Flemish Brabant

The First World War Experience Centre in Tildonk

Travel back one hundred years and discover what life was like for Belgians under German occupation.

The First World War Experience Centre is a small, modern and very well presented interactive exhibition. It’s located in the village of Tildonk, about 10 km north-west of Leuven. Its specific objective is to present what life was like for locals during the occupation of Belgium by the German Army in the Great War.  

You can read personal diaries, and listen to testimonies and anecdotes from civilians. You learn how people tried to go about their daily business as much as possible, such as coping with food shortages and malnutrition. Photos, maps and artifacts are on display but are not overwhelming.

It also gives a broader picture, explaining the timeline of the war, what was the aim of the German Army, the troop movements, and the violence that led to hundreds of innocent citizens being killed.

The information panels in the Experience Centre are only available in Dutch. However, audio and video clips can be listened to or viewed in different languages. And you can request an excellent booklet in English, French or German that explains everything on display.

A short photo summary of the centre

Leuven 1914
On 4 August 1914 the Germany Army invaded neutral Belgium. It demanded free passage to France but the Belgian Army resisted. In cities such as Leuven and Aarschot, as well as in small villages, hundreds of innocent Belgian civilians were shot.
Tildonk Experience Centre
At sound booths, you can put headphones on and listen to accounts from locals who wrote down their experiences under occupation.
First World War Belgium
The Centre has a large collection of original photographs of locals as well as of the occupying army.
Tildonk BelevingsCentrum
A short animated video explains the timeline of the invasion of Belgium.
Ursuline Monastery Tildonk
The Centre is located in what used to be a monastery, where a girls’ boarding school somehow kept running for the duration of the war.

Much of Belgium’s resources – from potatoes to horses, coal to copper – was sent back to Germany. This led to four years of poverty and famine. So what do you eat if there is hardly anything to eat?

Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
Real coffee was almost impossible to find. “War coffee” was made from beetroot and chicory. The monastery also made it from grated chestnuts and apple peel.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
Milk was in short supply. This recipe for “cheap butter” involves mixing flour and water to make a porridge, adding bacon, salt and pepper, and leaving it to cool in the cellar.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
“Sorrel soup” was made from garden weeds.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
The Germans requisitioned all copper, brass and bronze to make their munitions. Housewives had to give up their pots and pans. Doors suddenly had no handles.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
With all metal claimed by Germany for the war effort, a shortage of coins led to emergency money being issued, but could only be spent in the town where it was issued.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
When the Germans had something to command, forbid or communicate, they printed posters and stuck them onto the walls of public buildings.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
Journeys required a permit. Even school pupils had to present the correct document when going to and from school.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
A touchscreen map narrates the traces of the 1914 invasion that can still be seen today.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
The Experience Centre is housed in the imposing Ursuline cloister in Tildonk, a historic and symbolic place. It was the operating base from where General von Beseler coordinated the German siege of Antwerp.
Tildonk First World War Experience Centre
After your visit, you can have a drink or bite to eat in the Engelenburcht brasserie.

The First World War Experience Centre is well worth a visit, and would be especially interesting to children doing a school project on the Great War.

  • Address: Kruineikestraat 5A, 3150 Tildonk (Haacht)
  • Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Price: Adults 3 EUR; free for children under 12.

Categories: Flemish Brabant, Museums

14 replies »

  1. Wonderful post, Denzil. Partly through you, somewhat from Downton Abbey, it seems like I’m seeing more and more things about WWI, even though the Centennial just passed. Have you noticed that also?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not really Pat, to be honest. WW1 is always pretty big in Flanders. Do you mean the Downton Abbey movie, which comes out later this year, or the series? It finished a while ago here; which series are you on?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s finished here also and has been in continuous repeats for over a year–every Sunday at 7 on one of our PBS channels. WWI was the main theme in Season 2. I can imagine WWI would be a big deal in Flanders. I saw two out of what was supposed to be a series of 5 WWI poems about Tommies who died in various ways when they went “over the top.” Also just read a novel by Rhys Bowen called Victory Garden set during WWI.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Denzil, you do a great job in bringing Belgium to life for someone like me who would, most likely, never get to visit your country. War time heaps all kinds of tribulations on the population, from finding food to living with the occupier. Yet, men continue to make war.

    The bit about the Germans confiscating all copper, brass and bronze to make their munitions hit me with the callousness of the occupier. They not only starve you to death, but also kill you with bullets made from your own pots and pans.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s an astute comment Rosaliene: “They not only starve you to death, but also kill you with bullets made from your own pots and pans.” That sums up the situation perfectly.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. We were so impressed by all the war related museums and sites we visited in Belgium and France. They simply told the stories, without any “them and us” commentary. I’ve just finished reading “The Beekeeper’s Promise” which is set in France during the second world war. The theme of survival is very similar and quite heartbreaking but inspirational at the same time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re right Sharon. Thanks for your comment. It’s grievous how quickly an aggressive stance can be developed and communicated, followed by deployment of ships/personnel, withdrawal of ambassadors, and before you know it, two countries are at war. Horrendous.

      Liked by 1 person

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