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Battlefields from Waterloo

Brussels, a train ride from London, hosts a wartime display. Kelvin van Hasselt reports.

The 20th century is an increasingly popular choice for GCSE history, and this year the VE Day and VJ Day celebrations will bring the Second World War to centre stage. The Second World War also appears in key stage 3 in the history curriculum. How, though, can the war be adequately taught to convey the terror, the confusion, the sheer hell of it all?

Perhaps these things can only be experienced. This is what a newly opened exhibition in Brussels, entitled "I was 20 in 45", seeks to do.

It is the biggest exhibition on the Second World War ever assembled, with exhibits, original documents and camera footage from the national military museum and archive centres of over 20 countries, including Germany and Japan.

The exhibits are interspersed with life-size reconstructions so that visitors can walk through bombed houses, streets and the London Underground during the blitz, for example.

Entry to the exhibition is through the stench, although luckily not the quagmire, of a First World War trench, leading on to a display on the Versailles Treaty and how it sowed the seeds of a wider conflict.

For many in Europe, the first taste of the Second World War was the bombing of civilians; so visitors, after listening to the sepulchral tones of Neville Chamberlain announcing war on September 3 1939, find themselves in a deserted classroom.

Here they can look out of broken windows to see a partially bombed street, complete with a bicycle thrown down in a hurry, its front wheel still spinning.

Throughout the exhibition there are arrays of videos continually running. One video shows the May 1940 conquest of Belgium, Brussels being bombed, a German pilot seeing his target, then calmly and efficiently pushing forward the lever to release the bombs, the lines of refugees streaming along the roads, children in prams looking mystified and the Belgian army shellshocked.

A showcase of contemporary European infantry uniforms is instructive. Luxembourg uniforms look purely ceremonial, Belgian uniforms appears very Victorian, and only German uniforms look anything like present-day uniforms, with camouflaging. Only Germany seemed prepared for war.

After a display on the Battle of Britain and Hitler's fatal switch of air tactics, the visitor emerges into Hounslow Underground station and then walks past endless people in bunks sheltering from the blitz.

The U Boat war display shows German film footage of a U Boat sighting an Allied merchant ship, submerging, firing a torpedo and then resurfacing to see its victim sink. D-Day is seen from a German blockhouse, Auschwitz from a camp corridor.

The Setting Sun display on Japan shows a life-size model of the atomic bomb, "Little Boy" (just 12 feet long), dropped on Hiroshima, set against a background of the ruins . . . mile upon mile.

The most dramatic reconstruction is Berlin 1945, where the visitor walks through Hitler's study complete with the portrait of his hero Frederick the Great, and then emerges among the ruins of Berlin, with buildings all around seemingly on the point of collapse.

One of the most moving reconstructions is the emaciated young POW in a Japanese camp, holding a bowl of rice.

The exhibition takes most visitors nearly three hours and the visitor can be guided around at their own pace with a personal cassette in English; however the written explanations are only in French and Flemish, the two languages of Belgium, though this should provide good practice in GCSEA Level French.

Others sights to see in Brussels are Waterloo, with its own excellent museum and visitor centre and numerous art museums; then of course only two hours away are the battlefields of Ypres.

Brussels has three centrally located youth hostels, the best of which is the Jacques Brel it has mainly double rooms, all with wash basins.

The cheapest transport to Brussels is still by coach and ferry, with the Channel Tunnel Eurostar train service yet to come up with attractive rates for school parties. Parents, though, may find the sheer convenience of Eurostar irresistible for that half-term or Easter holiday treat. The exhibition is only open until the middle of May 1995.

ASBL (exhibition organisers): 010 32 87 88 10 00 Jacques Brel Youth Hostel (Brussels): 010 32 22 18 01 87 P O Ferries: 01304 210004 Eurostar: 0171 922 60516053 Wellington Museum, Waterloo: 010 32 23 54 78 06 Battlefields Trust: 01742 342091 Belgium Tourist Office: 0171 629 0230

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