Belgium is a relatively young country by European standards, declaring independence from the Netherlands in 1830.
Its flat landscapes and location along major trading—and invasion—routes placed it at the center of many military conflicts through the centuries, including World War I.
The Belgian Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels is a fascinating stop with exhibits spanning from medieval to contemporary times.
The museum has a very impressive collection of artifacts, including suits of armor, uniforms, flags, and weapons organized into eleven galleries. The museum takes the traditional approach to organizing its exhibitions by displaying entire collections of items with little narrative.
The World War I exhibit is no exception. Display cases with uniforms from all the combatant countries except Greece and Bulgaria line the wall of the large exhibit hall. Machine guns, artillery pieces, tanks and vehicles are featured in the hall’s center.
Although the collection is large and contains many unique and interesting pieces, its arrangement seems haphazard. Uniforms are displayed on older department store mannequins. Equipment is randomly clustered together. There is little explanation of how the war unfolded for Belgium, the role of Belgian military units or how the equipment was used on the battlefield.
A planned renovation for the museum’s World War I gallery had to be postponed and several pieces of the collection are currently loaned out for other exhibits marking the war’s centennial.
The Western Front
The exhibit does not reflect the significance of Belgium’s prominent role in World War I. Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914 in order to quickly attack France. By going through Belgium, the German army hoped to catch the French unprepared and take Paris.
They were unsuccessful and the Western Front became a stalemate.
The Germans occupied much of Belgium throughout the war. Belgian citizens were subject to forced labor and Belgian resources were used to support the German war effort.
Stories of atrocities against the Belgian population by German soldiers became propaganda for recruitment efforts in France, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
Belgium was the site of a number of World War I engagements: the Frontiers, Mons, Ypres, and Passchendaele are only a few.
Beyond The Great War
By contrast, a sleek new exhibit on post-war Belgium offers a more immersive experience, making extensive use of multimedia. Beyond The Great War 1918-1928 is a temporary exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice.
The post-war exhibit departs from military themes and covers a myriad of political, social and economic issues Belgium had to navigate following World War I. Those challenges were stark. The Belgium military concluded hostilities–taking tremendous losses in the final days of the war–before transitioning to occupation duty, then demobilization.
King Albert I and his ministers returned to Brussels and reestablished civil authority. All types of ordinance needed to be cleared from cities, towns and farms. More than 700,000 Belgian refugees tried to resettle. The dead needed to be buried, the wounded cared for, and destroyed infrastructure rebuilt. The Belgian economy needed to be reorganized as Belgium was brought into a new international order.
The look and experience of Beyond the Great War is different from many of the other exhibits found throughout the museum. It is brighter and more colorful with well curated displays which draw the eye. Archived photos, art, film and statuary are used to tell Belgium’s post-war story along with video and an impressive visual replica of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History was established in the early 1920’s, expanding upon a small, but well-received, military exhibit at the Brussels World Fair in 1910. In 1923, the museum moved to its current location in the Cinquantenaire (50th Anniversary) Park in central Brussels.
The park was developed from a former military parade ground to mark the 50th Anniversary of Belgium’s independence. A large triumphal arch and classical arcade dominate the park, which also houses several other museums.
The military history museum’s World War II galleries are currently closed for renovation in preparation for the 75thAnniversary of the end of the Second World War. The current exhibits are being refurbished and a new hall is being built to chronical Belgium’s second occupation.
What will emerge? It is not entirely clear, but replicating the approach of Beyond the Great War will surely make the stories of Belgium’s World War II experiences more compelling.
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Beyond the Great War 1918-1928 is open through September 22, 2019 at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels, Belgium.
The museum is open daily, except Mondays, from 0900 – 1700. The museum is also closed on January 1, May 1, November 1, and December 25. Admission is 5 Euros, payable only by debit or credit card. Discounts are also available for certain groups. See the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History for more information.
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History is located in Cinquantenaire (50th Anniversary) Park. The park is located in central Brussels and accessible by multiple bus, subway and streetcar lines. The Merode or Schuman Stations are each about a ten-minute walk from the museum.
There are also several car parking lots in the park.
The Sky Café inside the museum offers snacks, sandwiches and a variety of beverages, including beer and wine. It is open from 1000 – 1600 each day. However, the kitchen closes early so arrive before 1400 if you want to order food.