War chronicles: The best books and websites on the First World War
Our five favourite books one the First World War and its massive repercussions for Belgium and Flanders
Soldiers and civilians
14-18, Oorlog in België (14-18, War in Belgium) By Luc De Vos, et al (Davidsfonds, 2014, in Dutch)
The Flemish professor Luc De Vos (not to be confused with the singer from the rock band Gorki) is a world authority on military history. He and three co-authors explain the military strategies of the Belgian and German forces during the First World War in a monumental publication of 590 pages, nearly 400 little-seen photos and more than 50 detailed maps. The maps summarise and illustrate all battle scenes, from the unexpected attack of the fortified positions of Liège over major bloodshed in Passchendaele to the trench war at the IJzer front, where everything changed.
Authors try to give readers a glimpse into the minds of the generals who made the critical decisions. Though the angle is military, the content is far broader, offering a glance into the daily routine at the frontline and depicting not only the weapons the soldiers carried, but also the clothes they wore and the food they ate.
De Groote Oorlog: Het koninkrijk België tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog (The Great War: The Kingdom of Belgium During the First World War) By Sophie De Schaepdrijver (Houtekiet, 1997/2013, in Dutch)
First published in 1997, this work about Belgium during De Groote Oorlog by the Flemish, US-based historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver is a must-read. In fact, she describes two wars: one battled in the trenches, and one endured in the rest of the country, where the brutal German occupation created excruciating hardship. The Belgian people of 1914 felt as neutral as the Swiss people now, De Schaepdrijver explains, as she illustrates the disbelief of the population when the largest invasion ever attacked their small and unprepared kingdom, which would eventually become the heart of the battlefield. She looks at the war from a bottom-up perspective, telling stories about people ahead of ideologies.
The writer received Flanders’ Ark Prize of the Free Word for the work. A lecturer of modern European history at Pennsylvania State University, De Schaepdrijver is curating the exhibition Bruges at War, which opens in October.
The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I By Larry Zuckerman (NYU Press, 2004, in English)
Ten years ago, the Seattle-based author Larry Zuckerman promoted the first edition of the Dutch-language version of this book (Manteau) at the Antwerp Boekenbeurs. “I have never felt so rewarded as I did seeing how grateful the Belgians were that I’d recounted an episode in their nation’s history that usually gets overlooked,” he said. His book describes in depth the random killings, atrocities and psychological terror committed by the German troops and administration, further illustrating how all kind of restrictions and indemnity infected seven million Belgian civilians during wartime. Before the war, Belgium was the world’s sixth largest economy, a position the looted country would never equal afterwards.
All of this was largely neglected by the foreign press, which mainly focused on the front, and the atrocities were communicated as exaggeration by the propaganda machine. If only the British and American governments had paid more attention to the hardship of the Belgian people, Zuckerman said, they might have been better able to predict the Nazi regime still to come.
Perspective of a medical historian
Zacht en eervol: Lijden en sterven in de Grote Oorlog / Before My Helpless Sight: Suffering, Dying and Military Medicine on the Western Front By Leo van Bergen (Manteau, 2014, in Dutch / Ashgate, 2009, in English)
Dutch doctor Leo van Bergen has spent his entire career researching the relationship between war and medicine. No one has ever described the life of wounded or ill soldiers, from the battle to the grave, better than this medical historian from Free University Medical Centre in Amsterdam. Precise as a surgeon but with the compassion of an army chaplain, Van Bergen covers both the physical and mental anguishes suffered by First World War soldiers.
Pointing out that aid was often given for military reasons than for humanitarian purposes (“Getting the men back to the front … and trying to spare the state as many war pension as possible”), he also answers questions raised by industrialised warfare and large-scale killing, such as “What happened when more people were killed than could possibly be buried properly?” A landmark in the medical historiography of the Great War, Before My Helpless Sight is a surprising accessible read.
All beautiful in Flanders Fields By Annemie Reyntjens (Davidsfonds, 2014, in Dutch/English)
A picture paints a thousand words might come to mind as you peruse Flemish photographer Annemie Reyntjens portraits of Flanders Fields. Following the trails of the war and spending 200 days among the cemeteries and memorials, she offers a visual ode to the departed. Her luxurious large-format photo book has additional information in both English and Dutch about the sites and the soldiers. Some of the captured silence, morbid and serene at once, is better illustrated by accompanying poems. “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them”.
The war online
A few local online resources with information about activities taking place over the next four years not only remind us of what happened between 1914 and 1918 but also helps to organise our personal commemorations of the Great War. The Flemish government’s site www.2014-18.be offers news about activities, exhibitions and other notable commemorations in four languages. There are links to international web pages, and a subject search enables visitors to look for specific information.
The federal website www.be14-18.be offers an agenda in four languages emphasising the big national ceremonies in Liège, Mons (where the first British soldier fell), Ypres, Nieuwpoort, Passchendaele and Brussels, but also mentions exhibitions, publications and activities, such as the nationwide military commemoration programme.
The website www.wo1.be, in Dutch and English, focuses on activities in the Westhoek, the West Flanders region of Diksmuide, Ypres and Veurne, where most of the action took place. There’s a database with all the local war monuments, battlefields and cemeteries and a summary of the events in the region. You’ll also find information on books and museums, and even a GPS page where you can download the data to navigate easily towards all the sites.
First World War
lives lost in West Flanders
annual visitors to the Westhoek
First Battle of Ypres