A forgotten front of the Great War (2): Ploegsteert Visitor Centre

In a series of 6 blogs Wim Chielens discusses the ‘forgotten front’ of Ploegsteert (Belgium) and Fromelles (France), with photos by Michaël Depestele. This is part 2: Ploegsteert Visitor Centre.

Recently a visitor centre has been built behind the Hyde Park Corner monument, awkwardly named the “Plugstreet 14-18 Experience”. Fortunately the toe-curling, amusement park connotations of the word experience do not accurately describe the content of the centre. It is a well documented, beautifully conceived visitor centre.

The introductory film barely touches on Ploegsteert, or even the Belgian frontline, starting instead in Sarajevo and ending in Versailles – perhaps a little didactic for a small village half an hour from Ypres and barely an hour from Albert and Péronne. The multimedia show of the mine attack with a combination of projection on a map and historic photos is particularly successful. The second part of the centre goes into more detail on the relationship between soldiers and civilians and the effects of the war on the area around Ploegsteert.

The exhibition makes good use of the modern version of 3D stereoscopes, which appeared in many entertainment venues and private museums at the time, a sort of sophisticated View-Masters with photographs on glass plates. The macabre images were once described by a British journalist as ‘war porn’. The photos in the modern day Ploegsteert stereoscopes are in no way offensive, but this viewing method has a great immediacy to it.

In the fixed exhibition there is little attention for the Christmas Truce of 1914 which was celebrated unusually here in Ploegsteert with a football match. You also rarely see poppies or miniature wood crosses laid by the main wooden cross in Ploegsteert; instead people bring a football in remembrance of the temporary Christmas Truce. In the autumn of 2014 a temporary exhibition is devoted to the Christmas Truce.

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