How it all started
What in the world brings a person to go out and photograph as many as possible graves and graveyards of our fallen soldiers during World War I?
Good question! Here's how it all started and where we stand today.
In the spring of 2012, my youngest daughter was in Nieuwpoort with her family. Totally unplanned they came in Adinkerke at the Belgian military cemetery behind the church. Walking along the broad central corridor they came upon a grave with a familiar name. Our own name. The nameplate said that the buried soldier was born in Buggenhout, such as I, but half a century earlier than me.
Van der Straeten Pieter Jan
My son-in-law took a picture of the nameplate on the tomb with his portable phone. When they came home, due to the heavy backlight, there was not much else recognisable on the picture than the name of Pieter Jan.
A few weeks later we went to De Panne with some friends. We went to take a look at Pieter Jans grave in Adinkerke. We came back with a clear picture of the grave.
At the Buggenhout townhall we found out in no time that Pieter Jan was the son of a brother of my grandfather. So I was a second cousin of Pieter Jan. Peter Jan was born in 1893, while my father, a full cousin of Pieter Jan, was born in 1901.
In the stories of my father about that period of his life, Pieter Jan never showed. Was there quarrel between his parents and those of Pieter Jan? We will never know.
The war story of my father was tough enough. As a youngster, growing up during the war years, he was forced to work on what they call in Buggenhout the "woodlogging" by the Germans. During the First World War, over 500 acres of some 1,100 acres of trees were cut in the Buggenhout forest under mandate of the Germans. That wood was needed for the reinforcements of the German trenches and for the production of charcoal for making gunpowder. A brother of my father, a few years older than himself but still too young to be drafted as a soldier in 1914, while performing mandatory woodlogging, fell out of a tree on New Years day 1918 and died instantly.
My friend, an active local historian, felt that within his local historic society something could be done around the centennial of that war, two years later. The idea to issue a yearbook about our local heroes whom died in combat took form gradually. I proposed to make the pictures of the graves of the soldiers.
I started with a nearby cemetery. In Dendermonde, 156 soldiers were buried in the military square. There is no soldiers register on site and looking for three specific graves makes you realise that you make almost as fast a picture of all the graves as you spent time to look for those three. Next, Willebroek, 209 graves and also no register, etc... etc....
The work afterwards is of course another matter. After sorting out the photographs you need for the historic society, you are left with the other pictures which, you suddenly realise, are valuable. If not for yourself, certainly for other people. They are therefor preserved.
And a year later I thought that I had photographed everything that could be photographed in Belgium and I find myself with 17,000 pictures in my archives.
If I wanted more, I needed to cross the border into France, because it is general knowledge that there are more than 3,000 Belgian military casualties of that rotten war buried there. In the Netherlands nearly 400 and in the UK just about the same.
Harderwijk in the Netherlands had 225 graves and Calais Nord in France had 1,030 Belgian graves. Both places were easy to visit in day trips as well as other places along the French-Belgian border in the French departments of Nord, Pas-de-Calais, Aisne and Meurthe-et-Moselle.
After that, my count stood at 19,000 and I so badly wanted 20,000 pictures. Therefore it was necessary to go deeper into France and finally I ended up standing on the military squares of the cemeteries at the Côte d'Azur and Bordeaux, along with 40 other towns and villages between here and there.
20,000 kilometers after my first photoshoot in Dendermonde, with on top thirty train trips in Belgium and the net result is more than 20,500 pictures. I have also been standing at the graves of 3,326 unknown soldiers. And the one that most people think off as the only true unknown soldier in Belgium, the one of the Koninklijke Straat in Brussels is not even one of them.
Time to do something with it.
On this website you can read about our adventures during the past two years. You will learn usefull details about most of the more than 200 graveyards we visited. You will find statistics derived from the data on the nameplates of our heros that died in battle, and yes, even how best to get to each of these cemeteries.
My ultimate goal is not to realize financial gain on the sale of the copyrights of these pictures, but to show the public the roads to the cemeteries. There will be many commemorations taking place this year and in the next four years, but whether these will happen on the cemeteries of our Belgian war victims, I doubt it. "The Last Post" will sound everywhere but not nearly enough in the places where our heros are laid to rest.
In the past two years, whenever possible, my wife, children and grandchildren came with me on these trips to the military graveyards of Belgium and France. They tasted with me the sour grapes of war. The grandchildren are impressed with the vast number of dead youngsters, barely being there age. Their esteem for these victims of war, whom lost the fight for there bare lives and died for our freedom, is immense.