One hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War, numerous projects are launched to shed light on this dark chapter of history. Narrative sources created during and shortly after the war are particularly interesting for historical research. Indeed, personal records and journals, but also sources testifying of the disruption of everyday life in the towns and cities provide valuable insight. In this context, priests were privileged witnesses who could report on the impact of the war on their parishes.
The war cardinal Joseph Désiré Mercier (1851-1926)
After the First World War, cardinal Joseph Désiré Mercier paved the way for the development of a culture of remembrance in Belgium. This was no coincidence indeed … during the war, the Belgian government had fled to The Hague and King Albert I had to retreat with his troops behind a front line formed by the river Yser, which made Mercier the only figure of authority who remained on the invaded Belgian territory throughout the war. He personified the moral resistance of poor little Belgium against Germany. In his pastoral letters, Mercier spurred the Belgian patriotism that had been revived by the German occupation and placed it in a religious framework. In so doing, he resolutely supported the Entente powers France, England and Russia.
For Allied propaganda, the Belgian cardinal was the ideal figure to symbolise an unfaltering courageous little Belgium – an innocent victim of a brutal German aggression. After the war, Mercier became a real cult figure, admired and acclaimed as a war hero in France, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Remembrance or propaganda
One month after the official end of the war (December 1918), the Grand Cardinal set up an inter-diocesan commission assigned with a threefold mission: providing a true account of what happened during the years of war in Belgium, fixing the events in the collective memory of the people (Wat we nooit mogen vergeten…) and praising the role of Belgian clerics in the resistance against the German aggressor. These three missions – statements, remembrance and propaganda – would take the form of a prestigious publication titled ‘Histoire de l’Eglise belge pendant la Grande Guerre (1914-1918)’.
The first step of this project was an extensive survey among the parish clergy. In spring 1919, a questionnaire was submitted to all priests on the basis of which the parish reports should be written. These reports were collected per diocese and served as contents for the commemorative volume. Things did not go as smoothly as expected however: discussions about the layout and the different chapters of the publication, missing or very scarce reports, lack of funding, lack of interest by the bishops, and excessive workload for the commission members were some of the practical obstacles causing delays. The bell definitely tolled for the project when commission chairman Alfred Cauchie (1922) suddenly passed away.
3. Content and structure of the reports
The printed questionnaire comprised fourteen questions, some of which were sub-divided into a number of sub-questions. The introductory questions about the administrative and geographical nature of the parish were followed by six questions about the German invasion in 1914. The next six questions bore on different aspects of the occupation regime, with a focus on the impact of the German occupation on religious practice – the evolution of church service attendance and communions, claims by parish churches regarding Lutherian church services for German soldiers, and ‘public morality’. In addition, information had to be gathered about forced labour, deportation of workers to Germany, and the fate of political prisoners. Clerics who served as military chaplains or medic, conscribed parishioners and those who perished during the war also had to be listed. Finally, reports had to be drawn about the end of the war, the retreat of the German troops and the repatriation of the war prisoners and political prisoners.
By 20 April 1919 (Easter) the priests had to submit their reports. This round of questioning was met with various degrees of attention by the parish clergy. Some reports were structured precisely according to specifications, others were an ‘essay’ on the matter. The detailedness and length of the essays varied from very elaborate to hardly informative. Every now and then, a priest sent a laconic letter to the diocese informing the ecclesiastical authorities that ‘nothing special’ happened in his parish during the years of war.
4. Places of conservation
The questioning of the clerics was carried out individually by each diocese. The archivists of the dioceses were instructed to collect and process the reports. In 1918, Belgium counted six dioceses: the Flemish dioceses of Bruges and Ghent, the Walloon dioceses of Tournai, Namur and Liège and the bilingual archdiocese of Mechelen. The borders of the dioceses more or less corresponded to the borders of the provinces. Some dioceses stretched across two or more provinces. The archdiocese of Mechelen comprised today’s provinces of Flemish and Walloon Brabant, the province of Antwerp and today’s Brussels-Capital Region. The diocese of Namur comprised the provinces of Namur and Luxemburg. And the diocese of Liège was composed of the homonymous province and the province of Limburg. The reports were eventually stored at the archives of the diocese to which the parish belonged.
Today, the original reports are preserved at archives repositories throughout Belgium. The reports for Flanders and Brussels are conserved at the episcopal archives of Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen and – to a lesser extent – Antwerp. The reports on Wallonia can be found at the archives of the dioceses of Liège and Namur, at the State Archives in Namur and at the cathedral archives of Tournai.
5. Digitising project
Addressing the increased interest in commemorations around the Great War, the National Archives of Belgium and the Belgian dioceses have taken the initiative to digitise those parish reports. The project improves accessibility of the records and their long-term conservation.
The digitising project is scheduled in different phases. In 2013, the reports of the archdiocese Mechelen and of the diocese of Ghent were digitised. In spring 2014, it was the turn of the reports of the diocese of Liège and the diocese of Bruges. In the future, the reports of the diocese of Tournai will also be digitised. In principle, the aim is to carry out the same procedure on the reports of the diocese of Namur too. But the problem is that the reports were re organised thematically after the First World War: thus, in order to digitise them and make them accessible for research, they need to be re-sorted in their original order beforehand.
6. How to find a parish report?
Find out which reports are preserved and available in digital format on the State Archives website:
Click here to consult the digitised war reports.
1. In the list of the six dioceses, chose the one in which the First World War parish report you are looking for was established.
2. After clicking on the diocese, a list of municipalities is shown, with the corresponding parishes sorted alphabetically per municipality. Today’s fused municipalities are mentioned between parentheses and usually correspond to the deaneries. For each municipality, the available parish reports (more than one parish for lager municipalities/cities), the convent reports, the convent school reports, and the episcopal college are listed. Regarding the archdiocese of Mechelen prior to 1915, deanery reports are conserved that contain information about all parishes in this deanery. Under the title ‘Belgian dioceses’ you will find the list of questions sent to the parishes and convents.
3. You can order a reproduction of documents from the State Archives at the applicable reproduction fees. Contact details of the different State Archives repositories and the list of tariffs can be found at the website of the State Archives.
Author Gerrit Vanden Bosch is archivist at the Archdiocesan Archives Mechelen. For further information see ‘Parochieverslagen over de Eerste Wereldoorlog. Een goudader voor lokale geschiedschrijving’, Bladwijzer 10 – Methodologisch tijdschrift van Heemkunde Vlaanderen, p. 17-26.