In Flanders Fields Declaration

By Laurence van Ypersele and Ben Wellings

The “In Flanders Fields Draft Declaration’ was tabled for discussion by the government of Flanders in the summer of 2010.

The politics surrounding this Draft Declaration illustrate some of the difficulties in commemorating the Great War in Belgium.   They also make an interesting contrast with the politics of remembrance in the United Kingdom, where – outside of Northern Ireland – the Centenary commemorations will be used to emphasise (British) commonality rather than national distinctiveness.

Belgium is currently divided into three major political and administrative regions: Flanders; Wallonia; and Brussels.  As a federation organised along consociational, linguistic lines, each of these regions is highly autonomous.  In this political context it was possible for the government of Flanders to draft a Declaration for discussion amongst the 50 foreign governments participating in the planning of Centenary activities in Belgium.  However, the government of Flanders sent this Draft Declaration neither to the government of Wallonia nor to the federal (Belgian) level of government.  Objections were raised from amongst the 50 foreign governments that this was inappropriate and that the diplomatic services of those foreign governments would only deal with the federal level of government in Belgium in equal government-to-government discussions.

So, when the government of Flanders, under pressure from foreign ambassadors, gave its ‘In Flanders Fields’ declaration to the federal level of government, thus making it a ‘national’ declaration, changes to the wording and meaning were proposed.

The government of Wallonia immediately suggested using the word ‘Belgium’ in place of ‘Flanders’ in the text.  It also called for recognition of the rights of minorities, explicit recognition of the involvement of soldiers and civilians in the name of freedom and democracy, and mention of the Second World War as well as the First. All of these suggestions were in some ways pointed reminders of historical divisions rather than grounds for Belgian unity, where Flemish and Walloon collective memories of twentieth century conflict diverged.

However, a political compromise was reached on October 2, 2012. After two years of political discussion, the word ‘Belgium’ can be found in the text, along with reference to the people who defended democracy and mention of the respect for ‘diversity’ (in place of ‘minorities’).  The rest of the declaration didn’t much change from the Draft.

Coverage of the Declaration announcement can be read here.

Ben Wellings

Ben Wellings is Lecturer of European Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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The Pilgrimage to the IJsertoren: Flemish nationalism and Great War commemoration

By Laurence van Ypersele and Ben Wellings

This year, as every year since 1922, the Yser Pilgrimage took place on the last Sunday of August.

This annual ceremony, that remembers and commemorates Flemish sacrifice and loss during the Great War, is organised by a Flemish nationalist committee at the IJsertoren (Yser Tower), Dixmuide.  It has also traditionally been the moment to express Flemish claims against the Belgian State.

Until the 1970s, this ceremony involved participants in their thousands.  But after the political re-organisation of Belgium into a federal state, fewer and fewer people attended.  In order to change this situation, for the first time this year, the organising Committee invited the family of Amé Fievez and the mayor of the village where he lived (Calonne, now part of Antoing in the region of Hainaut).  Fievez was a Walloon soldier who was killed alongside the Van Raemdonck brothers in 1917.  These brothers, Frans and Edward, have long been an important symbol of Flemish victimhood, combining an image of fraternal love with the long-standing sense that Walloon officers were indifferent to the casualties in the Flemish ranks.

Of course, the truth is more complicated than the employment of history in this way allows.  The grave of the brothers Van Raemdonck and Amé Fievez rests under the Yser Tower. But the Fievez’s family had to wait until the 1960s to see the names of Walloon soldiers written on the grave.  And this year, for the first time, some Walloons were invited on the Yser Pilgrimage.  The French speaking authorities of the Walloon government sent flowers, but didn’t attend because they weren’t invited. Neither were the federal authorities, nor the major Flemish political figures.  As usual, the speeches demanded more autonomy for Flanders and a  ‘Belgian Confederation’ (although in reality that means independence) so that the Flemish can finally live in peace with the Walloon community, represented on this occasion by the family of Amé Fievez and mayor of his village.

Despite this cross-communal innovation, the broader public was not particularly engaged and did not attend in large numbers.  Following the failure of this initiative the President of the Committee announced that the following year, the ceremony would take place on 11 November, billed as a “return to the origins” of the ceremony.  However, this ceremony had never taken place on Armistice Day at all.  Flemish historians as well as other Belgians immediately denounced this decision and the reasons given for it.  The reaction to that announcement demonstrated that many Flemish people who profess love Flanders don’t desire the end of Belgium. The Flemish secessionists are aware of that sentiment too, which is why they now always speak about and argue for confederation rather than full independence.

Thus we can clearly link the shift of commemorative date to an overt nationalist political project.  Armistice Day – itself suffering from waning public attendances in Blegium – will be used by Flemish nationalists in an attempt to re-legitimise and popularise their political program.  Here again we see an example of how contemporary politics shape our understanding of the Great War.

Ben Wellings

Ben Wellings is Lecturer of European Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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Lest You Forget: memory and Australian nationalism in a global era

With the exception of sport, Australians don’t mind losing.

Losing entire wars of course interrupts the flow of the Australian narrative: the gradual evolution of a prosperous, democratic society far from the land of its modern origins now charting its own course through the new global dispositions of the twenty-first century.  Losing battles on the other hand, is acceptable as long as the outcome is assured.

This then is one of the strongest leitmotifs within Australian collective memory: triumph over adversity.  As with most national narratives that bind communities together there is truth in these tales.  The establishment of penal colonies so far from Britain was an impressive technical achievement.  The transformation of theses despotic colonies into democratic polities was an impressive political one.  The consolidation of these societies in the face of environmental hardship was an economic and social one.

But this narrative of the past leads to one of the creative tensions within Australian nationalism: that is that Australians are most comfortable with a view of themselves as ultimately victorious victims.  Thus in recounting tales of Australia’s historical development, victimhood is emphasised, whilst victory is downplayed.  Australian collective memory is most comfortable with itself when Australians are portrayed as victims of an unjust penal system, or victims of a harsh environment, or victims of British military incompetence.

That last source of victimhood dominates the collective memory of the Great War.  Gallipoli is the prime example, but actions at Fromelles, Pozieres and Zonnebeke all fit into the same narrative arc.  Whatever bravery or resignation individuals summoned in the moment of battle, poor planning drastically reduced their chances of survival.  In the collective memory, those individuals are no longer volunteer citizen-soldiers renowned for their fighting qualities, but rather have become victims divorced from the wider strategic contexts that brought about their deaths.

This view of the Great War and the sense of victimhood occasioned by it is not unique to Australia of course.  It was evident early on when collective understandings of the conflict were being established, as in Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The General’:

“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack/ As they marched up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

Luddendorf’s notion of the British soldiers as “lions led by donkeys” clearly struck a chord.  Collective criticism of the war grew until it became shorn of its original meaning, ‘the Great War for Civilisation’, until it became first ‘the Great War’ and then, when it could no longer be conceived as ‘the War to end all wars’, merely the first in a series of epoch defining conflicts.  Importantly it became remembered as a tragedy, not in the sense of a disaster that could be foreseen but not prevented, but rather in the sense that it involved a lot of victims.  Without the redeeming triumph over evil that could so easily be read into narratives about the Second World War, the collective memory of the Great War focused on victims rather than victory.

This memory of the Great War served important historical and political purposes.  Firstly it helped create important ideological foundations for later European integration.  One important source of European commonality, ran the narrative, was that Europeans were all victims of war.  And after all the history wars, les guerres de memoires and the vergangenheitsbewaltigung, the memory of the Great War was free from guilt and blame as all participants, especially the dead, were victims of war.  Secondly, successive crises within the European Union have revived the memory of the Great War and caused it to be patched up and sent back to the front line for active service once more in the cause of public diplomacy.  This is where the forthcoming centenary commemorations – coordinated in European capitals – will serve a wider political purpose and once again draw Australia in.

Australia has experienced its own revival in Great War commemoration and has arrived at a similar jumping off point to its European counterparts but for somewhat different reasons.  Reasons for the growth in interest in the Great War and the national values that it allegedly helped forge are manifold.  However, at the political level Anzac has been the form of identity politics that eventually came to dominate potential rivals as Australia transitioned into a global era.  Republicanism was defeated decisively in 1999.  An attempt to generate a narrative of Australian distinctiveness around memory of Federation in 1901 was too bloodless – literally and metaphorically – to provide the requisite sense of drama to inspire popular interest.  Reconciliation – Australia’s own vergangenheitsbewalitgung – was too unsettling to remain in the popular consciousness for long.

Indeed the latter may have helped contribute to the popularity of Anzac.  Reconciliation provided an alterative narrative of Australian history whereby Australians were no longer victims, but perpetrators.  Politically this was unacceptable to the government of the day, and energy and resources were diverted into wartime commemorative services.  Reconciliation continued only in vestigial form after 2001, leaving the field to Anzac.

So Australians’ views of themselves as victims sits very well with the European notion of victimhood as we approach the centenary of the Great War.  Or it does up to a point, for the narrative of victimhood has its limits.  In 2014 the commemorative spotlight is likely to fall upon Belgium with the memory of occupation and atrocities to be negotiated.  In 2015 Australia and New Zealand will take centre stage as victims of war, although how the Armenian genocide might be marked diplomatically remains to be seen.  In 2016 and 2017 all nations can commemorate victimhood.  But 2018, the centenary of ‘the year of victory’ (and defeat), will upset this narrative.

In 1918, the Allied and Associated Powers won too decisively for contemporary Australian tastes.  However much understandings of the Great War and the peace that followed blurred the distinction between victory and defeat, the Treaty of Versailles was clear that Germany not only lost, but also started the war in the first place.  Article 231 has been blamed for many things, including the Second World War.  However, so complete a victory – and so flawed a peace – will be difficult to commemorate.  Australians and their government will avoid this difficult topic and concentrate on the defence of Villers-Bretonneux and its subsequent reconstruction during the centenary year of 2018 in addition to a return to the narrative of Australian fighting skill, also evident in the commemoration of the battles of 1918.

Victims are absolved of responsibility.  This is the risk of commemorating victimhood.  Such commemoration does not provide those interested with ways to understand the world around them in any profound way.  It merely provides a set of cues about exemplary national behavior: how to respond to the long-ago deaths of distant relations or complete strangers when surrounded by hundreds or thousands of co-nationals and to receive approval from those in positions of responsibility.

Given the structures of international relations and the dynamics of political crisis and public diplomacy, it is hard to see any other way in which the Great War can be commemorated. But it can de remembered differently.  Shifting attention from victimhood to the structures and decisions that helped cause the deaths of these individuals, can and should be an important part of the commemorative activities.  Lest we forget.

Ben Wellings

Ben Wellings is Lecturer of European Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux: national identity and geographies of affect

Since 2008, on the 90th anniversary of the Great War battle that took place there, the Australian government has held a commemorative service at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux site every Anzac Day. The first service attracted around 3,000 people, and by 2011, this had increased to almost 4,000 people, a number that is expected to continue to grow. Here, I explore the relationship between this site, its symbolism, its use during Anzac Day and at other times, and the construction of Australian national identity.

 My previous research about place and its relationship with national identity suggested that the Villers-Bretonneux memorial would be important for shaping or narrating Australian national identity, perhaps even helping to illuminate some of its intricacies or contests. This was based on work about urban public place that demonstrated its ability to frame multiple discourses of national identity, shaping the interactions amongst different national groups and illuminating some of the complexity of how such groups understand the nation in different ways. The large body of scholarship on the relationship amongst place, monuments and artworks, memory, history and national identity coalesce around a range of issues including the flexibility (or otherwise) of national narratives, and their capacity to incorporate a range of perspectives.

 If the symbols built into sites of national memory are important, so too is the way such sites are used. An important part of how such sites are activated is through affect, the embodied and unpredictable responses to the experience of place. This is undoubtedly important when it comes to Anzac sites, for at least two reasons. The first is the emotional impact that many visitors report experiencing when visiting such sites. McKenna and Ward[i] , for example, take up the sentimentalism they identify in mostly young Australian ‘pilgrims’ reactions to visiting Gallipoli, pointing to ‘their profound emotional investment in the Anzac legend’. They question whether visitors had been primed to be ‘moved’ by the experience as a result of prior exposure to conventional ways of the media constructs this event in Australia: ‘[the] montage of mournful soundtrack, waving flags and quietly weeping diggers on parade’.

 The second reason affect may be a useful way to frame the relationship between the memorial and Australian national identity is because of the link between spatialised politics of meaning and the individual. Thrift offers a politics of affect in which a ‘top-down’ process determines how the built environment is shaped or manipulated to produce a reaction in people who experience it, including through ‘design, lighting, event management logistics, music, performance’[ii]. He argues that ‘affect has always been a key element of politics and the subject of numerous powerful political technologies which have knotted thinking, technique and affect together in various potent combinations’[iii]. Such ‘engineering’ has a long history of being used to reinforce identification with, for example, national or metropolitan identities, and is also on show during Anzac Day ceremonies that turn memorial sites into televisions sets on which the rituals of national identity are performed.

 Geographies of affect at Villers-Bretonnuex

 The rituals of Anzac Day at Villers-Bretonneux follow a familiar pattern recognisable for anyone who has ever been to a Dawn Service ceremony. The rhythm of the readings, hymn-singing, official speeches, a minute’s silence and a bugler playing the Last Post are all well-known elements of this Australian state ritual, even as they have gradually changed over time.

 Newspaper description of the event have often focused on the affective or emotional aspects of the ceremony, picking out a few choice phrases from officials’ speeches, or have emphasised the individual experiences of either soldiers who fought in 1918 or people who had come to ‘honour’ these experiences. For example, coverage in The Australian newspaper of the 2009 Dawn Service focused on visitors with a family history of military service. In the same newspaper, coverage of the 2010 ceremony conflated the official and the personal by focusing on the family history of Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who had two great uncles who died on the western front. The report underlined the merging of the official and the personal by quoting a line from Smith’s speech: ‘there was hardly an Australian family that wasn’t touched by the tragedy’[iv].

 The theme of personal connection to the Great War or the soldiers buried at Villers-Bretonneux is common in media reporting on Anzac Day ceremonies. For some people, the emotional experience of ‘pilgrimage’ is closely linked to national identity: in 2009, Donna Turnbull told Belinda Tasker from The Herald Sun that ‘My dad was in the services so I feel a big affiliation with [the Diggers]. We go to a dawn service every Anzac Day. You aren’t an Aussie if you don’t come.’[v]

 The relationship that visitors have to the Memorial is conditioned by the official narrative that is engineered, in Thrift’s terms, into the site. This includes the built environment of the bullet-marked tower and the solemn rows of headstones. The national narrative is also evident in the content of Anzac Day ceremonies themselves, and the official Australian government participation. This link between the personal experience of both fighting and remembering at Villers-Bretonneux on the one hand, and an officially sanctioned national narrative on the other underpins how the Memorial works through a selective process in which personal or individual memory is appropriated as national remembrance through the lens of the memorial’s landscape and symbolism. Here I follow Jay Winter’s [vi] distinction between individual ‘memory’ and collective ‘remembrance’, the latter a term that implies both agency and a reliance on the commitment of people to continue the work of remembering. Winter also offers the possibility that the collective memory that national sites activate can be held by sub-national groups.

 I suggest that the collective remembrance of a sub-national group, namely those people who travel to engage in remembrance at the Memorial, is reshaped through official channels to form the national history of all Australians. What gives this process particular power is the emotional resonance of stories of wartime death, constructed as sacrifice and heroism. This suggests that a limited sub-national group is shaping the meaning of Villers-Bretonneux, in part through its use of the site and its geographies of affect. This group is bound together by their common act of remembrance, sometimes due to a family history of military service, with accompanying stories of loss, heroism or grief. However, the overlap of the use of Villers-Bretonneux by this group with an official national ceremony in the form of Anzac Day means that this group’s collective memory has become merged with a national ritual. The effect is that their memory is constructed, in large part through television and newspaper coverage of the event, as an Australian memory.

 ‘Unprescribed’ uses

Unlike some other types of national sites, this process, at least in the case of Villers-Bretonneux, appears to diminish the possibility of multiple narratives of national identity, creating a singular discourse that activates and amplifies the experiences of a limited sub-group of the nation. This process, initiated and nurtured by successive Australian governments of both main political parties, presents the memories and experiences of war as universally ‘Australian’ despite their limited applicability. I propose that the singularity of the national narrative constructed through the use of Villers-Bretonneux is partially due to the nature of the site itself, and by the fact that there are not a wide range of practices that occur within the site. The fact that Villers-Bretonneux is a cemetery, as well as a memorial, shapes the practices that occur there on every day of the year. Unlike the ‘unprescribed uses’ of some Anzac sites in Australia, most of the visitors to Villers-Bretonneux are there for a very specific purpose – the visiting of graves[vii].

 The relationship between the national narratives of loss and memory evident in the Viller-Bretonneux Memorial’s built environment on the one hand, and the use of the site by visitors on the other, appears to be straightforward. Australians go there to visit graves, reflect on Anzac sacrifice and try and understand the Australian history of the Great War a bit better. There does not appear to be strong evidence of other ways of using the site that might complicate its narratives of national identity. Rather than opening up the possibility of narrative complexity, as many other public national sites do, it appears to narrow them.


[i] Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward (2007) ‘‘It was really moving, mate’: The Gallipoli Pilgrimage and Sentimental Nationalism in Australia’ Australian Historical Studies 38 (129): 141-151.

[ii] Thrift (2004), pp. 67-68.

[iii] Nigel Thrift, N (2004) ‘Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect’ Geografiska Annaler 86B (1), p 64.

[iv] The Australian 26 April 2010 ‘Villers-Bretonneux personally poignant’, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/in-depth/anzac-day/villers-bretonneux-personally-poignant/story-e6frgdaf-1225858137047, accessed 10 Apr 2012.

[v] Belinda Tasker (2009) ‘Thousands attend Anzac service in Villers-Bretonneux, France’ The Herald Sun, 25 April 2009. http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/breaking-news/thousands-attend-anzac-service-in-france/story-e6frf7jx-1225703889035. Accessed 16 April 2012.

[vi] Jay Winter (2006) Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[vii] C. Winter (2011) ‘Visitors on the Somme’.

The Politics of the Past: Great War Commemoration in International Perspective

This international symposium took place at the Australian National University from 26-27 April 2012 and was hosted by the School of Politics and International Relations and the ANU Centre for European Studies. It brought together researchers from France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand with a common interest in Great War Commemoration who gathered in Canberra to observe the annual Anzac Day commemoration.

No discussion of Australian national identity today can avoid the memory of Australia’s fighting forces. Anzac Day has grown to be a remarkable cultural and political phenomenon in the past two decades, making 25 April a quasi-official independence day.    The increasing popularity of the anniversary and the intensification in its promotion by Australian governments is well-documented.  However, little has scholarly work has been done to place our understanding of Anzac in an international, comparative perspective.

With the centenary of the Great War only two years away, the symposium sought to address this gap in our understanding.  Participants set out to situate the recent resurgence of the Anzac legend within a wider international field of enquiry, with the aim of deepening our understanding of the global and domestic importance of this narrative ahead of the Great War centenaries of 1914-1918.  Papers drew on politics, history, sociology and international relations, exploring and analysing the distinctions and intersections between debates about the past in Australia and Europe.

The symposium was organised with support from the Embassy of France in Canberra.

Ben Wellings & Shanti Sumartojo (ANU)

The Politics of Great War Commemoration

Dr Ben Wellings (ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences) discusses issues of national commemoration, celebration and identity with Professor Laurence van Ypersele, Department of History, Catholic University of Louvain; Dr Matthew Graves (Aix-Marseille University) Research Fellow at the Australian Prime Ministers Centre, and Professor Jim MacAuley, Co-director of the Academy for British and Irish Studies (University of Huddersfield). This round table was held at the Australian National University, 27 April 2012.