What we now call the "Great War" affected not only the lives and destinies of the millions of soldiers enrolled in one or another of the belligerent armies, but also the day-to-day lives of millions of women, men and children, in Europe and around the world…
One of the countries hardest hit by this unprecedented conflict was Belgium. From the very start of the hostilities, while blissfully living through the final moments of the "Belle Epoque", Belgium suddenly found itself at the very heart of the turmoil when, on the morning of August 4th 1914, the German army crossed the border at Gemmenich and thereby violated the neutrality of its territory.
In under three months, the troups of Kaiser Wilhelm II had invaded the country from east to west; on August 20th, they entered the capital of Brussels and by mid-October 1914, they had definitively pushed the Belgian army back across the Yser River... In their wake, countless cities and villages were destroyed, civilians massacred and whole families thrown out of their homes, out of their lives and onto the roads to exile. Belgium was then split in two: on one side, confined to a thin strip of land in the northwest of the country, the last piece of Belgian territory, the troupes of King Albert 1st would hardly move at all until the end of the conflict; on the other side, the population living under German occupation. For four long years, fear and deprivation held sway on both sides of the front line.
The editorial approach: a history of daily life
The aim of this site is to tell you about this history, and the story of the women, men and children who survived the anguish of the trenches or the rigours of the occupation.
To this end, the RTBF called on young historians from various Belgian French-language universities who, over a period of six months, attempted to trace the daily life of the Belgians and Germans, both civilians and soldiers, both at the front and under the occupation: What were their main concerns? What did they eat? How did they dress? Did they continue going to the theatre or to the cinema? Through various original topics (food, animals, arts and leisure, the economy, the family, medicine, the image of Belgium and much more…), visitors will be able to immerse themselves in this more limited history of the Great War, while discovering archival documents and testimonials, some of which have never before been seen by the general public.
It will probably be surprising to find one of your grandmother's recipes here, or a familiar old song, and to realise that life at this time was, even in certain very intimate aspects, very close to our daily lives of today! Did you know, for example, that the identity card originated with the "personal ausweis" imposed on all Belgian citizens by the German authorities in 1915? And what of the countless commemorative monuments spread throughout our cities and countryside, of those places and street names that pay homage to illustrious heroes or to those impressive trenches… all of these are vestiges, often unknown, of the First World War within our environment.
Important grassroots research work
Of course, this site's content certainly isn't exhaustive; its objective is primarily to offer, through some 100 original articles, a broad context and an opportunity for the most objective possible reading of a broad selection of subjects that are as diverse as they are varied. Everything is naturally accompanied by authentic illustrations (drawings, paintings, photographs, reproductions, etc.) as well as many video capsules and testimonials collected during the spring of 2014, that can be accessed via an interactive map of Belgium.
Significant investigative efforts have been devoted to each subject, focusing not only on the existing scientific literature, but also and most particularly on sources from public or private archives, while giving as much space as possible to previously unseen documents, and to the local dimension! Finally, while the content is naturally intended for the general public, this doesn't mean that the historians had set aside their scientific rigour; indeed, throughout these six months of research, their sole obsession was to popularize the subject and sources, but without weakening or denaturing them. As some of the team members can attest, this required significant editorial work in order to make the information clear and accessible for everyone.
Tackling the history of the First World War from an angle other than a purely political one, long favoured by historians, is no simple matter! First of all, time is passing, and original sources are becoming increasingly rare. As such, in recent years, historians have regretted the gradual disappearance of oral testimonials from veterans or people who experienced the occupation. Of these people, there remain only precious radio or television recordings notably made by the RTBF during the 1960s, at the time of the 50th anniversary of the Great War ; also remaining are many written documents (postcards, letters, personal diaries, leaflets, handwritten texts...) and visual documents.
But even in this regard, the major difficulty is that many of these documents are difficult to access, either because they haven't been inventoried as part of public archives, or because they're often carefully guarded by the descendents of their owners. Carefully… well not always, since not all families are aware of the treasure that they have sometimes passed on from generation to generation. There are two reasons for this: firstly, and this is partly the fault of historians themselves who, for a time, encouraged such an idea, only elements relating to political and military life are unconsciously viewed as more useful for History than any memories of day-to-day and family life; secondly, the more recent Second World War (1940-45) – certainly more striking in view of its totalitarian aspect – has somewhat replaced the First World War in the collective consciousness.
Off to meet with people: the RTBF 14-18 collection bus
The team of young historians made this observation countless times during its great 14-18 collection throughout Wallonia, from 31 March to 11 April 2014. For two weeks, nearly 200 people answered the call broadcast over the RTBF radio and television channels, and came to share their memories at one of the 25 stops of the 14-18 bus. Also, more than 120 people made their contributions either by e-mail or by telephone, thereby increasing the results of an already very successful collection effort. Amongst the flood of documents and objects inventoried, photographed and scanned: notebooks, diaries, letters and postcards, photographs, notices from the German administration, propaganda tracts, birth / death / marriage certificates, identity documents, food cards, recipe books, school books, toys, military decorations… The vast majority of contributors had a direct link with a soldier in the Belgian army, while others came to share their family's memories while under the occupation. This is further evidence of the dominance of military events over the events of daily life in the collective spirit.
Nevertheless, the RTBF team was able to gather testimonials (several of which were filmed and can be watched on this site) that illustrate how the memories were handed down and are still being handed down in some families: in general, whether mobilized or not, surviving veterans seem disinclined to talk to their children or grandchildren – much to the regret of the latter – about their experiences during the war, often out of a sense of trauma, and sometimes of shame. Some people say that the "true heroes are the ones who died at the front for their homeland", while relativizing all of the suffering under the occupation! Such a taboo does not facilitate the work of historians, though it remains significant when working with remembrances.
Over and above the testimonials, this collection also led to very enriching exchanges between the participants and historians, with the latter sometimes having to play detective in order to resolve some family enigma or another… Finally, visitors should rest assured: the site will continue to evolve. And if they haven't been used in one of the 100 thematic articles already available on the site, the collected documents will be progressively placed online along with more local or family-related anecdotes, all of which are every bit as thrilling.