The war diary of a Flemish priest



Achiel Van Walleghem, a local Catholic priest residing in Dickebusch and Reninghelst, just west of Ypres, kept a diary from August 1914 up until a few years after the war. With an inquisitive eye and a curiousity for other cultures, Van Walleghem included lengthy description of Indians, Chinese, North Africans, and West Indians residing in his neighbourhood. The manuscript contains 1,180 pages and was published in modern Dutch in 2014.


Probably the most well-known of local 'observers' near the Ypres Salient is Achiel Van Walleghem (1879-1955), a Catholic priest in the parish of Dickebusch, 5 kilometres south-west of Ypres. Van Walleghem kept a diary from the very beginning of the war until some years after the war. The diary was originally written in the local West-Flemish dialect, making it at times even difficult to understand for those who speak 'proper Dutch'. It was written on loose papers, often official British army paper (of which only a few have survived), and later copied down into notebooks, now kept at the In Flanders Fields Museum. Strictly speaking it is a mixture of a diary, a chronicle, and a memoir (although it was written shortly after the events took place). Van Walleghem observed, visited and interacted with many of the non-European rank and file who resided in Belgian Flanders. These included the Indian military (in 1914 and 1915), French North African troops (in 1914), the Chinese Labour Corps (in 1917, 1918 and 1919), the British West Indies Regiment (in 1917), and Indian Labourers (in 1919). The relevant diary entries are often of considerable length and detail. They not only reveal how the local Flemish community perceived the culturally different Other, but also how and in which circumstances encounters did take place. Though often quoted, at the time of writing, no English translation of the diary has as yet been published.