Dismemsel Wartime Series I


Living here, and learning Dutch, I have been ever more fascinated with Dutch history, Twentieth-century history not least. What follows is a series about books I have read in the past couple years.


David Llewellyn Dodds

July 2023

Wartime Letters, Memoirs, and Diaries


We had the good fortune to become acquainted with Huibert van Verseveld, an academic Egyptologist become World War II historian and seller of second-hand books, as well. Among the historical works we bought from him are editions of wartime letters, memoirs, and diaries, which I have read avidly, and note for your possible interest, too.


I started in chronological order, with Jorge Groen’s edition, Patria: Brieven uit de loopgraven van legionair Arthur Knaap (Aspekt, 2014). A Dutchman of mixed East-Indian descent, son of professional musician and literary parents, Arthur grew up in Paris – as did his five younger siblings. In 1914, in the gathering storm, most of his family returned to the Netherlands, while, in a short time, Arthur went from beating up policemen with relish at anti-war demonstrations, to deciding, after Germany declared war on it, to fight for his ‘second fatherland’ in the Foreign Legion. His letters to family and friends give vivid glimpses of his varied life in and out of the trenches, supplemented by perspectives of his sister, Wilma, in Paris, and his father, Otto, in south Limburg (hearing the fighting in the distance!), all well set in context by Jorge Groen.


Having read various things from first-hand English, German, and American perspectives, as well as Queen Wilhelmina’s memoirs of the period in Eenzaam maar niet alleen (and Cees Fasseur’s detailed accounts of her reign during both World Wars), I had a trebly new experience, here, with a combined (Indo-) Dutch, French, and Legionary one. For example, as an avid amateur footballer, Arthur found himself among ‘internationals’ in the Legion, when the chance to play arose, but his speed and agility served him well – as it did when he was running messages under heavy fire. (Here, I was reminded of the classic 1981 movie, Gallipoli.) He survived the war, but he had to live and work in France, as the Dutch took away his passport for having served in a ‘foreign’ army (a sad contrast to King William III’s generosity to Dutch Papal ‘Zouaves’ a few decades earlier, chronicled in Wim Zaal’s fascinating 1996 book, De Vuist van de Paus). The 2014 movie about him, Patria, draws on Arthur Knaap’s letters. 


The next book I read is a Dutch translation, Ik vocht om Arnhem (Nijmegen: De Koepel, 1946), of Louis E. Hagen’s memoirs of Operation Market Garden, Arnhem Lift: Diary of a Glider Pilot (London: Pilot Press, 1945), written down immediately after his return to England. It is a vivid, and heartening book, with a surprising amount of humour. Looking him up online led to his entry at pegasusarchive.com – an entry with many quotations from the English original, many details he anonymized or left vague in 1945, and much more about his remarkable life, including the facts that he was Jewish and born in Potsdam, and was sent to the Schloss Lichtenburg Concentration Camp at Torgau as a teenager in 1934 for a joke about the Sturm Abteilung – and was rescued by his school-friend, Claus Fuhrmann, who persuaded his father, a judge and Nazi Party member, to get him released. Louis, his parents, and four siblings all left the country after that. During Market Garden, his mastery of German, and, to a certain extent, Dutch, stood him in good stead, but also meant he kept getting called on to act as interpreter – and got mistaken for Prince Bernhard in visiting the wounded at the Asylum in Wolfheze. I see that the Internet Archive has scans of 1993 and 2012 expanded editions of his memoirs among “Books to Borrow”.


I followed this with Huibert van Verseveld’s two richly-illustrated editions, Mijn jeugd tijdens de oorlog in Elst Utrecht: Het dagboek van Johannes van Kooten 1939 – 1946, and its sequel, Het dagboek van Henk Honders 1939 – 1946 and will tell you something about them in the second installment.


David Llewellyn Dodds