Like any large-scale historical event, the Great War immediately brings to mind long-established images, notably regarding the conflict's military aspects. Even today, such images still too often dominate the discussions and texts, including at the time of this 100th anniversary. For example, one hears that the First World War was a "senseless" war, or that the battles were "slaughters". In fiction and in the media, the soldiers are most often viewed more as victims than as participants. The offices are arrogant and/or incompetent, the civilians behind the lines are egotistical and/or warmongers, the women are admirable nurses or unfaithful wives, etc.
The aim of history is not to destroy these stereotypes, since they often contain an element of truth: too often, in fact, "demystifying" simply means replacing one myth with another. For that reason, today's historians are striving to understand the perceptions of war, to cast a spotlight on them in order to understand their origins, their functions, the needs that they fulfilled, more so than to destroy them. Since when, for example, has it been said that the Great War was "senseless", and who has been saying that? What would a "sensible" war be like, for whom and under what conditions? Why does the word "slaughter" not come so spontaneously to mind when we think about other conflicts, such as, for example, the Napoleonic wars, the American civil war or the first Gulf war? Is it the degree of violence, or a question of memory? Understanding the Great War presupposes some reflection about our own assumptions.
It is perhaps relative to military questions that these assumptions most prevent us from considering the war in a different light. Indeed, the trench warfare was seized upon by fiction from the days of the conflict and in the immediate after-war period, and it continues to shape our view of the war. Understanding how the Great War was waged and experienced first requires an understanding of how it was anticipated by the combatants and the populations. The considerable gap between how the war was imagined before 1914 and its actual events had an enormous impact on the people involved in it. This experience becomes incomprehensible if we limit ourselves to the purely military factors. What weapons and technologies were deployed during the Great War, and how were they used? What did "fighting" mean in the daily life of a soldier? In concrete terms, what was a "battle" actually like, and did this word still have a meaning at this time? How to explain the greater focus on the war in the trenches and the lesser focus on the war of movements in 1914, and the war in 1918 that ended with an Allied victory that is so poorly recognised today? Finally, it's important to recall the specific features of the experience of Belgian combatants during the Great War. The Yser front was not the Somme or Verdun, and covering up the experiences of the Belgians with realities that were foreign to them can only lead us to interpretation errors, and prevent us from understanding the experiences of these men who, nearly 100 years ago, died to defend the country that we have inherited.