Of a Lost Summer by Cyriel Buysse
Of a Lost Summer is a travelogue by the Flemish writer Cyriel Buysse that documents the Western Front in France and Belgium, where he also visited the destructed towns in West Flanders where he was born. During the war, the beloved Dutch speaking writer Buysse lived in exile in the Netherlands until 1916 when the Belgian government sent him to the front. He made his way from the Dutch harbour town Flushing to London, Le Havre, Paris, the French front, and finally to non-occupied Belgium in West Flanders. He published his impressions of encounters with the British and the Belgians and of seeing the graves of colonial soldiers in the Dutch newspaper Haagsche Post [Post of The Hague]. These were eventually compiled in Of a Lost Summer in 1917. To read a selection of original fragments and the English translation (forthcoming), please click on the sources above.
It was commonplace for belligerent nations to send journalists and writers on official missions to the front, in order to compile reports on the condition, activities, and heroism of their armies. These reports were used to connect the home front and the neutral countries to (their interpretation of) the realities of war. Of a Lost Summer was the product of such a Belgian-sponsored mission. During the war, as a moderate pro-Flemish writer, Buysse positioned himself unequivocally as pro-Belgian and anti-German and he condemned all forms of Flemish cooperation with the German occupying forces. In the first extract, Buysse describes his boat trip to England, where he sat amongst a variety of allied soldiers - Russians, French, and Flemish - who had escaped German POW camps. Observing their profound silence, Buysse placed emphasis on the overwhelming feeling of estrangement experienced by soldiers from diverse nations forced to meet each other on the battlefield. He described the loneliness of thousands of soldiers, isolated in their own language. In the second extract, Buysse promoted the official British-Belgian initiative 'The Book of the Soldier' that involved collecting money to send books to Belgian soldiers at the front. Glancing through the book requests from the Belgian soldiers, it became clear to him that the war was bringing Dutch-speaking and French-speaking Belgians closer together, despite the obvious obstacles to overcome. He noted that many Flemish soldiers wanted to read novels in French and that many French-speaking Belgians were willing to learn Dutch. At the same time, he disapproved of all foreign judgement, particularly from the Dutch, of the 'Belgian question', something that he considered to be an internal Belgian matter. In the third extract, we find Buysse in wartime Paris, where he contrasted his pre-war biases on the city, a place he supposed to be full of frivolity and decadence, with his wartime experiences. He considered Paris at war to be the capital of 'the real French nation', compared with the 'cosmopolitan city of strangers' that it had been before the war. The only merrymakers there were apparently neutrals. In the fourth extract, Buysse entered non-occupied Belgium, in West Flanders, where he was born. On this very familiar soil, he visited a military cemetery where he discovered in amongst the graves of Flemish, Walloon, and French soldiers, the 'exotic' graves of Moroccan and Algerian soldiers. Observing these graves side by side, he reflected once more on the feelings of estrangement and the incapacity to communicate that must have dominated encounters between the 'white' and 'blond' Flemish boys and these 'brown' soldiers. He ends the section with the following thoughts: ‘Later, if it is all over, Belgian and French wives will come and pray for their fallen men and sons at the tombs decorated with fresh flowers. But who will kneel down at the deserted grave of Mohammed or of Ibrahim, in Flemish soil?’. Here, Buysse rather accurately and poignantly refers to the amnesia that has dominated war memories about colonial soldiers for a long time. In the fifth extract, Buysse described the horror of finding several small Flemish villages destroyed. He focused on the contrast between the silence of the green landscape and the singing larks and the horror of the events of war that took place on Belgian soil. Referring to the fact that Belgium was an everlasting battlefield for international conflicts, he expressed his hope that this war would be the last ordeal.