The Low Countries - 2014, № 22

14 maart 2014

The 22nd volume of The Low Countries Yearbook commemorates the First World War. You can find the table of contents here


“I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)”

     Siegfried Sassoon

When the heir to the Austrian throne and his wife were shot dead in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, a deadly machine was set in motion that catapulted the European superpowers into a war that no one seemed to have wanted, but that was nonetheless greeted with euphoria in all their capitals. That euphoria saw the war as an act of hygiene for the world, as Marinetti had written in his futuristic manifesto in 1909.

By the end of 1914, however, the war had got bogged down in the mud of trench warfare. It was to last four long years and turned into a hitherto unseen Materialschlacht, in which, to quote Ernst Jünger, for the first time places rather than people became the targets. From Nieuwpoort at the North Sea to Switzerland, and from north-eastern Italy to Gallipoli in Turkey. For the Belgians the Yser became an iconic battlefield, for the British Ypres and the Somme, for the Canadians Vimy, for the French Verdun, for the Italians Caporetto, and for the Australians, New Zealanders and Turks Gallipoli. The Battle of Tannenberg was a debacle for the Russians. And for the Germans Langemark became the stuff of myth: there, in 1914, inexperienced German students advanced towards the machine guns of the professional British army.

How should we commemorate it all? Siegfried Sassoon thought the new Menin Gate in Ypres, which was officially opened in 1927, a scandal:

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride
‘Their name liveth for ever,’ the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

                     (On Passing the New Menin Gate)

Today we look with awe at the close to 55,000 names on this monument – names of soldiers whose bodies were never recovered. Perhaps the list is a war poem.

In this edition we want to deal with some less obvious facets of the Great War. What was the lot of the many hundreds of thousands of refugees who ended up in the Netherlands and Great Britain in the autumn of 1914? What role did the Knight-King Albert I and his wife Queen Elisabeth play in the mythologization of ‘la Belgique sanglante et martyre’ and ‘Gallant Little Belgium’? How did occupied Belgium fare? We examine lieux de mémoire like the poppy, the Menin Gate in Ypres, war songs and the landscape - the last witness. What was the effect on the Netherlands of not experiencing the First World War? The second was certainly a traumatic experience for them and even today there are still questions about the Shoah that do not go away.

As well as the themed pieces this volume offers the usual choice of essays on writers and artists past and present, on history that survives to the present day and society that has evolved from its past.

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