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Kaiser Wilhelm II
In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II declared war on Russia and France. He decided to advance on Paris, and to do this he asked for permission for his army to cross neutral Belgium. Albert I, King of the Belgians refused, as he wanted to uphold the international treaties he had signed and did not want to be seen to help an invader.
The Kaiser’s response would be terrifying and without precedent. On 4 August 1914, his army attacked the Belgian province of Liège and made its inhabitants the very first victims of the very first world war in human history. The fort at Loncin was bombarded by the German super-gun nicknamed “Big Bertha”. The garrison of the fort continued to fight, even after the fort had been blown to pieces. The shelling threw machines weighing several tons high into the air and the earth tremors were felt as far away as the Netherlands, which would be spared in that particular war. The Liégeois soldiers won the respect of all the nations who took part in this conflict which exceeded all known norms, including their new enemies, who built a cross as a memorial to their bravery. France awarded Liège the Legion of Honour, and the waiters in Parisian cafés renamed Viennese coffee as Liégeois coffee, as a sign of the huge admiration that was felt all over Europe. The Walloon towns of Visé, Namur, Dinant and Le Châtelet would become the first martyrs in this filthy war. People living in the country were not spared either, for example at Porcheresse in the Ardennes, the entire population of the village was herded into the village church by German troops and burned alive.
King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth
Belgium’s stout defence of its independence in 1914 was led from the top by its king, Albert I. ‘Belgium is a nation, not a road,’ he declared in response to the German ultimatum demanding that Belgium should allow German troops to pass through its neutral territory in order to attack France. Personally taking command of the Belgian army, King Albert then steadfastly led his nation’s forces through the war, remaining in command while holding the line at De Panne on the north coast, behind the flooded estuary of the River Yser. For this he became known as the ‘Roi-Soldat’ (Soldier-King) or ‘Roi Chevalier’ (Knight-King). His German-born queen, Elisabeth of Bavaria, whom he had married in 1900, remained by his side at De Panne, visiting the front lines and working at a nursing unit that she helped to set up with the Belgian royal surgeon Dr Antoine Depage, dealing personally with many severely wounded soldiers. For this she became affectionately known as the ‘Reine-Infirmière’ (Nurse-Queen). Albert died in a climbing accident in the Ardennes in 1934, aged 58. His Queen lived on through the Second World War, during which she stayed in Belgium and used her German background to negotiate with the Nazis. This included protecting hundreds of Jewish children from deportation - for which, in 1965, she was later awarded the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by the Israeli government. On the liberation of Brussels in 1944 she opened the doors of the Palace of Laeken to British troops of the XXX Corps under General Horrocks and the Piron Brigade. She died in 1965, aged 89.
WW1: Churchill in Wallonia
After the disaster of Gallipoli for which he felt responsible, Churchill served for several months in the office of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Remaining an MP, he applied for an appointment to the Western front. He was sent to command the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, in Plugstreet, where his section became one of the most active. He served there from 15 November 1915 until March 1916.
The horrors of trench warfare came after and during this endless, bloody, oppressive occupation. At Mons, British history joined that of occupied Belgium: on 23 August, the British Expeditionary Force went into battle against its new enemy, which had been its ally back in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo. Mons saw the first British casualty of the war, and the first two Victoria Crosses of the war were awarded there too, to soldiers who showed unusual bravery and tenacity. The sightings of the Angels of Mons was the first paranormal event of the war. We will probably never know if it was some unexplained reality or propaganda orchestrated by the newborn British Secret Service (later known as MI6). For these early years of the twentieth century share mysteries with earlier times, including during that war. It was also at Mons that the last British soldier was killed in the war, at 10.58am on 11 November 1918, just two minutes before the armistice. The new Mons Memoriel Museum will tell of the contribution of the city to that abominable conflict. It will open in 2015.
The village of Comines - Warneton, better known by its war name of “Plugstreet” is also worth a visit from every amateur historian. It was here that Winston Churchill had himself posted to the trenches, after the disaster of the Dardenelles campaign, for which he held himself responsible. “Churchill’s return” happened in what is Wallonia today. He regained his honour and won the admiration of his men for his courage and deep sense of humanity. “Plugstreet” was also the starting point for teams of Australian and New Zealander tunnellers who worked underground in unbelievably bad conditions to build the tunnels that would be filled with explosive and detonated, destroying the enemy bases at Messines. Today a memorial centre is being built to tell their extraordinary story. It was also on the outskirts of Comines that the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 took place. The absurdity of the war had already become very evident to the soldiers on both sides, but none of them knew then that it would drag on for another four years. At the same time, in harshly occupied Belgium, groups of the very first resistance movement, that of the First World War, were being formed, although today they are mostly forgotten.
Heroic figures of this Resistance emerge today from the shadows of history: Walthère Dewé, a telecommunications engineer, set up the White Lady network which involved 1,200 Belgian civilians and was run from the War Office in London. General Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces would say later that without Dewé and his “soldiers of the shadows” the Allied victory would have simply not been possible, so valuable was the information collected and relayed by this network. During the Second World War, Dewé organised a similar resistance network with similar efficiency, but this time would be killed by the enemy as he tried to protect one of his men.
Edith Cavell, in Brussels, was a British nurse and secret agent was adopted by all self-respecting Belgians and inhabitants of the city. She abandoned her duties as a spy to help hundreds of allied soldiers to escape from Belgium to the neutral Netherlands using an escape network organised by Belgians in the Mons region and French resistance groups around Lille, in breach of the martial law imposed by the German occupiers. She was found out, tried and executed. She refused to deny anything and retained her dignity to the end.
Gabrielle Petit was a girl from Tournai aged 21 when the war started and ended her hopes of marriage. She too became a nurse and an Allied spy. She gathered information about German troop positions and movements around Mauberge and Lille and transmitted them to Allied Headquarters. She was unmasked, arrested and sentenced to death by a German court martial and was shot by firing squad at the former National Shooting Range in Brussels on 1 April. As the firing squad took aim she cried out “Long live the King! Long live the...” but died before she could complete the phrase. She was given a state funeral in May 1919, attended by Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, who placed the Cross of the Order of Leopold on her coffin amid huge national emotion. She was then buried in the cemetery at Schaerbeek.
And there were so many more, both known and unknown, whose heroism would inspire the next generation in the Second World War, only 21 years after the end of the First. During the First World War, the first King of the Belgians to be called Albert would win the respect of everyone by his determination, courage and dignity. His people saw themselves in him and gave him a second title: “Le Roi Chevalier” (“the Knightly King”).
The First World War was the first to get bogged down in the trenches, and the last to which young soldiers went off to fight with an almost romantic attitude, and after that war there were no more “gentlemen soldiers”. It was the first time that industrial mechanisation would be used in warfare, that gas would be used to attack the enemy, inflicting with certainty a slow agonising death, sometimes many years after the end of the war, rather than a rapid and efficient eradication.
That war also marked the end of a world, of an era, of an insouciance, or quite simply of a way of life, known as ”La Belle Epoque”. For the end of that war was the start of what Charlie Chaplin would call “Modern Times”.
Walthère Dewé and ‘The White Lady’
by Antony Mason
The bustling, prosperous city of Liège, the eastern focal point of Belgium’s 19th-century industrial heartlands, was the first target of the German invasion in August 1914, and the city was captured – despite the courageous resistance of its ring of protective forts – within two weeks of the start of hostilities. Liège, the first major Belgian city to fall, also became the first city to set up resistance to the German occupation. A local gunsmith called Dieudonné Lambrecht went to neutral Netherlands to join the Belgian Army, but there he met representatives of the Secret Service Bureau of the British War Office who encouraged him instead to set up an intelligence network. Making use of his professional contacts, he could feed the Allies with information, particularly about troop and armaments movements on the railways – Liège being a key railway interchange for transport to the Western Front. Lambrecht quickly created a large and highly effective network, personally recruiting agents and the ‘passeurs’ who took the information over the border into the Netherlands – often on very fine silk paper stuffed into hollow buttons specially manufactured for Lambrecht. But the Germans managed to insert a counter-espionage agent into his network and, on 4 March 1916, Lambrecht was arrested at his home. Steadfastly refusing to give away any information, he was condemned to death and shot by firing squad on 18 April at the notorious military barracks and prison called La Chartreuse, in Liège.
But his intelligence network did not die with him. His cousin, a 35-year-old telegraph and telephone engineer called Walthère Dewé, stepped into Lambrecht’s shoes. He renamed the network ‘La Dame Blanche’ (‘The White Lady’) after the story that the sight of the ghost of a woman dressed in white would foretell the end of the German Kaiser’s Hohenzollern dynasty. Dewé refined the network and divided it into four independent sectors, studiously insulated from knowledge of each other. Only the heads of the sectors knew Dewé. Agents kept their anonymity by using dead letterboxes: one agent would leave informa-tion in an agreed, secure location, to be picked up by another. Ingenious methods were used to relay information about trains and what was being transported in them: for example, broom handles were hollowed out and filled with various kinds of dried beans to record the number of soldiers, horses and guns on board. La Dame Blanche was organised along military lines, with battalions and platoons, so participants considered themselves to be ‘soldiers without uniforms’ in the service of their country. Almost half of the agents were women, often middle-aged and single – considered to be less likely to attract attention, and less vulnerable to threats to their families if arrested. The head of Battalion III, based in Brussels, for example, was Laure Tandel, a schoolmistress in her 40s, who ran a school with her sister Louise, also a key Dame Blanche agent.
La Dame Blanche soon had some 1,300 agents, spread across occupied Belgium, Luxembourg and France, and ended up supplying three-quarters of all intelligence received by the British in this sector. Just 21 years after the end of the First World War, Belgium again came under the threat of German invasion. In 1939, still working in the telephone industry and now aged 59, Walthère Dewé re-established contact with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). He set up the ‘Corps d’Observation Belge’ (COB), using a network of businessmen travelling to Germany for commercial reasons to carry out industrial and logistics espionage – information highly valued by the Allies in the months prior to the invasion of Belgium on 10 May 1940. He had also begun laying the foundations of a new Dame Blanche, now called ‘Clarence’, with several of its veteran survivors, including Thérèse de Radiguès, now aged 75. The network, based in Brussels, was now divided into nine geographical sectors, including France, and had some 1,500 agents. Initially communications with London, via four radio transmitters supplied by the British, were frustratingly inefficient, but after more transmitters were successfully dropped by parachute in January 1941, hundreds of messages were sent to London, while packages containing maps, sketches and photos were despatched with couriers travelling through France to neutral Spain. Lieutenant-Colonel Claude Dansey (‘Colonel Z’) of the London SIS later rated the information supplied by Clarence as the best among all that was submitted by military intelligence-gathering networks in German-occupied Europe.
But in July 1941 the Gestapo began visiting Dewé’s home: he was a marked man, and operations became increasingly risky – especially after the Germans began using direction-finding equipment to track radio transmissions. The pressure was on, but Dewé continued regardless, travelling around the country under numerous false identities, staying in safe houses.
On 7 January 1944, Dewé’s two daughters, Marie and Madeleine, both Clarence members, were arrested; they ended up in Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp in Germany, from which only Marie returned. On 13 January, Dewé heard from an agent working at the telephone exchange that the Gestapo were preparing to arrest Thérèse de Radiguès. The following day he went to her home in Ixelles, in southern Brussels, to warn her. A maid told him she was out, and asked him to wait, but suddenly the Gestapo burst in. Dewé shoved them out of the way, ran outside and, seeing a tram, leapt onto it. But the tram stopped almost immediately at a red light. Dewé jumped off and headed for Place Flagey, but by chance, at a corner, he encountered a Luftwaffe officer who – suspicious – ordered him to stop. When Dewé refused, the officer drew his revolver, opened fire and killed him. The Gestapo reprimanded the Luftwaffe officer for depriving them of the opportunity to interrogate the victim – but, since Dewé was carrying false identity papers, they never knew that the man who lay dead on the pavement before them was perhaps the greatest of all Belgian resistance workers – a man who, uniquely, had led underground intelligence networks in both the World Wars. Clarence continued to operate to the end of the war. Of its 1,500 members, 47 lost their lives. If that is a relatively small number compared to the 15,000 or so members of the Belgian resistance who perished, it is a credit to the skills in recruitment and organisation that Dewé brought to Clarence.
In 1950 a memorial chapel to Walthère Dewé was built in his honour at Thiers-à-Liège, in the northern part of that city. A robed statue of a White Lady, with her index finger raised to her lips, stands almost out of sight against an outer wall.