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Arnout Hauben & Johanna Spaey, To War. A Journey Along the Front of World War I

Tom Vanassche
p. 195-196
Référence(s) :

Arnout Hauben, Johanna Spaey, To War. A Journey Along the Front of World War I, Antwerpen: De Bezige Bij, 2013, 272 p.

Texte intégral

1Infotainment is supposed to disseminate historical knowledge to a broader audience, and I am fully aware that this unavoidably implies the loss of some nuance in favour of the genre’s entertaining aspect. The problem with Arnout Hauben and Johanna Spaey’s Ten Oorlog. Een reis langs het front van WO I is that its informative aspect is not subject to nuance but rather flawed by inaccuracies.

2A few preliminary remarks. Reading the title raises some suspicions: the subtitle, A Journey Along the Frontline of World War I, implies that the focus will be solely on the Western Front in Europe, neglecting the Eastern Front, the clashes in Africa and Asia, and the war at sea. It also defines the frontline as a static given, which is an exaggeration. Yes, the Western Front may have been deadlocked for years, but the summer of 1914 and the year 1918, with both the Kaiserschlacht and the decisive Allied offensive, were marked by vast territorial gains and losses. In other words, “the frontline” is a biased view on a geographical abstraction – even, or especially, when one unwittingly adheres to it.

3Aside from that, having seen the miniseries – I hesitate to call the television programme a documentary  and Hauben’s previous tour de force, a journey on foot to Compostella (both broadcast on VRT Eén), it is clear that the genres of the road trip and the pilgrimage will blend in. It is also obvious that the book’s aesthetics is heavily influenced, via the TV show, by the visual arts: TV documentaries use static shots and wide views such as the image of a horizon to depict a clear and complete overview. The question is, then, how these genres and aesthetics relate to the book’s documentary claims.

4Luckily the authors are aware of their at once extensive and limited approach. They do signal that the Western Front was one of many war theatres (18) and that (Belgian) knowledge of this war is generally limited to this front (11). As such, the tales of the Italian front and the campaigns in the Balkans form an innovative inclusion for a Belgian target audience. The authors also mention the presence of Chinese labourers and of colonial troops, acknowledging that the war was not only fought by young white men. Hence, it does away with certain clichés.

5It also makes explicit claims of causality as to the influence of World War I on present-day nations, such as Canada (56) and Italy (138), in the line of John Keegan’s argumentation concerning the influence of the Somme on post-war British society in The Face of Battle (London: Pimlico, 2004). As such, it touches upon the relevance of the First World War and its commemoration 100 years later. Moreover, the book includes a select bibliography for those readers hungry for more information on the war theatres visited and the individuals’ life stories mentioned.

6Finally, the book is unsurprisingly reader-friendly and at times attempts to include an authentic melancholic beauty. The frequent citations of ego-documents, such as letters home and diary entries, are paramount in this respect: these documents serve to undermine the contemporary war propaganda by giving a voice to its victims, wishing to illustrate the conflict’s inhumanity and futility. Of greater emotional impact is the description of an elderly couple, who lost their son in an accident and who subsequently started collecting World War I shells as a kind of coping strategy. The shells may be seen as a “transgenerational metonymical strategy”, which is ultimately, of course, doomed to fail: “De berg moet immens zijn, net zo groot als hun verdriet.” (75; “The pile must be immense, just as huge as their grief.”) The incident is a key example of what the authors attempt: one may try to come to grips with the past and fill the hole that this past has created, but ultimately the dead remain dead.

7Yet this emotionally powerful insight is rendered ad absurdum through Hauben’s exaggerated self-identification with the soldiers on the frontlines. Empathy is a necessary attitude when undertaking a journey of this kind, but the parallels that Hauben draws between his crew and these soldiers are not. The mise en scène of their departure is telling: a fanfare band is playing the Last Post, while the crew of three kisses and hugs their girlfriends, wives, and children goodbye, “zoals elke jonge soldaat die in de Eerste Wereldoorlog naar het front vertrok” (23; “just like any young soldier who left for the front during World War I”).

8Another scene, in which Hauben draws a parallel between the artillery fire directed at Reims in 1914 and the thunder over that city anno 2013, suggests the metaphorical construction of the journalist’s image as a would-be soldier. While this move caters to current expectations regarding the participatory nature of television, more critical distance and attention to the historical dimension is required.

9However, this problematic attitude is in my opinion not the book’s greatest flaw. Even more aggravating are the numerous factual errors and contradictions. These are the byproduct of the attempt to illustrate the narrative with visual evidence. But often this leads to the usage of contradictory maps or pictures from another context, which smacks of an uncritical handling of historical sources. For example, none of the maps depicting the frontlines are dated  again implying that the frontlines did not move during four years. Also, the depiction of the frontlines east of Reims is inexact: the map (78) indicates the trenches ran from this city through Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine and Alsace, whereas the text argues that “[h]et meest oostelijke deel van de Franse frontlinie wordt gevormd door Lotharingen” (79; “the easternmost part of the French frontline is shaped by Lorraine”). One may argue that Alsace was indeed German territory from 1871 until 1918, yet this is not indicated on the map nor mentioned in the text.

10Another example of this impreciseness is the description of the Belgian sector in the frontline around Diksmuide, “illustrated” with the photograph of a British soldier in a German trench during the Battle of the Somme, two years later. (32) Finally, on at least one occasion the information provided is inaccurate: two German tourists bear witness to the destruction of Germany during World War II, supposedly by Americans in Spitfires. The authors are apparently unaware that Spitfires were British fighters, not American bombers. To the German survivors this makes no difference of course, but one might have hoped for a correction from the authors. Evidently it would not be very tactful to confront the survivors with such errors in the miniseries. The book, however, did offer the opportunity to reflect on the extensive use of eyewitness accounts in documentaries dealing with the world wars and their differing standards of historical truth.

11Add some minor mistakes, such as a translation error in Rudyard Kipling’s My Boy Jack (71) and the mention of presumably lesser-known facts without providing background information (e.g., the presence of Russian troops in Reims), and it becomes clear that this book cannot live up to its documentary claims. Yes, contradictions and conjectures are also found in documentary fiction, such as the oeuvres of W. G. Sebald and Alexander Kluge  they even constitute the backbone of the authors’ poetics. The problem with Spaey and Hauben’s narrative is, however, that it does not present itself as fiction but as a reportage. Hence, the contradictions do not appear as an enlightening appeal to the reader’s perspicacity. The book is rather meant as light-hearted entertainment, in line with the miniseries. The genre of the road trip is significant in this respect, as is the pilgrimage: the crew of three pays homage to those fallen and those marred during and after the war and thereby continues the tradition of regarding all those who suffered as sacrosancts. A thorough analysis of the war’s causes and consequences is nearly completely absent, and the unprecedented bloody nature of the war is blamed on the high-tech art of warfare – not mentioning the treatment of POWs nor that of the civilian populations under occupation.

12In spite of the inclusion of overseas troops and labourers, the (very few) Congolese troops on Belgian soil are – rather oddly  not mentioned, nor are the Moroccan or Algerian forces in the French armies, whose descendants (also) live in Belgium. Therefore, this book misses out on the unique opportunity of telling the war stories of Belgium’s new citizens’ ancestors. Again, they are denied access to our (Belgian) practices of commemoration. By excluding them and by adhering to the all-soldiers-are-saints narrative, the authors fail to reflect on their own commemoration practices, which is a shame. The interest of a broader audience would not have waned, since the book’s road-trip structure, the inclusion of lesser known war theatres, and the various emotionally powerful anecdotes would have offered the perfect counterweight to such “dry” and uneasy remarks. Dry, because on a meta-level; uneasy, because they indicate blind spots within our view on World War I, and may hint at social debates related to ethnicity anno 2014.

13In general, this book had a lot of potential, but suffered from the authors’ inaccuracy and uncritical position, which undermines the credibility of their work. This is problematic: it is telling of a broad cultural interest for this conflict, but it also illustrates how easily such events have become persistent myths. Surely, a methodologically more sound treatment of historical sources would not have resulted in a True and Final Story. But at least it would have led to a sound interpretation of historical events. Instead, the dominating emotion afterwards is, sadly, frustration.

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Tom Vanassche, « Arnout Hauben & Johanna Spaey, To War. A Journey Along the Front of World War I »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire, 118 | 2014, 195-196.

Référence électronique

Tom Vanassche, « Arnout Hauben & Johanna Spaey, To War. A Journey Along the Front of World War I »Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire [En ligne], 118 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2015, consulté le 25 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Tom Vanassche

Ghent University.

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