1917 – the Passchendaele year – the British Army in Flanders – the diary of Achiel van Walleghem
edited by Dominiek Dendooven
translated by Prof. Guido Latré and Susan Reed
published by EER Edward Everett Root, 2017
ISBN 978 1 911454 40 3
Paperback 281 pages; illustrated; no index.
Cover price not stated.
Reviewed by Chris Baker.
I have been aware of the existence of this diary for many years but have never seen it, and only on a few occasions have I seen it referred to in other books. The original is held at the “In Flanders Fields” Museum in Ypres and details can be seen at http://achielvanwalleghem.be/. The editor and translators appear to have done a fine job, and the book commences with 40 pages of introduction, background and a cross-listing of contemporary and modern spellings of town and village names.
Achiel van Walleghem was in his mid 30s when war came to Flanders. He was a Roman Catholic priest for the village of Dickebusch, living in nearby Reninghelst during the momentous year of 1917. Van Walleghem recorded events in his diary: perhaps we might call it a chronicle, for it is mainly of his observations of life in this area and of his thoughts about what was going on. He has the evidence of his own eyes as he travels around the neighbourhood; he hears rumours and reports. The diary was not written for publication and, as such, along with the scarcity of work on the experience of civilians living in the militarised area, it is insightful and significant.
During 1917 the area was occupied by the British Armies engaged in fighting in the Ypres and Messines Ridge sectors. The author witnesses the build-up to the great battles of June and July to November, the latter being the Passchendaele of the chosen title for this translated version. He hears of successes and failures; is encouraged by the former, mainly as it means the fighting is moving further away. He shows no sign of optimism that it hinted of ultimate victory, or indeed notable pessimism when things are evidently not going well.
For almost all of the year, his account is somewhat monotonous and repetitive. There is daily shellfire, with farms and buildings in his area being hit, very often with civilian and military casualties. During the summer months there is nightly danger from German air raids. As the local priest he attends to many funerals. The reader begins to wonder why so many civilians – van Walleghem explains that there were at most times some 300 living and working in Dickebusch alone – stayed in this area when the risk to personal safety was so high, and the curtailment of normal liberties so evident. We must wonder at their fortitude and what alternatives they rejected. The author is frustrated at the damage to crops and buildings by military occupation, and is not slow to point the finger at what he sees as stupidity by military authorities and ordinary soldiers alike.
Aside from the repetitive nature of his account, the diary contains much of historical and human interest: of the French involvement in the main battle; of the dreadful weather that so affected the offensive; of the arrival of Portuguese troops; of tanks; of the proliferation of cemeteries; of the awful deaths of children; of food and crop prices.
I found myself admiring his stoicism, evident physical courage and curiosity. I also found him disagreeable: his scathing views on the Protestant faith; of usually fairly negative views of French, British, Australian and New Zealand troops. His notes on the Chinese and Annamite labour troops that begin to appear in Flanders in 1917 are what we might expect of a European white man of his times.
It is certainly an interesting read and I would encourage anyone with an interest in Flanders at this time to give it a try.
Van Walleghem unfailingly refers to the farms of the area by the name of the occupants. I know this area well, some of it like the back of my hand – but by the British names that appear in contemporary maps and accounts. In consequence I found the story very difficult to follow from a geographical viewpoint. The book includes a map (held at the archives of the Bisphopric of Bruges) but it has been reproduced so small that the names are illegible. The book tells me that there is a map at the website named above, but I gave up after being unable to locate it: and I can read the Dutch language. I am afraid that this, and the absence of an index, reduce the utility of the book as a work of reference.
I understand from ISBN numbers given within that there is also a hardback version and an ebook.