How Belgium is fighting to save war remembrance tourism

How Belgium is fighting to save war remembrance tourism, with lockdowns and travel restrictions keeping foreign visitors away from its museums and memorials

  • Millions of visitors have visited memorials in Belgium to pay tribute to the fallen
  • After two years of pandemic, the tourist industry welcoming them is crippled 
  • One museum owner said he had 65,000 visitors in 2017, but just 3,000 in 2020 

Simon Louagie dreaded losing Talbot House, a World War I soldiers’ club that has become an institution in remembrance tourism on the Western Front where soldiers from all corners of the globe fought amid untold carnage just over a century ago.

For months last year, a Covid-19 lockdown closed the club that had always been an open house. Once it was for Commonwealth soldiers who fleetingly shed the fear of battle in Flanders fields that was within earshot. For generations since, people found history, solace, wisdom and an understanding at Talbot House about why the motto of this region in western Belgium is ‘Never into war again’.

Since the end of World War I in 1918, millions of visitors – from as far away as the United States, New Zealand, and South Africa – have flocked to memorials in northern France and Belgium to pay tribute to the fallen.

A lone bugler plays the nightly Last Post under the World War I monument, Menin Gate, in Ypres, on April 25, 2020. During the pandemic there has been only one bugler, instead of six, playing in the Menin Gate in front of the names of 55,000 soldiers

Now, closing in on two years of the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions, the tourist industry welcoming them is crippled. Lockdowns and travel restrictions, of which many remain in place, are keeping foreign visitors away.

Another Armistice Day beckons on November 11 and the outlook remains bleak.

Talbot House manager Louagie remembers that when funds were running low and doors were closed, only one thought ran through his head: ‘Not on my watch.’ From as many as 500 guests a day, he sometimes found himself alone.

He said: ‘[The house] needs noise. It needs piano music. It needs visitors, schoolchildren, people playing chess. Cups of tea, rattling in the kitchen, to make it come alive. I need to hear the kettle whistle.

Volunteer Libby Madden, from Bath, England, sets a table in the breakfast room at Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium

‘We cannot disappoint all those generations before us by letting it close down.’ 

The thought has echoed around the region where hundreds of thousands lost their lives during the four years of fighting that finally led to the victory of allied forces over Germany.

Nick Benoot, who runs the small Hooge Crater Museum not far from Poperinge, could not believe it when at the end of 2019, schools started to cancel trips because of reports of a virus in Wuhan, China.

Like Louagie, he had plunged money into the business and needed any income he could get. ‘Seriously, do you mean that? This is in China. This is far, far away from us,’ he remembers saying. But the reality of the pandemic, which has since claimed at least five million dead across the globe, soon sank in and he had to close on March 13, 2020 – a sombre day he remembers well.

British RAF veteran George Sutherland, 98, right, leaves Lijssenthoek war cemetery with his son Alex Sutherland as he takes part in a VE Day charity walk on May 8, 2020, to raise funds for Talbot House in Poperinge. Sutherland walked from the Lijssenthoek war cemetery to Talbot House, which closed due to Covid-19 lockdown regulations. The club, founded in 1915, was a place for British soldiers to rest during both the First and Second World Wars

From 65,000 paying visitors in 2017 to just 3,000 last year, the numbers demonstrated how remembrance tourism slumped throughout the region.

‘It was like we went bankrupt. We had to close everything down,’ he said.

But each man dealt with it in his own way and is still around to tell his story.

Libby in the kitchen at Talbot House on Thursday, November 4, 2021

Red paper poppies fall from the ceiling during an Armistice Day ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres on  November 11, 2014. Since the end of World War I in 1918, millions of visitors, from as far away as the U.S, New Zealand, and South Africa, have flocked to memorials in northern France and Belgium to pay tribute to the fallen

Crowdfunding was the answer for Louagie. Last year, a 98-year-old World War II veteran raised money by walking from a war graves cemetery to Talbot House, cheered on by locals who pulled money out of their wallet when they were not applauding. When a local died, the family asked that instead of flowers, mourners donate money to Talbot House.

‘It became very emotional when I saw how many people cared so deeply,’ Louagie said.

As virus measures eased recently thanks to Belgium’s vaccination drive, some visitors enjoyed their breakfast at Talbot house. And just like old times, praise was heaped on English volunteer Libby Madden for her Victoria sponge cake. ‘You know, we very much want to keep the spirit of this wonderful place alive,’ she said.

A photo, badge and uniform of a Canadian World War I soldier on display in a presentation case at Hooge Crater Museum in Ypres

A man casts a shadow as he looks at names of World War I missing on a wall at the Menin Gate

Flanders’ fields were once so war-scarred that churches and castles simply vanished as rubble under the mud. Much around Ypres has been restored to its former splendour and imbued locals with an unshakeable sense of optimism.

Benoot was looking at an empty parking lot last year and had missed the din of spoken English from heaps of British tourists that resounded in the museum and cafe. Yet this week, ‘we have had the first British (bus) in two years’.

Even as his income dwindled in the middle of the pandemic, Benoot understood that the message of ‘the war to end all wars’ still needed to be passed on to younger generations.

Drawings made by Belgian schoolchildren placed in front of World War I graves at Tyne Cot cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium

Nick Benoot at a reconstructed World War I trench at the Hooge Crater Museum in Ypres, which he runs

At 37, he thought himself too old to convey the message to kids, so he left it to his sons Louis and Arthur, 10 and eight, who are now YouTube whizzes, to teach kids about gas masks, helmets and medical kits. The Hooge Boys are a hit now.

‘We don’t do what all the rest does. So I think we have a way to survive,’ Benoot said.

Even the Last Post ceremony in nearby Ypres – a daily, mournful bugle call harking back to 1928 that had only briefly stopped during World War II – was at risk of being silenced. The tradition has the bugle playing under the Menin Gate, where some 55,000 names of soldiers whose remains were never found are engraved.

A waitress wears a protective facemask to curb the spread of Covid-19 as she serves beverages at the Hooge Crater Museum

Adult visitors wearing facemasks view an exhibit at the Hooge Crater Museum. Nick Benoot, who owns the museum, could not believe it when, at the end of 2019, schools started to cancel trips because of reports of a virus. The lockdown lasted for months. He had 65,000 paying visitors in 2017, and just 3,000 last year, a trend that’s indicative of the remembrance tourism slump seen throughout the region

Yet it pulled through. Volunteers refused to stop and pulled strings all the way up to the top political posts to ensure its continuation, even if it had to be scaled down.

‘During Covid, there was only one bugler and the names of 55,000 soldiers,’ said Benoit Mottrie, the head of the Last Post Association.

On Thursday, there should be the full complement of six buglers again, backed up by a piper, a choir, a band and several hundred invitees and poppy promenade walkers. Even the Belgian prime minister will show up.

Nick Benoot poses with his family outside the Hooge Crater Museum. Having lost the main source of income through British tourists, museum owner Nick realised that the message about World War I still needed to be passed on to schoolchildren. At 37, he thought he’d be too old to pass on the message, so he left it up to his sons, who created YouTube videos teaching children about gas masks, helmets and medical kits

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