Ypres with Kids: A Visit to Flanders Fields

Visiting Ypres with kids is one of the best ways to introduce the difficult topic of history, warfare and the importance of remembrance with your children.

In the Great War between 1914-1918, Belgium became one of the main battlegrounds between the great European powers. A trench system stretching from the North Sea to Switzerland was built in the farmland and mud of Belgium and France. The trench warfare employed by military commanders resulted in over 8 million soldiers’ deaths during the four year span of World War I.

As part of the British Empire, Canada enthusiastically volunteered its men to participate in what was assumed to be a short and glorious war. Thousands volunteered and were later conscripted to be shipped overseas to fight a war of attrition, where progress on the battlefield was measured in miles gained or lost, and men killed or swallowed up by mud.

Visiting Ypres with kids is one of the best ways to introduce the difficult topic of history, warfare and the importance of remembrance with your children.

Remembering the fallen of World War I at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium

Historians have subsequently written that our Canadian nationhood was solidified through our soldiers’ sacrifice on these battlefields in Belgium and France. As children we learn of the names of battles and locations; Passchendaele, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, the Somme. The distance of time makes these names seem almost mythic, as these battles took place almost one hundred years ago.

Yet, these places exist and function as towns and villages in 21st century Belgium and France. But they haven’t forgotten their history. In fact, they have done much to ensure that no one ever forgets, through the establishment of outstanding museums and the founding of monuments and cemeteries that tell the story of war.

Visiting Ypres with kids is one of the best ways to introduce the difficult topic of history, warfare and the importance of remembrance with your children.

The Last Post is sounded each night at the Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium

Visiting Ypres with Kids

Visiting Ypres with kids is one of the best ways to introduce the difficult topic of history, warfare and the importance of remembrance with your children. In Ypres (Ieper in Flemish), Flanders, which was almost completely destroyed in WWI, the war is remembered every day. At one entrance into the city, the Menin (Menepoort) Gate Memorial bears witness to the past.

The Menin Gate is inscribed with the names of nearly 55,000 missing men who have no known graves. Their names are listed by rank, regiment and nationality, and it is impossible to not be moved when viewing row upon row of names, and imagining that these were once men, or often, just teenage boys.

Every evening at 8 PM, the entrance road passing under the Gate is closed for the playing of the Last Post, in honour of the dead. This ceremony was conceived and undertaken in gratitude by the citizens of the city of Ypres. This ceremony has taken place every evening (except during WWII) since 1928 – nearly 28,000 times.

Visiting Ypres with kids is one of the best ways to introduce the difficult topic of history, warfare and the importance of remembrance with your children.

Wreath honoring the war dead, Ypres, Belgium

The playing of the Last Post attracts a large crowd, and it is best to get there 30 minutes in advance to view the brief but powerful ceremony.

Often, veterans groups from Commonwealth countries gather to lay wreaths to their nation’s war dead. During our recent visit we saw one such moving ceremony by a group of Australian military personnel and their families. We were also proud to view some wreaths to Canadian war dead that had been placed at the monument earlier that day.

In Flanders Fields Museum

Every visitor receives a poppy wristband to activate the Museum's multimedia displays

Every visitor receives a poppy wristband to activate the Museum’s multimedia displays

In the town square not far from the Menin Gate is the In Flanders Fields Museum. This is an outstanding, interactive museum that appeals to all ages. Through multi-media displays and story-telling, the museum touches on the history, but especially the human elements of the war from every angle – orphans, refugees, medical personnel, and the soldiers. It’s located in the Cloth Hall that was rebuilt after the original was destroyed during the war.

There is a beautiful walk along the city wall that extends to the Menin Gate, where a small model of the memorial can also be viewed. It is a good moment for reflection, and we took the opportunity for some discussion about World War I in general with our children. They are certainly at the age where they can understand the facts of events, but need guidance on comprehending their significance. It was a conversation well worth having.

A more difficult question to explain to one’s children is how, just over 20 years later, it all began again with World War II.

[travellingmom tip: When introducing such a difficult subject to children, I’ve found it useful to review some of the history with them, usually through books written for their age groups. Particularly if you have boys, who often play war and have great battles with knights, pirates and toy soldiers. This topic may be familiar, and they are likely motivated to learn more.]

Have you visited war memorials or military cemeteries with your children? Share your comment below.

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10 Comments

  • Jody Robbins says:

    The Last Post! Hearing that was so emotional. When we visited we found an unexploded bomb. It’s crazy how the scars have healed this landscape, but they still exist.

  • This was so well-written. Loved learning about the history of this town and how much respect they show to those who were lost in the war. Great tips too on how to explain these things to children. Can tell you’re a very thoughtful and loving mother. 🙂

  • With Remembrance Sunday tomorrow, this is a well timed post. And, I agree – it’s a great place to introduce children to the horrors of war. I haven’t been to Ypres, despite living just across the channel. I need to get myself there

  • I’m afraid as an American I didn’t know much about Canada’s involvement in the World Wars. What a sombering tradition that the people of Ypres continue to honor the fallen with the Last Post.

  • Joanna says:

    I think that it is very important to educate children about the recent history that it is still alive through our grandfathers. It is a difficult subject and I am glad that the museums are trying to make it easier for children to understand through interactive exhibitions.

  • What a somber and beautiful thing to commemorate the people lost with the song and standstill. I am always so moved by the war memorials listing names. Well done for allowing your children to understand and comprehend the wars in age appropriate way.

  • Veronika says:

    Hey! Interesting topic: I never thought about how will I present the sad historical chapters and related places to my kinds. It’s lovely how much emphaty you have, and I love the final tip about finding suitable books for the age group.

  • Tami says:

    Our children were grown when we took them to Europe, but they did have experiences going to Valley Forge and other United States battlefields — including the 911 memorial. It is a somber subject but one that must be learned about. Unfortunately it is a part of the world we live in. Years later, we went to Normandy and visited the battlefields there. I don’t believe one can ever become callous to the sacrifice of so many innocent people who were willing to die fighting for peace and liberty.

  • Paige W says:

    I’m really impressed with bloggers who travel with their kiddos. It really inspires me since my husband and I are starting to talk about having kids of our own. I love your tip about teaching your kids a little bit about the history of a place before. It’s a great way to introduce and create an interest for history that can last a lifetime.

  • Alli says:

    What an amazing experience, posted for Remembrance day here in Canada 🙂 I think it’s wonderful that you visited here, especially with your children! I love that every visitor receives a poppy! I always proudly wear my poppy leading up to this day of remembrance. Beautiful post.

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