The domain of the Yser Tower consists of the ticketing building, the statue of Yser symbol Lode de Boninge behind the former secretarial building, the Pax Gate built from remains of the first Yser Tower, the Crypt around the remains of the first Yser Tower containing the mortal remains of a number of Yser symbols, the memorial column for Yser symbol Joe English and the bell Nele, the stone with the desire for peace of the peoples, and finally, the new Yser Tower containing a museum and surrounded by the Pilgrimage meadow.
These locations are linked to each other by an access road and a footpath.
In 1924 the Heroes Tribute Committee decided to recuperate the Hero’s Tribute gravestones, and to assemble them in a graveyard in a meadow bought for this purpose at Kaaskerke. During the war this location was situated in the middle of the Belgian front, opposite the dangerous German operations base 'De Minoterie'. Before the war a soap works was located here.
A "Pilgrimage to the Graves at the Yser" was to be organised annually on this spot. The tradition of an annual Flemish commemoration ceremony already existed since 1920, with ceremonies at the graves of Joe English (1920) in Steenkerke, the van Raemdonck brothers in Steenstraete (1921) and Renaat de Rudder in West-Vleteren (1922). In 1923 the broken-up Hero’s Tribute gravestones were rehabilitated in Alveringem-Oeren. From 1924 this took place in Kaaskerke in the acquired meadow.
When at the end of May 1925 hundreds of the little gravestones were pulverised to be used to construct a road around the cemetery of Adinkerke, the indignation on the side of the Flemish was very strong. From that moment on they thought about the establishment of an Yser memorial, and a competition for this was launched.
The design of the First Yser Tower was made by the architects Robert and Frans van Averbeke, and inspired by the Hero’s Tribute gravestone of Joe English. The company De Tandt Gebroeders from Nederbrakel was appointed as builder. Work started in May 1928. The Yser Pilgrimage Committee stimulated the executive architect to increase the height of the design from 115 feet to 170 feet. On 7 July 1928, Cyriel Verschaeve lay the first stone.
1. First stone being laid by Cyriel Verschaeve
On 12 October 1929 the 170 feet tall tower was finished. During the 11th Yser Pilgrimage of 24 August 1930 the Yser Tower was solemnly inaugurated.
In 1930 a neighbouring meadow was acquired in order to be able to receive the growing number of pilgrims.
2. The inauguration in 1930
Over a number of years the Yser Tower was so to speak dressed up. Over one hundred Hero’s Tribute gravestones were immured and the Yser symbols were transferred to the Crypt between 1932 and 1937. These Yser symbols were deceased soldiers from all provinces, which were elevated to symbols of Flemish people's solidarity on the basis of their mystified life, soldier's career or personal character. In the period 1931-1934, four bas-reliefs with "Yser symbols" were unveiled during the pilgrimages by Karel Aubroeck. In 1933 the Stone of Merkem was placed in the Crypt of the Tower as relic, and in 1937 the Crucifix from Nieuwpoort, with bullet damage, in 1939 the flags of the veterans.
In 1935 the secretariat of the Yser Pilgrimage Committee was transferred from Temse to Diksmuide. In 1936 the motto 'No more War' was affixed and the Crypt was made accessible as tomb vault. In 1937 the domain was expanded again. In 1938 the first 10,000 names of fallen soldiers were inaugurated. These names were made in clay tablets. The special remembrance stone for the "Desire for peace of the peoples" was placed.
Even at that time plans were made for a museum. This museum was to be sited in a new building on the corner of the Kaaskerkestreet and the Yser Dike.
During the first day of WWII the Yser Tower was damaged for the first time. During the battles of operation Dynamo, the retreat to and from Dunkirk, there were heavy battles around Diksmuide as well. The pilgrimage secretariat was burnt out and a British airplane-bomb hit the Tower in 30 May 1940.
3. The pilgrimage secretariat was then sited in the Kaaskerkestreet.
4. Airplane-bomb in the Tower on 30 May 1940
During WWII the pilgrimages were organised in the Crypt of the Yser Tower. This was one of the reasons the popular image of the Tower was damaged after the war.
After WWII the Tower was dynamited in 2 phases. A first attempt took place on 16 June 1945. The result was only a hole in the wall of the Tower. A second, more effective attempt was made in the night from 15 to 16 March 1946. The Tower completely collapsed.
5. First dynamiting on 16 June 1945
6. Second dynamiting on 15-16 March 1946
In the rubble of the old Tower a white Heroes’ Tribute cross was built with the verse by Cyriel Verschaeve: "Here lay their bodies like seeds in the sand, hope for the harvest, o Flemish land".
7. White Heroes cross atop the rubble
In spring 1949 a start was made with the clearing and repair of the Crypt. The rubble of the old Tower was used to build a monumental access gate. The gate was designed by Jan and Karel De Bondt. The work was assigned to builder Valère Petillon from Boezinge.
8. Clearing of rubble in the Crypt
9. The Stone of Merkem was found under the rubble, and some Hero’s Tribute gravestones were restored.
Apart from the central inscription "PAX", an iconic role was reserved for the statues by Karel Aubrouck which stood on the four sides of the Tower. These statues had broken into multiple pieces by the dynamiting, which meant they had to be cleaned so the pieces could be fitted together again.
10. Cleaning of the statues which stood on the corners of the Tower.
The construction was done in such a manner that the statues were placed first, and the bricks were mortared in between them.
11. The statues were built up first, followed by the remainder of the PAX gate.
12. The statues were repaired into their original state.
The "PAX" inscription on the gate was already fully legible before the pilgrimage of 1949. By October 1949 the access gate was finished, and during the 1950 pilgrimage it could be "officially" inaugurated.
13. The PAX gate is nearly ready.
From that time the focus was fully on the reconstruction of the Tower. Again a neighbouring plot of land was acquired. During the preparation for the pilgrimage of 1951, a symbolic first post was driven into the ground, as the basis for the new Yser Tower to be built later.
14. Pile driving the symbolic first post
But in the meantime a conflict emerged in the background about what the new Tower should look like. In May 1951, professor Van Himbeek of the University of Leuven had launched the proposal to make a 820 feet high concrete tower. It would make the tower one of the tallest buildings in the world.
15. The design by prof. Van Himbeeck
On 9 February 1952 the committee took a final decision on the shape of the new tower to be built. The design of Robert Van Averbeke was chosen. He had also designed the first Tower. And therefore the silhouette of the old Tower was kept. The height however was to be between 262 feet and 328 feet (because of the rehabilitation).
The estimated costs were to be 18.5 million Belgian francs.
16. Design of the new Yser Tower to be built
In the same year, 1952, the real work started. The work was contracted to the Company Vanderkinderen from Bazel, civil engineer Amaat Monthaye and architect Robert Van Averbeke.
The company Pieux-Franki is employed in their project. They have to drive posts into the ground so the Tower can be built on a stable base. Some of the pile-driver heads which were used are still present on the domain and are used to demarcate the access road and to prevent anyone driving into the hedge.
17. Driving in of 231 posts
During the 1952 pilgrimage the first post (62 feet long) was driven in, and chairman Franssen symbolically lay the first stone.
18. Laying the first stone of the new Tower
Finally, 231 posts had been driven in by the end of 1952, each with a load bearing capacity of 60 ton, or in total some 14,000 ton or 30 million pounds load bearing capacity.
At the end of November 1952 there was an unexpected event. A strong gust of wind caused the white Heroes cross on the rubble of the old Tower to be blown down. After this the cross had to be rebuilt in Spring 1953.
19. The Heroes cross was blown down
The work on the Tower itself continued in 1953. From August to October 1953 the actual concrete base was poured.
20. Pouring the concrete base
On 28 October 1953 the pouring of the concrete was finished, and the foundations were ready, but then work stopped. The changing political landscape and an acute lack of money caused work to stall during 1954.
During the 1955 pilgrimage, the pilgrims only saw the 46 feet long guard irons of the drummers of the new Yser Tower sticking out.
21. Guard irons for the drummers of the Tower
From the end of 1955 things speeded up again. One year later, at the end of 1956, the concrete construction for the Tower was already over 52 feet high. The access to the Tower was planned on the first floor, which was accessible by a monumental staircase.
22. Monumental access staircase
The works did not always progress at the same speed. The main reason for this was lack of money. But from 1961 it again went at a steady pace. At the end of 1961 the Tower had reached a height of over 100 feet, and at the 1962 pilgrimage a height of 144 feet had been reached. Furthermore, in that same year a neighbouring field was acquired.
At the end of 1963 a height of 220 feet had been achieved, and in fact only the crown had to be placed on the work: the cruciform head!
But again there was a lack of money! Adiel de Beuckelaere designed the "Kruiskopactie" [cruciform head action]. The name of patrons would be included in tiles in the head and published in the press.
23. Patron tiles in the Panorama room
This action contributed to the fact that the cruciform head was ready for the 1964 pilgrimage. This more or less concluded the structural work, so only the interior decoration and the establishment of the pilgrimage field had to be taken care of.
On 3 April 1965 the day finally arrived. The new Yser Tower was open to the public for the first time. During the pilgrimage on 22 August 1965 the solemn opening followed, although it took a little while longer until everything was effectively finished.
The construction finally took 13 years (1952 - 1965), the cost price was 27 million Belgian Francs in comparison to the budgeted 18.5 million Belgian Francs, and the Tower reached a total height of 275.5 feet, so higher than the 262 feet originally requested.
This did not mean the work was finished. The pilgrimage field had to be re-established.
24. The boundaries of the recently acquired meadows are still very visible.
25. The ditch in the fields is arched over.
26. The new access road around the Crypt and to the Tower
The ditch in the fields was arched over, and the various plots were joined. A new access road connected the Crypt of the old Tower to the new Tower. During the 1968 pilgrimage gravestones were placed along this road. These gravestones were filled with the rubble of the Hero’s Tribute gravestones which has been destroyed by the dynamiting of the Tower. These gravestones are now standing around the Tower.
The access to the Tower was soon adapted. The staircase to the first floor was removed and the entrance was installed on the ground floor.
On 14 February 1987 the site of the Yser Tower was declared "Memorial to the Flemish emancipation" by Royal Decree, which was adapted to "Memorial of the Flemish emancipation and Peace" in 2012. On 10 November 1992 the Yser Tower, the Crypt and the Pax Gate were listed as monument and the pilgrimage field as protected townscape by Ministerial Decree. Since 9 July 1997 the monument is included in the proposal for the primary school final exams as Flemish symbol to be known, together with the national hymn and the flag. From 1998 the monument was included in the UN list as "International Peace Centre". In 2015, the Crypt and the Pax Gate were included in the list of WWI sites which are to be recognised as World Heritage Sites by summer 2018.
In August 1993 the first restoration grant for repairs to the Pax Gate and Yser Tower was approved. The wooden roof enclosure was removed and replaced by a concrete domed construction. The pilgrimage field was also re-established. At the start of 2014 this constructions was demolished again, and the original ground-plan of the old Tower is visible again.
27. Concrete domed construction over the Crypt
The Yser Tower itself also needed a thorough restoration. For this, 17.4 miles of scaffolding were placed around the Tower. After this renovation a museum was installed in the Tower, supported by a subsidy of the Flemish government. This allowed the museum "War-Peace-Flemish emancipation" to be opened on 13 March 1999. In the run-up to the 100th anniversary of WWI the museum was redesigned, with the support of Tourism Flanders. It opened its doors on 1 March 2014.