An American Story to Tell in Passchendaele

This time next year we will mark the centenary of World War I, the so-called “War to End All Wars” that wreaked havoc on the European continent and completely flattened a number of Belgian towns.

Earlier this week, Embassy Staff and Interns travelled to Ypres, Belgium, a town in West Flanders that was particularly devastated by four years of brutal warfare, and where a recently opened extension to the WWI Memorial Museum Passchendaele aims to tell an American story.

U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Robert Faucher toured the Memorial Museum Passchendaele on the night of its Grand Reopening, July 12, 2013.

The Ypres Salient was the site of some of the War’s bloodiest battles; the Third Battle of Ypres, for example, took the lives of over 500,000 soldiers in neighboring Passchendaele. We remember with sorrow these steep losses faced by the Germans and the Commonwealth soldiers, particularly those suffered by the newly independent Australians and New Zealanders. We nonetheless must not forget that Passchendaele and Ypres are also the setting of an American story, in which 1,043 American service members lost their lives on Belgian soil during WWI.

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Embassy Cultural Affairs Specialist Brian Dick explains the nightly Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate, a tradition in Ypres that dates back to 1928.

In 1917, nearly 5 million young Americans were called from their homes to fight in a war in a faraway land, leaving all that they loved behind. Most of them fought alongside the allies in France, but Ambassador Gutman reminds us that they also “came for a collapsing Europe and an occupied Belgium. People in trouble, good people for sure, but people whom they did not know, whose languages they did not speak, and whose families they had never met.” Four divisions of the American Expeditionary Forces fought in the Battles of Ypres – two of which fought under the command of Belgian King Albert I – and 368 American war-dead are buried in the Flanders Field American Cemetery.

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The U.S. Embassy’s Tri-Mission Interns pose in front of a house built by American service members after WWI, which is now part of the Remembrance Trail at the Memorial Museum Passchendaele.

We remember that, by November 1918, Ypres was in ruins and only a handful of structures remained standing in the historic city center. And we note that, following the armistice of November 1918, American service members stayed on in Belgium to help rebuild civil society out of the ashes of conflict. Among their ranks were skilled carpenters and craftsmen who took the lead in building wood-frame “emergency houses” for Belgian families in need. Of the countless shelters built by Americans in the region after the War, four have withstood the test of time. Today, you can find one of these houses on the Remembrance Trail at the newly extended Memorial Museum Passchendaele.

With a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Brussels, the house was dismantled, plank by plank, transported from its original location in Wevelgem, and reassembled on the grounds of the museum. As of our visit, the restoration process is a work in progress, but the construction of an exhibit inside the house will be complete by mid-October. It will tell the story of American Expeditionary Forces in Ypres and Hebert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium, a monumental humanitarian operation that rescued Belgium from starvation with the delivery of 3.2 million tons of food from 1915 to 1918. They built legacies, upon which we build exhibits, and through which, together, we will build a better future.

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Restoration of the house should be complete by October 2013. During the restoration and reassembly, the original planks are reinforced with new wood to protect them from the elements. Once completed, the house will feature an exhibit on the American Expeditionary Forces in Ypres and Hebert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium.

Noodwoning, Wevelgem

American service members built this house in 1922 as an emergency shelter for a Belgian family after World War I. The house is pictured here at its original location in Wevelgem in 2009, but it has now been moved to the grounds of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele. Photo: cc Flickr user erfgoed

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The new extension of the museum includes a replica of a British dugout and German and British trenches.

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St. Martin’s Cathedral, pictured here, was completely rebuilt after it was razed to the ground during WWI.

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The U.S. Tri-Mission Brussels delegation first stopped at the Langemark German Military Cemetery.

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They also visited Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world.

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Flanders Field is the only American WWI Cemetery in Belgium.

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Of the 1,043 American service members who perished in Belgium in WWI, 368 are buried here at Flanders Field American Cemetery. The others are either missing or buried in the United States.

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On the interior of the Cemetery’s Memorial Chapel are inscribed the names of 43 American WWI soldiers who lost their lives in Belgium and sleep in unknown graves.

More photos can be found on our Flickr stream.

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