ exposition. The site will be filled with white statues of children – 35 boys, 35 girls. Each carrying a backpack representing the impact war has had on that child. Each holding a balloon, the child’s dream, giving him / her the strength to leave war behind.
The statues weren’t in place as yet but the tower was being decorated with motifs to depict the children rising upwards to join / become the dove of peace at the very top. I think it will be a very moving exposition and, by the numbers of children we saw being taken to the museum every day, I hope it will have significant impact.