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Of the Great War

Van den Grooten Oorlog. Volksboek

Uitgeverij: Kemmel, 1978

Comprehensive collection of gripping eyewitness accounts of the most bizarre war of all time: World War I 1914-1918, compiled by the so-called Elfnovember Group. Profusely illustrated with black-and-white photographs. With list of veterans interviewed. Important documentation with first-hand information.

It was agreed in the Elfnovember Group that the young people – in January 1978 there were about 30 or 40 of them, but the group soon numbered about 100 members – would talk to people from the older generation and record the conversations on tape. The initiators, Jan Hardeman and Marieke Demeester, had recorded conversations with Jan Hardeman’s great uncle and great aunt a decade earlier. Jan Hardeman and Marieke Demeester travelled with a tape recorder from house to house in the Westhoek in the 1970s. They literally typed out the stories and collected them in a book, Volksboek van den Grooten Oorlog.



The coverage of wars is almost never about people, young people often. So many tanks have been destroyed, so many planes shot down, it is reported. But in every tank there are people, in every plane a crew. Neutralising the data makes the suffering anonymous. Steel does not cry. This story is about the Great War, a barely known phenomenon in the Netherlands. The Netherlands was neutral in ’14-’18, in Belgium there was fighting and destruction. That is what this book is about, the stories of ordinary people who one day became a soldier. Or witnesses.

The Elfnovember Group, which is the basis of the book “Of the Great War”, was formed in 1977. At that time, there was hardly any interest in the First World War, not even in the Westhoek. In this most western part of West Flanders, through which the front line ran, there were still many elderly men and women who had experienced the war themselves. But for the young generation of 1977, the First World War was as far away as prehistory.


The last witnesses
On 11 November 1977, the anniversary of the Armistice in 1918, the Heuvelland Reconstruction Agency brought together some young people in Kemmel, hoping to involve them in a meaningful commemoration of the end of the war. They listened to previously recorded stories of women and men, who lived through the war. For these young people, the Great War became a story of people. People who worked and had fun, who planned for their future, who loved, married and had children. People like them, who were totally unexpectedly overwhelmed by a war that would turn all their existence upside down.

Spontaneously, the idea grew to also visit other elderly witnesses and record their stories about the war. Thus was born the Elfnovember Group.


On 11 November 1978, the 60th anniversary of the Armistice, the book “Of the Great War” was published. The book contained not only stories collected from witnesses along both sides of the Franco-Belgian border, but also stories from French, British and German soldiers, who had experienced the war here.

Between 1978 and 2016, the book “Van den Grooten Oorlog” reached many readers in Flanders and the Netherlands. In 2016, a completely reworked edition was released with a lot of new stories.