It's a Saturday morning and the sun is shining in Ieper. The impressive Lakenhalle or Cloth Hall buildings on the main square, where the In Flanders Fields Museum (IFFM) is located, are soaking up the sunshine. It's busy inside, with large groups of pupils going in and out of the museum. We enter the museum's Knowledge Centre (Kenniscentrum) and see dozens of volunteers at work. They are putting new data into a data base, consulting several books. It feels like entering a classroom during the exam period: silence reigns and everyone is concentrating to ensure they don’t make any mistakes.
Forty-five volunteers have turned up to take part in the Name Marathon; most of them are members of the ‘Friends of the IFFM’ group. The aim is to give the Name List Project a little push in the back, as the huge project takes a lot of time. It's mostly volunteers that are doing the hard work, either people coming to the IFFM as individuals or groups and organisations, like schools.
The ‘Name List’, a joint effort by the IFFM and the Province of West Flanders (Gone West), includes all victims that died as a result of warfare on Belgian soil during the First World War. It contains the names both of soldiers and civilians, Belgians and foreigners, (the then) Allies and enemies, but also the victims that didn't actually die in Belgium, but outside Belgian territory as a result of injuries sustained in Belgium.
The list also includes names of people that went missing, which is especially important from a German perspective. The German Volksbund has compiled a huge list with names of German Great War victims, but this list only contains the "official" victims whose names can be read on war graves or commemoration plaques. It does not include the names of those that went missing, something which the ‘Name List’ aims to change.
"When we have finished the job, the Germans can build their Menin Gate for those that perished in the war", says Dries Chaerle, who is involved with the project on behalf of Gone West.
The time frame was set between 4 August 1914, when Germany invaded Belgium, and 30 June 1919, when the Peace Treaties were signed in Paris.
On 4 August, the new data base will be launched and opened to the public at large. From then, until 30 June 1919, the names of those that perished 100 years ago to the day will be shown on the walls of the IFFM as part of a day-to-day commemoration. Each day, the website will list the new names of the victims that succumbed 100 years ago.
Pieter Trogh of the IFFM, one of the frontrunners of the project, underlines its international character, and the focus on the human story behind the names. This is exactly what the IFFM wants to highlight in its general mission. "We are talking about 50 different nationalities from 5 continents. Irishmen, Germans, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Canadians, but also Senegalese, North Africans, Chinese, Americans, etc. We want to go beyond the national story and make it an international one. At the same time, we are not just listing names and dates. We are trying to collect more details, about how people died, where they were found, where they lived, etc.
"You know, some volunteers here are so eager that I sometimes warn them not to neglect their own families and to make sure they’ve still got time left to do some gardening", Pieter Trogh smiles.