Interviews with inhabitants of the former front zone in Flanders

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Description

From 1977 to 1978, a group of young people in Flanders interviewed local villagers about their experiences of living through the First World War. The Elfnovembergroep published the results in 1978, along with some interviews from the 1960s. Around the turn of the millennium, three volunteers conducted a series of interviews on the First World War in local nursing homes, and these were published in 2001. Between October 2009 and May 2010 Philip Van Outrive accompanied a team from VRT (Flemish Public Broadcaster) interviewing almost centenarians on their recollections of the Great War, which were compiled in a 2011 publication.

Context

The Ypres Salient in Belgian Flanders was a multicultural society long before the term was even invented. The local villages were not only swarmed with hundreds of thousands of British and French military, but also with colonial troops, such as Algerian and Senegalese tirailleurs, Indian sepoys, and Chinese labourers. Many locals in this rural backwater had never laid eyes upon men of another skin colour nor with an entirely different cultural background. Their initial amazement and suspicion is reflected in these interviews conducted many decades after the encounter. Obviously the passing of time has made some of these memories patchy and distorted, evident especially in the interview with a centenarian about his childhood. Nevertheless, they bear testimony to how the presence of non-Europeans lingered on in the collective memory of a whole region.