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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UK Government and Charity Fund Auschwitz School Trips

The UK government in conjunction with the Holocaust Educational Trust is currently funding visits to Auschwitz by two pupils from each school in the UK.  This mirrors the position adopted by David Cameron in regard to war cemeteries when announcing Britain’s Great War Centenary funding earlier this month.

These two BBC reports give you a sense of what the intension of the funding is to be and how the experience will be transmitted throughout the other pupils of each school in the UK.  In times of public sector cut-backs, this initiative must be deemed important.

I include these here as in thinking about the Great War one hundred years after the event it is almost impossible to do so without reference to the Second World War and in particular the Holocaust. This must be particularly true in Germany, but elsewhere throughout the (western?) world too.

It would be interesting to see if these two episodes in history (the Great War and the Holocaust) become part of a broader understanding of the twentieth century at the end of the Centenary period and what that understanding might be.

Ben Wellings

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

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UK Government announces Centenary plans

In a speech at the Imperial War Museum on 11 October 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the UK government’s plans for the Centenary commemorations.  Given that the Olympics have somewhat delayed preparations and that such preparations take place in the context of on-going austerity and public sector cuts, it is interesting that the three main dates selected for commemoration are the what the Telegraph calls the outbreak of the fighting (4 August 2014 in the case of the British), the first day of the Somme (1 July 2016) and Armistice Day (11 November 2018).

Although battles such as Gallipoli, Jutland and Third Ypres will be commemorated the timing of the ‘big three’ commemorations is nicely spaced to minimise ‘commemoration fatigue’, a known after effect of ‘commemorativitis’.  It also allows time for the commemoration of VE and VJ Day in 2015 as well as the Battle of Waterloo in the same year (although how this will be commemorated in France remains to be seen).

At the same time, the new think tank British Future is calling on the UK government to make 11 November 2014 a ‘special’ day where Britain’s two favourite pastimes – shopping and football – would be suspended for the day, citing public support for this initiative (even though the 11 November 2014 is not the one hundredth anniversary of any particular moment of import).

It is also interesting to contextualise these commemorations in light of the broader politics of nationalism within the United Kingdom.  On Monday 15 October, British Prime Minister David Cameron signed an agreement to hold a referendum on Scottish independence by the end of 2104 with Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and currently Scotland’s First Minister.

It s most likely that this referendum will be held in the autumn of 2014.  Twenty-fourteen is also the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn (remember ‘Braveheart’s happy ending).  I expect that holding the referendum on or near the anniversary of Bannockburn will be too obvious, but I also think that the pro-Union campaign ‘Better Off Together’ (i.e. those in favour of a united Kingdom) would be happy if the August commemorations preceded the referendum.  Although I expect that “politics” will be left explicitly out of the commemoration, the message will be clear that Britain was ‘better off together’ in 1914 and is so today.

The Telegraph (London) has a good report on Cameron’s speech that allows readers to see the wider political context (although the referendum agreement came after this announcement), particularly the vision of Conservatism outlined by Cameron the day before the Centenary speech.


Ben Wellings

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

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Photo essay: the Australian Remembrance Trail


In its 2009-2010 budget, the Australian government allocated $10m to establish an Australian Remembrance Trail throughout the former Western Front. The trail identifies and improves visitor facilities at a series of battlefields on which Australians fought, including in Ypres, Ploegsteert and Zonnebeke in Belgium, and at Fromelles, Bullecourt, Pozières, Mont St Quentin and Villers-Bretonneux in France. Here is a link to Australian government’s information on the Trail, including the Australian Remembrance Trail brochure.

In August and September 2012, I visited these sites to see what this trail looked like, what the visitor experience might entail, and how the sites related to the larger landscape which contextualises them. Following the trail north from Villers-Bretonneux to Zonnebeke, I photographed each site, trying to capture how they related to their surroundings, and using photographs to help understand the experience of ‘being there’.

Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux
The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux

I started at the primary commemorative site on the Trail, the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. My immediate impression was the agricultural nature of the surrounding landscape. We visited at harvest time, and tractors and other machines were common on the rural roads. Small clouds of dusty earth were visible front the high ground on which many of the sites are located.

Villers-Bretonneux cemetery with tractors
The cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux with tractors working in the background.

This formed a particularly stark contrast at Le Hamel, where I spoke briefly with a farmer working only a few metres from the memorial. The new road, visitor facilities and signage feel as if they demarcate a space completely distinct from the surrounding farms. Intended to invoke both another place – Australia – and another time – the Great War – Le Hamel is surrounded by farmland which, as it changes throughout the year, would change the feel and experience of the site. When I was there the harvest had just been completed, and the earth was dusty and exposed. I could imagine a different context to the site at different times in the farming year.

Signage at Le Hamel
Signs explaining the history of the site, and Australian involvement, Le Hamel.

memorial at Le Hamel
The memorial at Le Hamel is surrounded by farmland.










Moving between the sites meant driving on rural roads, and we doubled back or took wrong turns many times. As with many trails, this one is not as coherent and clear on the ground as it is on the map or brochure. I was not able to photograph Mont St Quentin, but at Pozières, a small observation platform allowed perspective over the surrounding landscape, showing the abrupt distinction between the memorial space and its surroundings.

Poziere from high vantage point
The memorial at Pozieres.
explanatory signage at Poziere
New explanatory signage at Pozieres.

The Australian site at Bullecourt is in a memorial park just outside the village on the Rue des Australiens. Peter Corlett’s memorial sculptures also appear at the Australian cemetery at VC Corner near Fromelles, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. They are part of a visual vocabulary that reinforce the official Anzac narrative and link the sites together.

BUllecourt Digger
The ‘Bullecourt Digger’ by Peter Corlett (1993) in the Australian Memorial Park.
Fromelles Cobbers
Peter Corlett’s ‘Cobbers’ (1998) at the Fromelles memorial park.

There are three distinct sites in and near Fromelles: the memorial park (pictured above), the VC Corner Australian Cemetery, and the new cemetery in the village itself, opposite the church. The last site saw the reburial of the newly-discovered remains of Australian soldiers in 2010.

Vc Corner cemetery Fromelles
The VC Corner Cemetery near Fromelles.
New cemetery at Fromelles
The new cemetery at Fromelles, opposite the village church.

Along with many other imperial forces, Australians were killed and are commemorated at the Menin Gate, Ypres. The In Flanders Fields Museum, recently refurbished and reopened in June 2012, is in the centre of the town in the  medieval Cloth Hall which was meticulously rebuilt after the Great War.

Menin Gate, Ypres
The Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium.

Ploegsteert is close to Ypres, and the memorial is on the main road. Its imposing size and design is a surprise on an otherwise unremarkable road.

Ploegsteert memorial
The Ploegsteert memorial.

The British Hyde Park Corner cemetery opposite the rotunda contains the graves of three German soldiers, whose gravestones differ only slightly in design from the Commonwealth ones.


Hyde Park Corner, Ploegsteert
The British Hyde Park Corner cemetery, opposite the rotunda at Ploegsteert.
A German grave at Hyde Park Corner, Ploesteert
A German grave at the Hyde Park Corner British cemetery outside Ploegsteert.

The last place I visited was outside Zonnebeke, in Belgium, not far from Ypres. Like the sites in France, this one is surrounded by farmland.

Polygon Wood
Polygon Wood cemetery, near Zonnebeke.

The memorial to the 5th Australian Division looks out over the Buttes New British cemetery, over the road from the Polygon Wood site. The affectionate toy koalas and small Australian flags on the memorial are a gentle contrast to the straight rows of headstones they overlook.

The Buttes new british cemetery
The Buttes New British cemetery is overlooked by the 5th Australian Division memorial at Polygon Wood.
5th Australian Division memorial, Zonnebeke
5th Australian Division memorial, Polygon Wood.
koalas on 5th division memorial, Zonnebeke
5th Australian Division memorial.