Shortly after the armistice, the First World War became a rich source of inspiration for artists and writers. Flemish authors were fond of portraying the tragic front soldier, who struggled not only with enemy fire, parasites and the cold, but also with aloof officers who didn’t speak Dutch. One of the authors to write about the tough life at the front was Jozef Simons (1888-1948). He drew from his own experience as a soldier and interpreter at the Yser Front.
The Oelegem-born author published his first novellas shortly before the First World War. He wrote mainly about the people and places around him, and continued to do so even when his living environment changed radically as he was called to arms in 1916.
Jozef Simons, photo by Jef Jansen, Letterenhuis Antwerpen
The affable Simons, who had always sympathised with Flemish nationalism, was radicalised at the front. He developed a profound aversion to the ̶ mostly French-speaking ̶ officers and their arrogant and selfish behaviour towards the common soldiers. He came in contact with the Frontbeweging (Front Movement) and wrote the Frontlied, the movement’s signature song, under the pseudonym ‘Yzer’ (Yser). The lyrics, a criticism of the language discrimination in the Belgian army, were distributed secretly from June 1918.
After the war, Jozef Simons was haunted by his experiences at the front. Being a soldier had changed him, and he wanted to share his impressions and views with his readers. Life at the front was the backdrop of many of his post-war publications, including his most famous work, Eer Vlaanderen Vergaat (Before Flanders Perishes). Though fiction, the novel is permeated by Simons’ own war experiences. He published the book with a clear goal in view: ‘Conveying the Flemish-nationalist ideology to the public’. Not surprisingly, therefore, his frustrations about the language imbalance in the Belgian army and the arrogant attitude of some of the officers play an important part in the book.
The travelling exhibition Leraar, schrijver, tolk, frontsoldaat. Jozef Simons en WO I will be on display at various venues in the near future. For more information, go to www.jozefsimons.be
Cover foto by Eugenia Preud'Homme