About five years ago Dominiek Dendooven of the In Flanders Fields Museum introduced me to the diary of Father Achiel Van Walleghem. As he told me about the riches of its contents, it became clear that this source would provide a fascinating insight into the war. Van Walleghem served throughout the conflict as the priest of Dickebusch (Dikkebus) where he lived, before being forced to move to Reninghelst (Reningelst) in 1916. A committed, intelligent, imaginative man, he faithfully recorded everything he saw around him, usually accompanied by an acute judgement or insight. The problem of making this wonderfully rich document available to a wider audience was getting it translated from its West Flemish original dialect. Indeed, this is the first revelation the diary provides of the sepia world of 1914. Van Walleghem’s distinctive Flemish dialect is almost incomprehensible today, and so was a long way from modern Dutch. Here we truly have the past as a foreign country; foreign not just to the native English-speaker, but also to his fellow Belgians. But now, thanks to this English translation of his diaries for 1917, the Anglophone world has the chance to access this highly- illuminating glimpse into life behind the lines from the point of view of a local inhabitant.
Often portrayed as ungrateful, petty-minded, money-grabbing peasants in memoirs, an interpretation encapsulated by Robert Graves in his Goodbye to All That, the people of the BEF’s hinterland are often shadowy caricatures for many British and Commonwealth people interested in the Great War. Rare indeed is a voice like R.H. Mottram with his sensitive and subtle grip on the culture and mind-set of the Flemish and French of the Nord. Here, in Van Walleghem’s diary, we see the war from a completely different perspective with a host of themes and preoccupations hardly perceived by British soldiers at the time, and commentators ever since.
A peculiarly depressing phenomenon is the remorseless impact of German artillery on civilian life and property. Barely a day seems to pass without some family experiencing severe damage to their houses and essentials of their livelihoods, appalling wounds and death. At the same time, the troops of the BEF wreak their own form of havoc usually by simple thoughtlessness and carelessness, but sometimes by wilful design. Van Walleghem records numerous conflagrations in barns and outhouses caused by soldiers nurturing fires in places where common sense was overridden by the necessity of being frozen to the core. Van Walleghem allows us to realise that such accidents could be disastrous to already hard-pressed farmers desperately trying to maintain their livelihoods in immensely trying conditions. Local life was further disrupted by both the laziness of soldiers, who always seem to take the shortest cuts through fields trampling precious crops in the process, or the amazingly pig-headed approach of the army in insisting that guns or transport be gathered in a planted field while utterly ignoring the waste or fallow one right alongside it.
Another trait of the army that causes him great irritation is the obsession with spying and espionage. The diary reveals a steady stream of arrests and questioning of locals on often ludicrously flimsy evidence. And yet, at the same time, he records huge lapses in British security. Van Walleghem hears rumours about the Messines (Mesen) offensive weeks before it commences with a British officer providing some of the information. On another day, he freely walks past a scale model of Wytschaete (Wijtschate) highlighting all of the German defensive positions. In early July British troops freely tell him that they are preparing for a breakthrough offensive in the salient. Such snippets reveal much about both the garrulousness of British soldiers, which also implies a sense of easy amicability with local people despite the odd flare-up of tensions, and their continuing optimism that a breakthrough was within their grasp in 1917.
Partly due to the wonderful calm and serenity of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, with their poignant stories of lives brutally cut short incised into Portland Stone, it is also very easy to turn all Tommies into little short of alabaster saints. Once again, Van Walleghem’s diary provides a wonderful corrective, which actually brings out the sheer diversity of the men of the BEF. Some men steal with potatoes and chickens being a favourite target. Quite a lot also drink to excess, which then leads to rowdiness and disruptive behaviour. However, Van Walleghem never falls into the trap of presenting a simple them and us binary divide. He notes that local bar owners are making good profits, particularly from dominion troops with their higher pay, and knowingly continue to supply booze despite all the problems its creates.
Using his sharp eye, Van Walleghem also notes the differences between British and imperial troops believing that the Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders are generally more exuberant than the British. He is also a fount of fascinating comments on the Chinese Labour Corps, which reveal as much about the way westerners viewed the orient, as about the nature of the Corps’ members. Like many others who came into contact with them, he was clearly fascinated by the Chinese, noting their habits and customs, and also how the local population quickly adapted to their presence with some shopkeepers picking up a smattering of terms as they realised an economic opportunity.
The calm detachment with which he viewed the Chinese does not mean that Van Walleghem was always a cool, objective observer, and there is one area in which he displayed absolutely no neutrality or distance, and that was regarding the true faith. It is patently obvious throughout the diary that Van Walleghem has a very marked disdain for Protestantism. At best, it is a pale imitation of genuine Christianity, at worst it is little more than a cloak for immoral behaviour. This is seen at its inadvertently comic best when he complains that he has found a copy of the saucy magazine La Vie Parisienne in a YMCA hut, and concludes that, ‘This gives one an idea of the moral principles of Protestantism.’ By extension, Protestant chaplains seem an intriguingly strange bunch to Van Walleghem, but, by the same token, he does not judge their Roman Catholic equivalents to be saints in thin disguise, and criticizes those he deems poor examples.
Of course, for many Anglophone readers it is Van Walleghem’s comments on the great battles around Ypres that will arouse most interest. As with so many other things, he proves a highly insightful observer. Drawing upon both his own eye-witness testimony, combined with what he gleans from others, he follows the progress of both Messines and Third Ypres with great accuracy. For him, a huge relief is the sight of British observation balloons moving forward, as this is a sure sign of advance. However, as the constant destruction by German artillery shows, British counter-battery work rarely threatened the longest-range German guns. Pity flows through Van Walleghem as the weather changes on 31 July, and his diary reveals his deep compassion for the sufferings of the British soldiers. As the rain commences, the temperature drops markedly leaving Van Walleghem to wonder how the men are faring without their winter greatcoats. With painstaking precision, he follows the flow of the battle, but brings to it the eye of the Belgian. Not solely fixated on British operations, he also passes comment on the activities of the Belgian and French forces north of Ypres, which provides a highly important corrective to the narrow focus that Anglophones can often have. Many readers might then find the criticisms proffered by a French officer to Van Walleghem on British military performance very interesting, indeed.
And this brings things back to the core significance of Van Walleghem’s diary. For perhaps its most important element is the reminder that this was a world war, and that as well as being fought across the globe, it also brought the globe to a tiny corner of Belgium. Cultures, races and creeds tumbled into one another through the fortunes of war, and we can still detect traces of that amazingly diverse melting pot across the landscape of West Flanders today.