More background info:
The location of this site, on a slight elevation on a ridge between Wijtschate and Messines with a good view over the lower ground and towards Ypres in the distance, was strategically advantageous. So the German troops, who had held it since the First Battle of Ypres (see under Ypres
) and christened it “Bayernwald” (meaning ‘Bavaria Forest’), fortified the site with several bunkers in addition to trenches. These bunkers were deliberately kept low – inside the ceilings were as low as four feet (1.2 m), so you couldn’t stand upright in them. These spaces were to be used only for emergency cover when the position came under heavy shelling fire, but not for troops to linger in.
Apparently, so the site claims, a young Adolf Hitler
, in the rank of a Private (“Gefreiter”) served in the German troops stationed at Bayernwald, and in November 1914 he was wounded here. As “Führer” of the Third Reich he came back to pay the area a visit in 1940.
When the Germans in 1916 observed that the British were digging up lots of blue clay behind their positions, they concluded (correctly) that the Allies must be tunnelling deep into the ground (where there’s a layer of that clay). In response the Germans themselves dug deep shafts at the Bayernwald site, in order to spy on the British activities underground.
Indeed the British prepared several tunnels underground and on 7 June 1917 detonated 19 huge mines underneath the German lines in preparation for breaking through. This paved the way for the Third Battle of Ypres (see under Ypres
and Passchendaele 1917 Museum
). All over the Wijtschate-Messines ridge and further north-east one can still see several craters, now filled with water, that resulted from this mine tunnelling operation – see also Hill 60
and Hooge Crater
After the war, the site was more or less forgotten until in 1971 a local schoolteacher discovered one of the mine shafts by chance. He subsequently also uncovered four of Bayernwald’s original ten bunkers, cleared them and opened the site to the public. But after his death the site again fell into decay. The Heuvelland municipality started restoring the place from 1998 onwards, and in 2003 the Association of Battlefield Archaeology in Flanders took over, faithfully restoring part of the trench system and opening Bayernwald in its present form in 2004.
What there is to see:
Once you have gained access to the site by scanning your pre-purchased ticket at the turnstile in the fence around the site (see under access
!), you come to a small open-air museum part under a roof on poles. Here a relief model of the terrain shows where the front line and trench systems were at the time of the Battle of Messines (see under Ypres
) and a row of info panels with photos and texts provides extra information. This includes some info about particular people associated with the site – including one Adolf Hitler
who apparently served part of his military time in WW1 here. There’s a photo of several German soldiers with the young Hitler picked out with a red circle.
There are also about a dozen or so extra panels dotted around the site. Some panels are multilingual (Flemish/Dutch, French, English and German), others are not, sometimes the long main text is solely in Flemish/Dutch and only a very brief paragraph is given in each of the other languages.
There’s a ground-level path around the whole site and at five points you can enter the trench system that has been recreated. Here the sides of the trenches are stabilized by interwoven wickerwork branches, which contrasts to the Allied types of trenches, and wooden planks to walk on.
You can peek into the four dark and low bunkers that are original, as well as two additional hideouts, and see the tops of two mine shafts, called Berta 4 and Berta 5, that the Germans dug as ‘listening shafts’ (to spy on British activities underground). There used to be underground connecting tunnels too. Berta 4 was apparently something like 100 feet (30 m) deep, and still goes to about half that depth, but today is filled with water. There’s a metal grille over the top, so no one can fall in, and a metal railing around the opening for extra safety.
All in all
, this is not a massive site, and doesn’t present that much information, but it is special, if not unique, in that it shows the German side of the war, has some unusual relics (those mine shafts) and then there’s the association with Adolf Hitler
that gives it an additional dark aspect.
at Voormezelestraat 2a, 8953 Heuvelland, Belgium
, halfway between Wijtschate and Voormezele, 4 miles (6 km) south of Ypres
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: a bit remote and complicated (see below), not too expensive.
Details: To get to the site you need your own means of transport and ideally SatNav (GPS).
NOTE: the site itself is NOT staffed; the access gate is operated automatically, by scanning a ticket that you have to acquire in advance, namely from the Heuvelland tourism information bureau in the village of Kemmel (post code 8956) located at Sint-Laurentiusplein 1 (behind the church), ca. 4 miles (6 km) to the south-west of Bayernwald. This is open 9.30 a.m. to 12 noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. – so make sure to factor this extra drive and the differing opening times in when planning a visit. Allegedly tickets are also available from the Ypres tourism office but I cannot vouch for that.
Tickets cost 4 EUR, or 1.50 EUR for under-25-year-olds (theoretically tickets are said to be available online as well, but I have not been able to operate the Dutch-only webshop site for this).
The Bayernwald site itself has the following opening times: daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. - but NOTE that there is no access on hunting days, usually seven to nine days a year, between August and December (the dates are posted by the site’s entrance and you you can also look them up on the toerismeheuvelland.be website).
The site claims to be wheelchair-accessible, but in fact only a small part of it really is – the trenches themselves, including the mine shaft tops and bunkers are not.
Time required: between half an hour and 45 minutes max.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Of the various Ypres Salient WW1 sites
, the closest to Bayernwald is Hill 60
, some 4 miles (6 km) to the north-east (or a ca. 10-minute drive on country roads, or 20- to 30-minute cycle ride). The distance to Ypres
is only marginally greater.
Not related to WW1 but to the Cold War
is the former Command Bunker Kemmel
to the south-west of the small town of that name. This was built in the 1950s originally as part of the air defence system but later it became a command post in case of crisis or nuclear war
. Having lost its function after 1990, the installation first stood empty but was then turned into a museum of sorts (open Tue-Sun 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; EUR 4). (cf. e.g. Kelvedon Hatch
or Scotland’s secret bunker
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The site sits within fairly pleasant pastoral land, but it’s not touristy (other than for WW1 tourism). Best to head back to Ypres
- Bayernwald 1 - signposted
- Bayernwald 2 - automatic gate
- Bayernwald 3 - some commodification
- Bayernwald 4 - relief of the front line
- Bayernwald 5 - reconstructed German trenches
- Bayernwald 6 - trenches and bunker
- Bayernwald 7 - top of old mine shaft
- Bayernwald 8 - another shaft
- Bayernwald 9 - walking the trenches