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The first soldier to be killed in the First World War was killed in the province of Liège in Belgium at dawn on 4 August 1914. The first and the last British soldiers to be killed in the First World War were both killed in the same city in Wallonia, Mons. For the first time since the Battle of Waterloo, the British army had taken action in Continental Europe in the name of law and freedom to defend neutral Belgium, which had been invaded by Germany.
The Belgian Tourist Office Brussels and Wallonia in London is aiming to raise awareness of the shared history that links the southern part of Belgium and Brussels to the UK. In 2011 it launched an awareness campaign that started in November with the creation of a short film that was projected on the faade of Camden Council town hall, on the corner of Euston road with Judd Street, between 7 and 10 November 2011. A genuine Belgian chip van and WW1 re-enactors (who took the opportunity to explain to the public why Americans should say Belgian fries and not French fries!) also helped to raise funds during several evenings for the Camden branch of the Royal British Legion.
The film is now available on this website. Its intention is to evoke a common sacrifice and a shared tragedy which forever unites the people who lived through it, from their first to their very last memory.
Destination 11.11.11 and beyond...
The Belgian Tourist Office Brussels & Wallonia in London also collaborated with the prestigious Central Saint Martin's College of Arts and Design (University of the Arts London) by sponsoring an art competition. Students from the college, most of whom would have been the same age as the soldiers who fought in Belgium almost 100 years before, were asked to express what the First World War signified to them and the emotions it stirred in them, and to create a bridge across the generations.
The finalists' works were displayed at an exhibition at the OXO Tower Gallery on London's South Bank. It was officially opened by His Excellency the Ambassador of Belgium, Mr Johan Verbeke, on 11 November 2011 at 14:18. It was then transferred to the Swiss Cottage Library Gallery on 21 November and ran until 25 December 2011.
In the years running up to 2018 similar competitions will be organised in Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Mons. The very best works from each country will then form part of an international exhibition that will travel across Europe in 2019. We hope that we will then have helped play a part in highlighting why war should never take place again, and why there is still some meaning to a common destiny in Europe, no matter what financial markets and political factors may imply, or not.
These competitions will form part of a wider programme of events in the UK and in Belgium leading up to the centenaries of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 and the cessation of hostilities in 2018, so that the Walloon and Brussels-Capital regions may honour and pay tribute to all those who fought for their freedom and for the freedom of others. Details of these events will be uploaded onto this website as and when they are finalised.
Begium WW1 untold stories
On 4 August 1914 German troops crossed the Meuse just north of Liège and advanced into Belgium. The First World War had begun in earnest. The German generals’ plan was to push on as quickly as possible towards Paris, but they soon ran into difficulties. Although heavily outnumbered, the Belgian army provided stiff resistance and bought time for their French and British allies to assemble their reserves and take up positions. Key to that initial Belgian resistance were 14 fortresses that formed a semi-circle around Liège and which managed to delay the German advance before the last of them finally surrendered on 16 August.
Today, the remains of most of these strongpoints still stand, each with a tale to tell of its resistance against the odds, but perhaps the most evocative and moving of all is the Fort de Loncin, north west of the city. While most of the soldiers defending the fortresses were able ultimately to surrender, the majority of those at Loncin were not so lucky. At 5.25pm on 15 August a shell tore through the roof of the fort’s powder magazine and exploded. Around 350 of the garrison were killed – roughly 200 of whom remain where they fell, buried beneath tons of concrete that collapsed in the blast. Loncin today is a fascinating, but sombre place, with several memorials to those who died and a small museum explaining the garrison’s life within the fort and the still-continuing quest to link any human remains that are discovered among its ruins to missing men.
One of the volunteers who help keep the fortress open to the public, Jim Vanderperren, says that, even almost 100 years after the explosion, individual soldiers are still being identified. ‘In 2007 engineers from the Belgian Army came to remove unexploded shells from the fortress,’ he says, ‘they thought they’d find a few, but in fact they discovered more than 2,500. During this work they also uncovered 25 bodies, of whom we were able to identify four.’ Among these was artillery sergeant Louis Noé, he adds. ‘We knew from the garrison records that, in 1909, Noé had asked permission to get married. We also knew that his wife, Léonie, and her daughter had visited the fort in the years following the war. Later, the daughter had come with her own three daughters in turn. Then, in 2008 we moved a block of concrete and found a gold wedding ring inscribed with the names Louis and Léonie. It turned out we had recovered sergeant Noé.’
Any visitor to Loncin today can see for themselves the terrifying force of the explosion that killed Noé and so many of his comrades. A huge crater, scattered with massive lumps of concrete, can be seen near the main gate, while the twisted remains of guns and turrets attest to the way in which they were ripped from their moorings by the power of the blast. While the fort looked modern and impressive, with low steel cupolas, deep ditches, numerous gun emplacements and considerable defensive firepower, it was fatally flawed and ultimately a deathtrap for the men sheltering within it. ‘It had been built between 1888 and 1892 and to save money there was no iron fabric within the concrete to add strength,’ says Vanderperren. ‘It was also built in stages, with the concrete drying out on one part before the next segment was added. That meant there were intrinsic weaknesses in the walls themselves.’
Another flaw lay in the presumption that an attack would never come from the direction of Liège. The fortress was built in the shape of an isosceles triangle with the heavily fortified point facing away from the city and weaker defences on the opposite side – partly to make a counter-attack by Belgian forces more likely to succeed should the fort be captured by an invader. However, by 15 August 1914, not only were German infantrymen closing in on Loncin from the south, German gunners were mounting a intensive barrage from the same direction – between 12 and 15 August, more than 15,000 rounds rained down on the garrison. Among those enduring this barrage was General Gerard Leman, the commander of the Liège district who had moved his command post to this strongpoint after almost being captured in the city by a German patrol. Despite the increasingly difficult situation, Leman had no intention of surrendering and planned to hold back the German advance as long as possible.
Loncin was the best equipped of all the Liège fortifications. It had its own bakery and butchers and in peacetime the garrison kept a herd of cows that grazed around the turrets and trenches. Before the outbreak of hostilities only 70 men were stationed here and life for some was probably better than it was at home. The casement windows could be opened to provide a cooling breeze in summer, there were flush toilets and showers – albeit cold – and passes were readily available to visit the nearby city. After the outbreak of hostilities, however, more than 500 men were crammed into the barracks and corridors of Loncin. As their resistance continued and the bombardment increased, the fort became increasingly uninhabitable. The bakery and butchers, for example, had been positioned on the opposite side of a large ditch from the main body of the fort and became impossible to reach.
The soldiers were short of food and water and the atmosphere in the fortress became increasingly unpleasant. Smoke from its own guns leaked down into the passageways and rooms and, combined with the stench from broken sewers, the air became increasingly difficult to breathe.
The fort’s commander, colonel Victor Naessens, wrote: ‘By the 14th August all our phone lines had been cut beyond repair under the hail of shells. In the evening, most of the soldiers abandoned their quarters and assembled in the central chamber of the fort.’ Here at least there was some ventilation and the air was easier to breathe. The troops readied themselves for an imminent attack by German infantry as acetylene lights flickered and the ground shook with the impacts of high-explosive shells. In a break in the bombardment, Naessens dispatched an officer to inspect the damage done to the fort’s defences. He soon returned to tell his commander he had discovered an enormous, unexploded bomb in one of the ditches. ‘He said he had found a monstrous shell, as tall as he was and of a huge calibre – 42cm. He could not have put his arms around it.’ As Naessens may well have realised, the Germans had unleashed a weapon of which the engineers of the 19th century could not have dreamed – the Big Bertha. Known officially as the Kurze Marine-Kanone, this was a long-range artillery piece capable of firing a shell weighing 1,160kg nine and a half miles – a mile and half further than the fort’s biggest guns could shoot back. ‘Around 5pm the bombardment became appalling,’ recalled Naessens, ‘a few minutes later I saw a huge flash and fainted.’
A shell from the Big Bertha had exploded in the fort’s powder magazine, the roof above the main chamber collapsed and a blast of searing air and flame shot along the passageways. All those sheltering in the main chamber were killed and many others were badly burned or overcome by fumes. Only around 40 men in outlying turrets and bunkers managed to escape, while a similar number were taken prisoner. Among them were colonel Naessens, Lieutenant Maurice Modard, who would go on to become a key figure with the resistance in Liège, and General Leman. The day after the fall of the fort the devastated general wrote a letter to his King, Albert I, describing what had happened.
‘That I did not lose my life in that catastrophe is due to the fact that my escort, commandant Collard, a sub-officer of infantry who unfortunately perished, the gendarme Thevenim and my two orderlies, Van den Bossche and Jos Lecocq, drew me from a position of danger, where I was being asphyxiated by gas from the exploded powder. ‘I was carried into a trench, where a German captain named Guson gave me a drink, after which I was made prisoner and taken to Liège in an ambulance. I am convinced that the honour of our arms has been sustained. I have not surrendered either the fortress or the forts. ‘I am physically shattered by the explosion of Loncin. In Germany, whither I am proceeding, my thoughts will be, as they have ever been, of Belgium and the King. I would willingly have given my life the better to serve them, but death was denied me.’
Today, the general’s room at Loncin has been restored, complete with a basic bed and an enamel jug and basin. On a screen, a rendition of Leman still paces, while a recording provides an idea of the sound of bombardment. Above, on the smashed casement itself, a memorial depicts a soldier buried up to his chest in earth but with a flaming torch uplifted above his head. Every year on August 15 at 5.25pm and on 11 November (Armistice Day) at 11am people gather near this monument to hear the last surviving gun of Loncin fire a salute and to remember those days in 1914 when the actions of the garrisons of the Liège forts gave rise to a phrase that would remain current throughout the First World War and beyond – Gallant Little Belgium. On 7 August 1914 the city of Liège was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for bravery for its role in slowing the German advance at the start of WW1, and for the sacrifices made by its soldiers. It was the first country outside France to be granted such an award. It was able to receive it after the war on 24 July 1919.
The bloodiest battles of the First World War were fought within weeks of the outbreak of hostilities and their outcome would determine the course of the following four years. Flawed leadership, incompetence and overweening arrogance brought about massive losses both of life and territory to create an impasse from which neither side would be prepared to retreat. Belgium, strategically situated between the two great powers of France and Germany, took most of the brunt of these first battles, as Western Europe slipped catastrophically from the tranquil last summer of the Belle Époque into the horror of the war to end all wars.
On the third of August 1914, German troops were massed on the border of neutral Belgium and following a formal declaration of war that evening began a rapid advance across the country. Following an urgent appeal from the Belgian king Albert for support, his French and British Allies duly declared war on Germany on the 4th of August, the British Cabinet voting almost unanimously in favour. British Foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey on receiving the news as he stood at a window in the Foreign Office grimly remarked: "The lamps are going out all over Europe.
We shall not see them lit again in our time.” With three great armies now on the move, not one leader expected hostilities to last for more than a couple of months. Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, as it left for France in the second week of August, told their sweethearts they would be back by Christmas and the German Kaiser informed his troops they would be home before ‘…the time the leaves have fallen from the trees’.
Within two weeks of the declaration of war, German troops had occupied Brussels, the hugely outnumbered Belgian troops fighting valiantly against the might of 7 German armies totalling over 1 million men. Forcing their invaders to fight every inch of the way, destroying bridges and mining roads, Belgian infantry and cavalry did much to delay the advance, aided by citizens who formed vigilante patrols to snipe at the hated enemy. They were treated with utmost ruthlessness, with entire villages being laid waste and hostages shot in reprisal. “Our advance in Belgium is certainly brutal, but those who get in our way must take the consequences …” wrote General Helmuth von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff.
With the fall of the last of the 14 strategic fortresses of Liège on the 16th of August, and the French army falling back in Lorraine with heavy losses, the tide it seemed was turning against the allied armies. The small British Expeditionary Force of 80,000 men led by General Sir John French was disembarking at Rouen, but a mutual mistrust compounded by poor communications between British and French commanders ensured the BEF would play a relatively small part in the battles which lay ahead.
The French chief of staff General Joffre had masterminded an overall strategy known as Plan XVII which relied entirely on France taking the offensive to invade Germany should war break out, but made no provision for the sudden invasion of Belgium. Realising that his entire army risked being encircled as the German forces formed a massive pincer movement Joffre determined to counterattack in the Ardennes, where the Deuxième Bureau, the French external military intelligence agency, had informed him lay the weakest point of the German front. Joffre said later that this difficult terrain of forest, steep valleys and marshes was ‘… rather favourable to the side which like ourselves had inferiority of heavy artillery but superiority of field guns’. He might have done better to heed another military leader who had fought there nearly two thousand years before. Julius Caesar had described the Ardennes which he had crossed in ten days a ‘place full of terrors, with muddy paths, steep valleys and a perpetual mist arising from peat bogs.’
Joffre commanded his Third and Fourth armies to break through the German lines to divide the advancing forces and then to annihilate them with flanking attacks. On the 21st of August in thick fog, French cavalry units sent ahead to scout stumbled across units of the German Fourth and Fifth armies advancing through the thickly forested heart of the Ardennes.
The Germans, whose grey uniforms blended perfectly with the misty woods immediately dug in as the battle began erupting all around them and established a defensive line. French soldiers, wearing bright red trousers and buttoned blue tunics were not equipped with trenching tools for fear it would slow their advance and made easy targets as they charged with fixed bayonets into withering fire from machine nests. In other sudden unexpected encounters in the woods the French 75s, rapid firing field guns using shrapnel and high explosive, were used with fearful effect on German troops caught in the valleys below as the fog dissipated. Skirmishing continued throughout the day but next morning, as once again the mists fog rolled back from the forest the entire lower Ardennes erupted in the biggest battle yet seen in the war. In Virton, Tintigny, Neufchateau and Rossignol losses on both sides were colossal, as entire corps repeatedly charged in attack, regardless of the cost in human life. French troops had been trained that an attaque brusqée, a sudden rush with fixed bayonets in the twenty seconds following the cessation of an artillery barrage, would take the enemy by surprise. In reality German machine gunners could set up their weapons in only 8 seconds and fired point blank as their opponents, often led by young officers straight from the military academy of St Cyr brandishing swords and wearing white plumed shakos floundered in the mire of no-mans land. A French soldier wrote home that ‘… the guns recoil at each shot. ….they look like old men spitting fire. Heaps of corpses – French and German, are lying everywhere rifles in hand. Rain is falling and shells are screaming and bursting – artillery fire is the worst. I lay all night listening to the wounded screaming – some were German. The cannonading goes on and whenever it stops we can hear the wounded groaning. Two or three men go mad every day.’
In Rossignol, an entire division of French colonial troops from Algeria were surrounded and slaughtered, practically to a man, with both their divisional commander, General Raffenel, and a brigade commander, General Rondoney, killed in action. Unlike the later years of the war, when generals rarely left well protected bunkers miles from the front, here in the Ardennes staff officers died alongside their troops.
By the end of the day, as news of the terrible casualties became known, Chief of Staff Joffre chose to disregard reports coming into his HQ. “Our army has been placed where the enemy is most vulnerable to assure ourselves of numerical superiority…” he stated, ordering his divisional commanders to take the offensive on the following day. In fact, with German reserves pouring into the line the French armies were now outnumbered practically 2 to 1. As yet another foggy dawn broke on the 23rd over battlefields piled high with corpses a French officer, aghast at the carnage at Virton, where the 75s of the VIth Corps had caught an entire German corps by surprise, wrote in his diary “...thousands of dead, (were) still standing, supported as if by a flying buttress made of bodies lying in rows on top of each other in an ascending arc from the horizontal to an angle of 60 degrees.”
Fighting continued during the day, but it was soon apparent that the French front was no longer holding. Both the Third and Fourth armies were in retreat, falling back on Verdun and Sedan in disorder and exposing the flank of neighbouring battalions to devastating German attack. Plan XVII, which stated “….The French army …knows no law but the offensive…” was in tatters. Far from cutting the German advance in two, the entire French army now risked being overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers and better trained well-equipped troops.
General Ruffey commanding the Third Army asked desperately for reinforcements, only to learn that no reserves were available. To the north the Fifth army was faring hardly better, suffering severe losses at Charleroi and when the German army broke through to cross the Meuse they too began to retreat, forcing their way back through roads clogged with columns of Belgian refugees fleeing west to escape the fighting. The British Expeditionary Force, fighting a holding battle on the Mons Canal were attempting to protect the French flank, but with 70,000 men facing 160,000 German troops they finally fell back after inflicting heavy losses on their enemy. It was the first battle the British had fought on European soil since Waterloo and ended in defeat after nine hours with more than 1,600 men killed.
At the end of four days of fierce fighting guns finally fell silent along the Western Front stretching from the Lorraine to Charleroi and the Battle of the Frontiers was over. Much of western Belgium lay in ruins, with shattered towns, villages and burnt out farms where cows lowed desperately to be milked in fields strewn with corpses. Troops were instructed to bury their own casualties before midnight, but the rapidly moving front meant that the dead lay for weeks until peasants could finally inter them.
Chief of Staff Joffre, with the magisterial calm for which he was well known remained unperturbed. Each of his armies was in retreat, he had lost 140,000 men in four days and the German army seemed invincible. Refusing to accept the failure of Plan XVII, he ruthlessly purged his army of generals and high ranking officers he deemed responsible but significantly ordered that French Field Regulations be rewritten. Now, when ground was occupied troops should dig entrenchments and fortify against counter attack.
In terms of the number of losses over such a short period of time, the greatest battle of the war had been fought. The Germans, with Belgium and northern France under their power, now had access to the iron ore, the coal and the factories which would enable them to manufacture ammunition and to prolong the war. Far from being home by Christmas, troops on both sides slowly began to realise that they were in for the long haul as the Western Front became a stagnant slow moving nightmare of trench warfare and incessant artillery barrage.
Namur is one of the most enticing destinations in Wallonia, a sumptuous city majestically straddling the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse rivers. Dominating its baroque mansions, ancient churches and an erect medieval belfry is the Citadel, a massive military fortress built high above the city, strategically protecting the citizens down below but also keeping a watchful eye over the surrounding forests and rolling hills of the Ardennes. But the Citadel was built back in the 17th century, by Louis XIV’s master-engineer Vauban, and was meant to guard against an old-fashioned siege when the city risked being encircled for months by an invading army. This was definitely not the case when hostilities broke out in 1914 with the rapid German invasion of Belgium. And the Siege of Namur, which may only have lasted a few days, was to have a vital influence on this early period of the First World War in delaying the inevitable march of the German army towards Paris before French forces could regroup to defend its vulnerable capital. In fact, the seemingly impregnable Citadel was totally empty when the Germans began their advance on Namur, and did not even feature in the city’s defences, which were almost entirely concentrated on an outer ring of forts known as the PFN - Position Fortifiée de Namur - or Fortified Position of Namur, a strategy that had its origin in the fragile early days of the independent kingdom of Belgium.
It is always easy to forget that the modern nation of Belgium that we all know today, only came into existence in 1831, and it was not long before it lived up to its reputation as the Battlefield of Europe. It is difficult to imagine the shock waves that the violent Franco-Prussian War of 1870 sent through exposed countries like Belgium. Everyone thought it was only a matter of time before there was another outbreak of hostilities between Germany and France, and the Belgian ruler, King Leopold II, had no intention that either of these bellicose countries would pass through Wallonia’s tranquil but lightly-defended Meuse valley. So the King followed the advice of his chief military engineer, General Henri Brialmont, to create an impregnable deterrent to ensure Belgium’s neutrality. Known as the Belgian Vauban, Brialmont, proposed to construct a 65 kilometre ring of 9 forts around Namur, linked by trenches and barbed wire, roughly 5-7 kilometres outside the city. 14 forts were to similarly surround Liège, with Liège meant to discourage the Germans and Namur as a defence against the French. Construction began in 1888 on what was then a state-of-the-art defence, using the recently-invented concrete and armed with the latest artillery. Ironically, the building work was carried out by a French consortium, while the guns came from the Krupp factories in Germany. Neither were able to put up sufficient resistance when the the Kaiser’s armies steamrollered into Belgium in August 1914, especially when Namur’s fragile forts found themselves face to face with Krupp’s latest lethal artillery, an ultra-long range howitzer dubbed Big Bertha.
When the German advancing army took the city of Liège, the Fortified Position of Namur became the final line before the war headed into France. Under the command of General Edouard Michel, some 40,000 Belgian troops were based in Namur’s 9 forts, as well as a garrison in the city itself, including not just artillery but infantry and cavalry that were primed to counter-attack a besieging army. The mood in the city was quietly confident - Liège had fallen to a surprise attack, but now Namur was prepared for the German onslaught and ready to endure a lengthy siege. At this point, though, the Germans were not particularly interested in Namur itself, but rather its strategic location. The Kaiser’s High Command had instead identified the Fortified Position of Namur as the crucial door they needed to open to gain access to a flat, easy terrain leading all the way to Paris, barely 200 kilometres away. This gateway was known to the Belgians as ‘Entre-Sambre-et Meuse’, while France refers to it as ‘La Trouée de l’Oise’, and the few days that the defenders of Namur held the Germans up from flowing through this ‘Trouée’ were to give crucial time to the French to begin preparing their defence of Paris. So the seemingly inexorable German advance was finally halted at the First Battle of the Marne, setting the stage for a different kind of war along the bloody trenches that would line the Western Front.
There were over 100,000 troops under the command of General Karl van Bulow when he began to invest the Namur forts on 18 August 1914, far outnumbering the Belgian garrison, and the Germans were sure that their superior artillery would make a costly all-out assault unnecessary. For three days there was only light bombing of the Fortified Positions as the Belgians hopefully waited the arrival of French reinforcements. But on the morning of 21 August, von Bulow began to use his heavy artillery in earnest, particularly the Big Bertha which could position itself beyond the range of the Belgian guns and rain havoc down on the forts at will. The Belgians desperately tried to counter-attack, launching infantry assaults that led to a serious loss of life. But the forts themselves simply could not withstand the bombing and suffered enormous destruction.
This opening day of hostilities was also the only moment when Namur itself suffered during the siege. The Place des Armes, dominated by the Town Hall, was all but destroyed when a bomb fell and fire spread throughout burning down scores of houses. It is likely though, that this was not a deliberate action against the populace by the Germans, but rather that their gunners were actually aiming for the military garrison. In reality, these giant canons were not actually very efficient at reaching their target, with up to 60% missing completely, though when they did succeed in a direct hit, the physical damage was tremendous as well as a deadly blow to the morale of the Belgian defenders. The next day, Maizeret was the first fort to capitulate while the Germans continued to pound away with their heavy artillery. The forts suffered nonstop bombardments for 11-12 hours, with hundreds of shells raining down, and many were reduced to ruins with the defenders helpless to halt the German advance. The first German troops entered Namur on the afternoon of 23 August, and with the fall of the forts at Cognelée and Marchovelette, General Michel began a general withdrawal. The city was officially ceded to the Germans on 25 August, beginning a long and oppressive foreign occupation.
The moment the Germans took control of Namur they set about requisitioning everything that could aid their war effort with typical Teutonic efficiency. Every possible useful raw material was seized, from barbed wire to melting down church bells for armaments or collecting fabrics to make army uniforms. In the farms of the surrounding countryside, the Germans calculated exactly the levels of crop production so nothing could be siphoned off to resistance groups, while in Namur itself, all the townsfolk were ordered to give food and drink to German soldiers and to chalk up on each door to indicate how many free rooms they had that could be used to lodge the occupying forces. For the Allies, the Rape of Belgium was complete, and the siege of Namur became another weapon in the propaganda war to publicise German atrocities. While the Germans themselves lost no time commissioning war artists and postcards depicting their brave soldiers being fired on by treacherous Belgian snipers, and then creating the myth of the terrifying Grosse Bertha pounding Namur’s forts with giant 42cm shells.
Today, standing on the battlements of Namur’s Citadel, local historians point out to tour groups the location of the 9 forts hidden away in the thick woods encircling the city, but it is difficult to conjure up images of those few days of terror with the frightening blasts of the Big Bertha howitzers. Between the two wars, the forts were rebuilt - the concrete strengthened this time with steel reinforcement - but when the Germans began their cut-and-paste Blitzkrieg invasion in 1939, the result for Namur in 1940 was the same as in 1914, with the forts falling ever faster. The one difference was the townsfolk fared better under German occupation, with a famous quote from one invading soldier – ‘Madame, nous ne sommes plus les Boches de 1914’. The forts have survived these two 20th century invasions, but none are open to visits by the public, owned either by the Ministry of Defence or part of private estates, so curious visitors can only catch a glimpse of mysterious fortified gates surrounded by woods. There is a poignant military cemetery though, at Marchovelette, not far from one of the forts, while in the centre of Namur, on Avenue baron de Moreau, you can find a monument to the city’s defender during the siege, General Michel.
The devil is often said to be in the detail, but not in this story. On 24 December 1914, something extraordinary happened amid the hellish killing fields of the Western Front. German and Allied troops, mercilessly slaughtering each other just hours earlier, laid down their arms and embraced Christmas together.
In one of the most poignant events in human history, sworn enemies dropped their weapons, clambered out of trenches and crossed the shell-blasted mud of no-man’s land to shake hands, sing carols and exchange gifts. The British brought Bully beef, rum and cigarettes to the party. In exchange, the Germans traded sausages, coffee and cognac. Then, famously, a football match was played.
To be precise, a small number of football matches were played, up and down the length of the 500-mile front line. Out of necessity, many deployed a rolled up sandbag or tin can as an emergency football. But here and there a genuine leather ball was produced and a more serious match attempted. The largest shell craters were hastily filled in, referees were picked and military helmets or caps were placed as goalposts.
The most famous of these impromptu international football matches occurred at St Yvon in southern Belgium, around eight miles south of Ypres. Here, in the fields of the Walloon village of Ploegsteert - known to the Tommies as “Plugstreet” - Saxon troops played their British counterparts on the slender strip of soil dividing the two armies. The Germans had started it. The unofficial truce began on 24 December - the day they traditionally celebrated Christmas - when they began decorating the frosted parapets of their trenches with candles and Christmas trees. Carols followed, including a rendition of ‘Stille Nacht.’ The British responded from across no-man’s-land with ‘The First Noel.’ And so it continued until, when the British sang ‘O Come All Ye Faithful,’ they heard the Germans joining in with the Latin words. Finally, a German messenger raised a white flag and strode boldly across the lines to broker the Christmas ceasefire.
In a letter home, Staff Sergeant Clement Barker from Ipswich described the extraordinary scene that subsequently unfolded. “Our men went out and brought the dead in and buried them,” he wrote to his brother. “The next thing, a football kicked out of our trenches - and the Germans and English played football.” The official war history of the German Army’s 133rd Saxon Regiment describes the Plugstreet match beginning after Scottish and German soldiers chased hares - emboldened by the sudden cessation of gunfire - across no-man’s land together. As they laughed and joked, another Scot booted a leather football into their midst. “This developed into a regulation football match with caps casually laid down as goals,” records the Saxon’s official history. “The frozen ground was no great matter. Then we organized each side into teams, lining up in motley rows, the football in the centre.” The polite, affable Saxon troops - who some historians contend had far more in common with the Anglo-Saxons they faced across the trenches than they did with their militaristic Prussian countrymen - were astonished to see The Argylls playing in kilts, without any underwear beneath them.
Despite this element of surprise - presumably revealed in a sliding tackle - both sides agree on the final score that day. As the official Saxon account has it: “Das Spiel endete 3:2 fur Fritz.”
Some accounts have the game only ending after the ball struck a strand of barbed wire and popped, but all agree on the narrow German win - and the greater victory for both chivalry and humanity. No less of a contemporary commentator than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously described it as “one human episode amid the atrocities which have stained the memory of war.”
When it came to planning commemorative events for the centenary of war’s declaration in 2014, a re-enactment of this fabled Plugstreet football match was considered a ‘no brainer.’ Still at the planning stage, it will feature players, media representatives and serving soldiers from Britain, Belgium and Germany. The addition of kilts is yet to be confirmed.
The symbolic Christmas truce of 1914 wasn’t just about football, of course. The majority of the 100,000 British, French, Belgian and German soldiers who lowered their weapons and emerged from the trenches simply talked, told jokes and swapped keepsakes. Apart from the basic food, cigarettes and alcohol, these keepsakes also included buttons and belts from each other’s uniforms, Christmas puddings and Princess Mary Boxes: the small brass boxes sent to British soldiers in the run-up to Christmas containing pipes, lighters, cigarettes and bullet pencils. (The popular boxes had been the idea of the 17-year-old Princess Mary, the daughter of King George V and Queen Mary.)
During the ceasefire, one British Tommy supposedly met his German barber from High Holborn and had an impromptu short-back-and-sides between the lines. Another German strutted about theatrically in a blouse, skirt and top hat taken from a nearby abandoned Belgian house, causing gales of laughter on both sides. Plenty of photographs were taken of the fraternisation between troops, with a British officer writing to his family that another truce had been fixed for New Year’s Day as “the Germans want to see how the photos come out.”
Although the Christmas Truce was utterly unofficial and went against direct orders from both armies’ high command, a number of the officer class inevitably succumbed to the festive spirit too. The commander of a guards battalion strode out to join a mixed group of British and German soldiers with the greeting: “Well my lads, a Merry Christmas to you! This is damned comic, isn’t it?” He then passed round a bottle of best rum which, one attendee noted, was “polished off before you could say knife.”
For many, the truce was a surreal experience. “Just think,” Oswald Tilley of the London Rifle Brigade wrote to his family, “while you were eating turkey, I was talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before. It was astounding!” There were more sombre scenes between the lines during the ceasefire too. On Christmas morning, a British chaplain performed a joint burial service in no-man’s-land for a number of fallen from both sides. The prayers and readings were recited first in English and then in German by a young divinity student. “It was an extraordinary and wonderful sight,” wrote one witness. “The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.”
In some places along the Western Front the truce lasted a number of days after Christmas, but in most the soldiers returned to their positions to recommence the bloodshed the following day - albeit with uniforms minus buttons, badges and belt buckles. Bizarrely, the details of the truce were not reported in the press for a week - an embargo finally broken by the New York Times on 31 December 1914. The British papers subsequently followed, printing numerous firsthand accounts and editorials on “one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war.” By 8 January, The Mirror had printed front page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing in no-man’s-land. Despite the British Government’s official disapproval, the editorial tone was strongly positive across the board. The Times endorsed the “lack of malice” expressed by both sides, and The Mirror voiced regret that the “absurdity and tragedy” would have to begin again after such widespread demonstrations of fraternity.
Aside from the now infamous football match during the Christmas Truce, Plugstreet was to remain significant throughout the First World War, situated on the front line for almost the entirety of the brutal four year conflict. In early 1916, a young Winston Churchill served five months here among the fields of Wallonia, as Commanding Officer (Lieutenant-Colonel) of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. Already a member of the British Government, he had resigned in November 1915 following the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. In his resignation letter he stated: “I am an officer and I place myself unreservedly at the disposal of the military authorities, observing that my regiment is in France.” Instead, he found himself in southern Belgium, albeit very close to the border.
Plugstreet is also celebrated for its ‘tunnellers’: the specialists who quietly and patiently dug deep under enemy lines for months or even years at a time in order to destroy them from below. Famously, some of the British tunnels that helped to blow up nearby Messines Ridge in 1917 - a major German stronghold since the start of the war - were started from Plugstreet.
Historians have subsequently hailed the Battle of Messines as the most successful local operation of the war, and the Plugstreet tunnellers had helped to lay the foundations of its epic success. When the enormous pile of explosives was finally detonated under the German lines on 7 June 1917, it was the biggest series of controlled explosions ever seen. In Switzerland, seismographs registered a small earthquake, and the bang was heard as far away as the Prime Minister’s Downing Street study.
As a result of its crucial position at the epicentre of the Western Front, Plugstreet is the site of a number of significant military cemeteries today. Within a two kilometre radius are no fewer than 14 Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries and War Memorials, some 35 concrete fortifications from the Great War (bunkers, command posts and dressing stations), four mine craters and the ruins of Chateau Breuvart, destroyed during the fighting. Many of the cemeteries bear famous London names - a mark of respect for the tens of thousands of young Britons who lost their lives here. These include the Strand Military Cemetery, the final resting place of 1,000 soldiers, and the (Royal) Berkshire Cemetery, which also contains the Ploegstreet Memorial to the Missing. Built in 1931, this is an impressive, graceful circular temple, supported by pillars and guarded by two stone lions. A mind-boggling 11,369 men with no known grave are commemorated here, and The Last Post is sounded at 7pm on the first Friday of every month in continuing homage to them all.
Just to the north of present day Plugstreet is Prowse Point Cemetery - the site where men who have been discovered in recent times in or near the wood have been reburied. Those laid to rest here include Private Harry Wilkinson of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. His body was finally discovered in 2000 and reburied here in 2001, with full military honours. At the roadside nearby, a cross commemorating him sits near where his remains were found, 86 years after he was cut down in action on 10 November 1914. Aside from the recreation of the famous football match, there are a number of other plans to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War in Plugstreet. Most prominently, a major new visitors’ centre - “Plugstreet 14-18 Experience” - will open in November 2013. Aiming to reinterpret the area’s crucial role in the conflict, it will allow visitors to retrace the experiences of soldiers and civilians in the area during the First World War.
A century on, the Christmas truce of 1914 remains one of the most symbolic events of the Great War: a glimmer of humanity at the core of one of the most vicious conflicts in human history, which saw 16 million people lose their lives over four years. Its message of compassion, brotherhood and forgiveness is one that should never b forgotten. As one British soldier wrote: “This experience had been the most practical demonstration I have seen of peace on earth and goodwill towards men.” It is an enduring sentiment as valid today as it was on that frosty first Christmas of the First World War.
It is thought that about 1.5 million Belgians fled their homeland during the First World War – to escape the battles in the early stages of the war, the oppression and atrocities of the German occupation, the enforced deportations of workers to Germany, and also in order to join the Belgian Army at the Western Front.
Many escaped over the border into the neutral Netherlands, and journeyed on from there. The Germans tried to shore up the border, first with barbed wire, and then, from spring 1915, with a 2,000-volt electric fence which became known as the ‘Wire of Death’. Not without reason: between 2,000 and 3,000 Belgians are thought to have died when trying to cross it. Methods of heroic ingenuity were devised to defy it, including tall ladders, pole-vaulting, or using improvised insulators such as rubber mats, making a tunnel with a wooden barrel, or even strapping porcelain plates to boots.
The broad River Meuse represented a weak point in the German border defences. Running through Liège, where historically it has served as a major communications link, the Meuse flows northeast for about 20km before crossing the border just to the south of Dutch river port of Eijsden. On 4 December 1916, a Liège-based boat called the Anna ran the gauntlet of the German river defences and succeeded in crossing the border into the Netherlands, carrying 42 Belgian refugees. Anna was a muscular little tugboat, of a kind used to pull and shunt huge industrial river barges along the Meuse. It was captained by Joseph Zilliox, from Alsace, who had been conscripted into the German army: wanting himself to flee to the Netherlands, he drugged his German crew to make his break. Another tugboat captain from Liège, Jules Hentjens, had helped to organise the expedition.
After Anna’s success, the Germans reinforced the river defences. Notwithstanding, Hentjens decided to undertake an even more ambitious exploit using his tugboat Atlas V – newly reconditioned at German expense. He alerted resistance workers about his plan, and they secretly began to assemble a group of more that 100 people who wanted to flee occupied Belgium. Time was short: the Germans were now on the track of those who had helped in the Anna expedition, and the River Meuse had to be in flood to avoid the risk of grounding – favourable conditions occurred only in short windows. Hentjens intended to leave on 24 December, but the river was now too high for boats to pass under the bridges.
The Germans became impatient with Hentjens, already known for his truculent insubordination. On 2 January 1917 he was ordered to take Atlas V upriver to Namur. The message went out: Atlas V would leave the following night for the Netherlands. Hentjens’ sister Gérardine, who ran a textile shop in Liège, put an empty vase in her shop window. It was the signal.
As night fell, a total of 103 passengers, including two women and two children, assembled in their pre-arranged groups, and then, in the drizzle, they flitted through the silent, dark city streets of Liège, under curfew, to the quay where Atlas V was moored. By the quay they had to pass in front of the German guards at the Tir Communal (the shooting range and exercise ground of the old Civil Guard), but they seemed to be asleep. Giving the password in local dialect – ‘Qué novelles? Va-t-on so Nameur? ( what news/ Are we going to Namur?)’ – the passengers slipped into the tugboat’s two windowless holds.
At 11:33pm precisely – during the changing of the guard at the Tir Communal – Hentjens and his crew of three cast off and, engine just ticking over, moved silently downstream. Hentjens and his helmsman, Charles Balbour, stood in the wheelhouse, reinforced by iron plates lifted from the coal hold. Reaching the middle of the fast-flowing river, they engaged the engine and began to pass through the string of smaller river-port towns. A passenger, peeking through a slit in the hull, called out the names of the succession of landmarks that he could see in silhouette, at Jupille, Herstal, Wandre.Piloting the tug was skilled work: the Meuse was spattered with islets and shallows – only someone who knew the river like the back of his hand could navigate it, in darkness, and with the river in spate. The water level was so high they had to lower the chimney stack to pass under bridges. All went well, they were half way there – then at Argenteau they were spotted by the Germans. Shots rang out. News passed down the telephone links to guards downstream.
Atlas V powered up to full throttle, hitting 45 kph. Machine-gun fire ricocheted off the coal-
hold plates and pierced the funnel. A fast, armed German motorboat approached: Hentjens could not outrun it. Caught in spotlights, he slowed down to allow it to come astern for boarding. The passengers below, in their lamplit gloom, held their breath: what could this mean? Then suddenly Hentjens accelerated, and the motorboat turned turtle in his wake. At Visé, 3km short of the border, they rammed a temporary wooden railway bridge erected by Russian prisoners of war, taking out the middle section. Now a floating pontoon appeared up front, mounted with a searchlight and manned machine guns. Hentjens steered straight for it, caught it on the corner, and tossed the soldiers into the river. Finally Atlas V hit the cable and chain that stretched across the border; it strained, and strained … and broke the chain. They were in the Netherlands. The journey had taken an hour and a half. As Atlas V docked at Eijsden the passengers cheered loudly, and then emerged singing their national anthem, the Brabançonne, and raised the Belgian flag. Citizens of Eijsden left their beds to give the passengers and crew a rapturous welcome. They were generously supplied with food and accommodation by Joseph Watrin, a local factory-owner of Walloon origin.
News of the successful arrival of Atlas V brought a great boost to morale across occupied Belgium. Flowers were placed in Gérardine Hentjens’ vase. But there was a price to pay: Hentjens’ wife Elvire (and new-born baby) and Gérardine were arrested for complicity and imprisoned for the rest of the war. Hentjens himself had to remain in the Netherlands, where he worked for the resistance movement operated by Watrin’s daughter Josephine. He returned to Belgium in 1918, and the family were reunited. Jules Hentjens died in 1938, aged 55; his son Franz became a leading figure in Liège resistance during the Second Wold War, before his arrest and imprisonment in 1942. A new bridge across the River Meuse in Liège was named the Pont de l’Atlas, and a plaque on its parapet commemorates this heroic episode, which brought light to the dark days of First World War Belgium.
The German invasion of Belgium began on 4th August 1914, after the Belgian King, Albert 1, refused Kaiser Wilhelm’s request for permission to march his army through Belgium to attack France, famously replying, ‘Belgium is a nation, not a road’. Nevertheless, the German army crossed over the border and advanced on the city of Liège, in Wallonia, the first stop on what was expected to be a speedy trip straight towards Paris, swiftly defeating the French before Britain had time to send in aid. But the Belgians didn’t lay down their arms as expected, and the Germans immediately came up against some serious resistance, and this was only the start of what was to become a solid movement working against a hostile occupying force that would last until the end of the war. There was no open passage through Liège, and General Klaus von Bulow was forced to lay siege, with the city resisting for eleven days, crucially giving Britain time to mobilise their forces and setting the scene for the Miracle of the Marne, the battle which effectively ended the inexorable German advance on Paris.
While the King took personal command of the Belgian army and stoically defended a tiny 12 square mile slice of his kingdom in the Yser valley for the whole duration of the war - the Daily Mirror even ran a front page headline, ‘Three Cheers For Belgium’ - his people had to suffer the aggressive attentions of an unfriendly occupier, who did not look kindly on any form of civil resistance. At that time, partisans preferred to see themselves as ‘patriots’ rather than ‘resistance fighters’, but that did not affect the bravery and courage needed to defy the Germans, nor the firing squads that meted out regular executions. The Allied forces had an urgent need for information, and secret networks were immediately set up to recruit Belgian agents to smuggle out crucial information on troop and armament movements. There were dozens of these in every major Belgian city, with ever more inventive methods of passing information back to the secret service headquarters in Folkestone. Beans for example were used in hollowed out broom handles as an indication of the numbers of soldiers, horses and guns passing by train through Belgium. Some messages were also carried to agents in soap, in tins, in packets of chocolate. Some were even sewn into clothes. If that didn’t work then there was always the last resort of carrier pigeons. And the people who volunteered to act as ‘passeurs’ to evade German border sentries and police were a mixed bunch, ranging from professional smugglers-turned-agents, patriotic aristocrats, flamboyant adventurers and everyday citizens, from postman to shopkeeper. And most interestingly, many of them were women.
It was again in the city of Liège that the most complex, far-ranging and successful resistance movement was formed, named La Dame Blanche, the mysterious ‘White Lady’. It was created in 1916 by Walthère Dewé, a telecommunications engineer from Liège, after his cousin Dieudonné Lambrecht, who created one of the first Belgian information networks, was betrayed, condemned and executed by the Germans, at the age of 34, at Liege’s notorious Chartreuse fortress in April 1916. At the time of his death, Lambrecht’s reputation was already established - 3,000 people attended his funeral - and he and the thousands of other patriots to perish immediately become heroes to the next generation of resistant fighters.
La Dame Blanche consisted of some 400 agents, spreading like a cobweb across Belgium with the mysterious ‘passeurs’ carrying their vital information across the frontiers with neutral Holland. By the end of the war it had recruited over 1,000 agents, and reported to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, which would later become MI6. The head of this service, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, estimated that some 70% of all useful military intelligence collected in the occupied territories during the whole war came from La Dame Blanche.
Almost half the members of La Dame Blanche were women and they ran tiring and dangerous tasks like ‘trainwatching cells’ working 12-hour shifts watching German trains, as couriers, transcribers and ‘letterboxes’, receiving and passing on messages. These were not sexy gadabouts using their feminine charms to wheedle out secrets, but honest, hardworking, chaste women willing to die for the cause. A British nurse working in Brussels, Edith Cavell, was elevated to something resembling martyr status when she was shot for her role in an escape service that aided over 200 Allied soldiers, while Gabrielle Petit, a native of Tournai, became a national heroine when she refused to reveal the identities of her fellow agents in return for a full amnesty, and died in Brussels’ St Gilles prison, in front of the firing squad crying ‘Vive le Roi! Vive la Belgique!’.
Gabriele Petit’s career in the resistance began when she helped her wounded soldier fiancé across the border into Holland, and she was soon hired by British Intelligence to spy on the German army in Belgium. She was a courier for the underground mail service ‘Mot du Soldat’, and was also one of the distributors of the legendary clandestine newspaper, La Libre Belgique. Belgian people were always proud of their free press and were in no mood to put up with officially-sanctioned newspapers which were censored and collaborated with the Germans. Although La Libre Belgique is the most famous example, throughout the long years of occupation, there was a nonstop production of clandestine newspapers, a quite staggering 95 different titles in all, for the most part (79 of them) in the French language and produced in Brussels, but somehow distributed across the country. Although this was taking place almost a century ago, this basic form of propaganda had an inestimable influence on bolstering the population’s morale and maintaining the momentum of insurgency, in much the same way as the internet and bloggers have played such a critical role in recent world events like the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. La Libre Belgique found itself going underground again during the Second World War, but it is a testament to the durability of a free press that it is still being published today.
Right up to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914, Belgium pursued a policy of studied neutrality. It came as a considerable shock when, on 2 August, Germany presented Belgium with an ultimatum, demanding passage for its army through Belgian territory and a reply within 12 hours. On 4 August Germany invaded Belgium, drawing the British into the spreading conflict. The British government despatched an ultimatum to Germany demanding an immediate withdrawal from Belgium. There was no reply, and by midnight (Berlin time) on 4 August Britain and Germany were at war. It was a conflict in which Belgian women were to play a significant part.
In Brussels on 4 August, King Albert I appeared before Parliament to announce Belgium’s entry into the war as four German armies crossed the Belgian frontier; it was the first military action on Belgian soil since 1831. The city of Liege, ringed by its forts, lay in the path of German Second Army and, after heavy artillery bombardment, surrendered on 16 August. On 20 August the German First Army entered Brussels while the Belgian army, outnumbered and outgunned, fell back on Antwerp, the “national redoubt”, which fell on 10 October. The remnants of the Belgian field army retreated to the westernmost part of Flanders, where it linked up with the northernmost sector of the Allied armies on the River Yser.
The German steamroller had brushed aside gallant Belgian resistance, but the invaders did not have everything their own way. By destroying much of their railway system, the Belgians had significantly slowed the northern arc of the German advance; now they further hampered it by opening the region’s centuries-old system sluice-gates and flooding the low-lying landscape. The Belgian army of the Yser was not to return to Brussels until November 1918.
"GALLANT LITTLE BELGIUM"
The German high command was firmly of the belief that the prosecution of war on land was strictly a matter for large standing armies. It did not recognise the right of civilians to resist invasion, a conviction hardened by the German experience in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 at the hands of French irregular franc-tireurs (guerrrillas). Then the Germans had responded by taking of hostages and widespread random reprisals. Thus was born the image of the “Rape of Belgium”, conjuring the image of a female Belgium at the mercy of a huge and brutal adversary.
The Belgians’ experience in 1914 was not dissimilar. In 1914, 5,521 Belgian civilians died at German hands, some of them in mass executions, part of a deliberate German policy of Shrecklichheit (frightfulness). The death toll was a gift to Allied propagandists, who painted a lurid picture of the violation of “gallant little Belgium”, often personified by a child or a woman. In a 1915 cartoon by the English artist Edmund J. Sullivan cartoon of 1915, “The Gentle German”, the Kaiser wields a rifle on whose bayonet a winged cherub is bloodily impaled. In a French cartoon of 1914 by Francisque Poulbot, two oafish German soldiers discuss what to do with a young girl struggling helplessly in their grip. One says to the other, “Don’t be frightened, kill her – I’ve got hold of her.”
The events of 1914 had dealt a grievous blow to the Belgian state. Almost 1.5 million Belgians (out of a population of 7.6 million) had become refugees in the Netherlands, France and Britain. The Belgian government of national unity took refuge in the French seaport of Le Havre. Of Belgium’s 2,636 communes, 2,598 were now occupied by the Germans and were subject to the harsh administration of a succession of governor-generals. The area immediately behind the front, approximately one-third of Belgium’s land mass, remained under the even more oppressive control of the German military. The Germans also erected a high-voltage electric fence along the Belgian-Dutch border which claimed many lives but failed to prevent movement back and forth.
The Belgian bureaucracy that survived 1914 was not dismantled, but under German occupation it shrivelled along with the public life of Belgium. The resulting void was filled in large part by the charitable Comité de Secours et d’Alimentation (Central Committee of Food and Aid) headed by the entrepreneur Emile François, who obtained much help from the United States, then a neutral state. The Germans reluctantly tolerated the activities of the Comité, which became a kind of embryonic welfare state.
LA DAME BLANCHE
The graphic output of cartoonists in the first 18 months of the war painted a shocking but one-sided picture of what became known as “the Rape of Belgium.” Belgium is a predominantly flat in the North and densely populated nation. Nevertheless, resistance there was to the German occupation, no more so than in the South of the country.
In 1914 Belgium was northern Europe’s most important railway hub, and much of the nation’s active resistance focused on the movement by rail of men and munitions. One of the organisations most actively involved in this activity was La Dame Blanche (The White Woman), many of whose members were female. La Dame Blanche was part of the Corps d’Observation Anglais au Front de l’Ouest (English Observation Corps of the Western Front). Its personnel considered themselves to be military intelligence gatherers rather than spies and took an oath to that effect. The opening paragraph of the oath ran as follows: “I declare and enlist in the capacity of soldier in the Allied military observation service until the end of the war. I swear before God to respect this engagement”. Seventeen-year-old Irène Bastin, who later became a nun, recalled swearing the oath: “we had the honour of becoming soldiers … but [my friend] Marie Thérèse [Collard] dared not believe in this good fortune. That night she could not sleep, and she said to me many times: ‘At last that which I have so desired is realized. I am going to work for our nation as a soldier’”.
La Dame Blanche, which had its headquarters in Liège, was working for British military intelligence, but the latter remained reluctant to accord La Dame Blanche equivalent military status. Nevertheless, by 1917 La Dame Blanche had organised itself along military lines into three battalions, subdivided into companies, platoons and squadrons, and its members were given military ranks. These were unrecognised by the British, principally because in many cases female members outranked the men. Overall, women made up some 30 per cent of activists in La Dame Blanche. By 1918 the organisation’s total membership had risen to over 1,000. Outside La Dame Blanche, another 6,000 Belgian men and women lent their services to British intelligence.
La Dame Blanche’s Battalion III, the smallest of the battalions, with its headquarters in Brussels, comprised some 190 documented agents and civilian auxiliaries. It was commanded by a Brussels schoolmistress, Laure Tandel, who in 1916 had been imprisoned for a year by the Germans for her work on the underground postal network Le Mot du Soldat (The Soldier’s Word) which provided a link between Belgian soldiers at the front and their families in the occupied zone.
There were some 60 women in Battalion III, most of them operating as trainwatchers and couriers carrying reports from agents in the field to headquarters. As in World War II, women proved particularly valuable in the latter role as, when moving about in the town or country, they attracted less attention from the occupying Germans than did their male colleagues. About a dozen of the Battalion’s women were employed on the dangerous task of maintaining communications between Brussels and La Dame Blanche commanders in Liege. The couriers tended to be older, unmarried or widowed women. Nuns also worked with La Dame Blanche as prison visitors or informants. In Chimay nuns gathered information by the time-honoured method of amassing “overheards”, scraps of conversation gleaned from unsuspecting wounded German being treated in their convent, which had been converted into a hospital.
SISTERHOOD OF SPIES
The inevitable danger associated with working for the Belgian Resistance gave many women a new feeling of empowerment. And danger there was. Gabrielle Petit, who worked on Le Mot du Soldat and ran an escape line into neutral Holland, was arrested by the Germans in February 1916. At her trial she refused to divulge the names of fellow agents, in spite of offers of full amnesty, and was executed by firing squad on 1 April 1916. Before she was shot she declared, “I will show them that a Belgian woman knows how to die.”
Death sentences, however, were rare for resistantes. Hard labour was the usual punishment. The Vicomtesse Gabrielle de Monge de Franeau, who ran a network passing information and people out of Belgium and into Holland, was arrested in 1916 and sentenced to three years hard labour in a German prison. Her shattered network regrouped and in 1917 was absorbed into La Dame Blanche.
Many captured resistantes were held in Siegburg prison near Cologne. One inmate, Louise Thuliez, wrote of her fellow prisoners: “All classes of society were represented in the prison, from the humble working-class woman to the aristocrat, from the peasant who had never before left her native village to the city lady accustomed to a life of luxury and ease … Our common misery created bonds of affection that survived the war …”
Conditions at Siegburg were harsh. The women’s diet consisted of meagre rations of bread and soup, supplemented from the spring of 1917 by military biscuits. Cruellest of all, pregnant women were locked in their cells to give birth and thereafter saw their babies only once a month. When typhoid broke out, the Germans, fearing contagion, left the prisoners to nurse the sick and dying and to lay out and bury the dead. One of the women who died in Siegburg was the Frenchwoman Louise de Bettignies, who under the nom de guerre of Alice Dubois worked for the British from February 1915 to her arrest in the following October.
A charismatic, multi-lingual woman, largely educated in England, de Bettignies had run an immensely efficient network covering the area around Lille, on the Belgian border, supplying the British with a wealth of information on airfields, troop movements and logistics. At Siegburg she courageously led a prisoners’ strike to stop women being forced to assemble munitions and endured solitary confinement in freezing conditions. This ordeal hastened her death in September 1918 following an operation to remove a tumour from her chest.
After the war, the British recognised the contribution made by the Belgian Resistance by awarding more than 3,000 medals and settling many hardship claims. Members of La Dame Blanche received the Order of the British Empire and the awards were gazetted in the United Kingdom. Thereafter these gallant civilian soldiers swiftly receded into the obscurity from which they had emerged during the Great War. However, within 22 years a new secret army was once again needed to meet a fresh challenge.
“Patriotism is not enough,” said British nurse Edith Cavell, shortly before her execution by German firing squad in Brussels. “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Cavell’s story caused international outrage in October 1915 when she was sentenced to death, despite saving the lives of soldiers on both sides. Her specific crime - and crowning achievement - was helping some 200 Allied soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium.
Originally from East Anglia, Cavell had worked in Belgium for some years before the war. As both a pioneer of modern nursing and a staunch Christian, she felt obliged to help anybody in need, saying: "I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved". But Cavell stopped when the Germans caught her helping desperate Allied soldiers to escape across the border into neutral Holland. Despite a number of attempts at international intervention, she was sentenced to death. Magnanimous even before the firing squad, Cavell forgave her executioners, admitting the justice of their sentence.
Cavell’s bravery and steadfastness (the night before her execution she told a priest, “I have no fear of shrinking: I have seen death so often it is not strange or fearful to me!”) saw her become one of the most prominent British female casualty of World War I. As a woman who devoted her life to nursing and died to save others, she was subsequently declared a saint by the Church of England. Today there are memorials to this extraordinary woman across the world, from Brussels itself to Mount Edith Cavell in Canada.
Situated at the strategic heart of Europe, Belgium has often found itself caught in the crossfire of modern warfare, not least during the two world wars. The innocent ‘martyr towns’ of Wallonia have paid a heavy price over the years, but have gone on to flourish today Dinant today is a quiet, graceful town of 15,000 inhabitants, clustered under an imposing citadel on the picturesque banks of the River Meuse. The birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, it’s also famous for its mouthwatering quiche and honey biscuits. In truth, you’d be hard pressed to find a more genteel, peaceful town, in Belgium or otherwise.
But beneath its pretty visage, Dinant, like so many other villages and towns across Wallonia, bears the scars of two major global conflicts, played out within its streets, squares and parks. And while those scars are worn with pride, they remain nevertheless – a reminder of what happened here during the darkest days of the 20th century. Many of the so-called ‘martyr towns’ of Wallonia – places like Namur, Sambreville, Andenne and Visé - have memorials, guided tours and museums dedicated to this particular chapter of their history. For while these were undoubtedly some of the most desperate days in the long story of Wallonia, today’s townsfolk make a point of remembering – and revering – the sacrifices made by their grandparents and great-grandparents during that period. An official report penned during the First World War by the US Minister to Belgium, Brand Whitlock, detailed some of the atrocities suffered by these Walloon towns in August 1914, the first month of the war.
“Over all this area, that is in the country lying about Visé, Liege, Dinant, Namur… a rich agricultural region dotted with innumerable towns, villages and hamlets, a land of contented peace and plenty, during all that month of August there were inflicted on the civilian population by the hordes that overran it deeds of such ruthless cruelty and unspeakable outrage that one must search history in vain for others like them committed on such a prodigious scale,” he wrote. “Towns were sacked and burned, homes were pillaged; in many places, portions of the population - men, women, and children - were massed in public squares and mowed down by mitrailleuses, and there were countless individual instances of an amazing and shameless brutality.” Many of these actions were as unprovoked as they were unforgivable. People - men, women, children and elderly - from Visé, Dinant, Sambreville, Tamines, Andenne, Virton, Tintigny and many other small villages in Belgian Luxembourg were simply not in a position to provoke the agressor.
In Brabant, the local nuns were ordered by German soldiers to remove their habits and strip naked, under the pretext that they were guilty of espionage. Meanwhile, at Porcheresse in the Ardennes, the entire population of the village was reportedly herded into the church by German troops and burned alive. In all, during the early weeks of the First World War in Wallonia’s martyr towns, 6,000 Belgian civilians were killed, 25,000 homes and other buildings in 837 communities were destroyed and 1.5 million more Belgians (20% of the country’s entire population) fled from their homes – and the invading German army.
Thankfully, nearly 100 years later, with the majority of these proud towns preparing to mark the centenary of their darkest hour, all of them are bigger and stronger than ever. Poignantly, at the start of the new century, Walter Kolbow - a high secretary at the German Ministry of Defence - visited Dinant on official business. Standing before the town’s monument to the civilian victims of August 1914, he bowed his head and silently placed a wreath on behalf of his government. The inscription was simple:
“To the 674 Dinantais martyrs… innocent victims of German barbarism.”
URBAN STRENGHT: THE MARTYR TOWNS TODAY
In 1914, the Germans crossed the Belgian border by force, planning to use the Meuse valley as a route into France, and leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. With the centenary fast approaching, what became of the martyr towns of the Meuse?
1. ANDENNE (2012 population: 25,511)
A stunning little town on the River Meuse between Liege and Namur, Andenne lies opposite the village of Seilles (with which it is connected by a bridge over the river). It was one of the earlier places reached by the German advance up the Meuse in August 1914, resulting in the slaughter of more than 200 townspeople. Today, Andenne – which has grown substantially in size - basks quietly by the riverside, famed for its regular festivals and stunning surrounding countryside. For more info: www.andenne.be
2. DINANT (2012 population: 13,520)
In August 1914, Dinant suffered more than any other martyr town. Suspecting that it housed Belgian guerrilla fighters - or “francs-tireurs” - German troops decimated it, torching homes and executing 674 civilians (nearly 10 per cent of the population at the time). After the war, the town was rebuilt, including its stunning landmark, the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame, with its famous onion dome. From here, a cable car transports visitors up to the imposing citadel on the cliff face above. Today, Dinant is a popular tourist destination, with excellent links to Brussels. For more info:belgiumtheplaceto.be
3. NAMUR (2012 population: 109,765)
The mighty city of Namur, the capital of Wallonia, stands at the confluence of two major rivers – the Meuse and the Sambre – making it a vital tactical target for the German army. Despite being billed as virtually impregnable, Namur’s citadel fell after only three days’ fighting and was occupied by the Germans for the rest of the war. The city fared little better in the Second World War, when it was in the front lines of both the Battle of the Ardennes in 1940 and the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Today, its location at the head of the Ardennes region and its excellent collection of hotels has made it a major tourist centre. The enormous citadel is now open to the public, and plays host to a large beer festival every Easter. For more info:belgiumtheplaceto.be
4. SAMBREVILLE (2012 population: 27,478)
During the nightmare days of August 1914, sleepy Sambreville found itself unfortunate enough to be in the direct path of the million-strong German army, as it trampled its way towards the French border. At least 384 townspeople were massacred by the Germans as they passed through, including women and children. Today, life in Sambreville remains dominated by the river, which loops its way around and through the picturesque town. It has also forged a reputation for the performing arts, staging regular plays and concerts. For more info: www.sambreville.be
5. TAMINES (2012 population: 7,211)
“Absolutely destroyed and a mass of ruins," is how one eye-witness described Tamines on 27 August 1914, after the German massacre there five days earlier. The village’s tiny population was decimated, with 240 homes destroyed and 383 civilians executed. Today, an enormous monument bearing the legend “Aux Martyrs du 22 Aout 1914” dominates the village, which is situated next to the larger Sambreville.
6. VISÉ (2012 population: 17,341)
Located north-east of Liege, near the border with The Netherlands, Visé’s location on the East bank of the River Meuse spelt its doom as soon as the Germans crossed the border. Much of the town was burnt, with nearly 600 homes destroyed. Visé was completely rebuilt after the war and remains both an important border town and a picturesque destination of note, well regarded for its cuisine. For more info: http://www.vise.be
The Martyr towns