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First World War centenary: How Belgium was at the centre of the action

22:11 07/11/2018

The horrors of World War One never fail to resonate. From the staggering statistics to the stories of conditions in the trenches of the Western front, the war continues to exert an irresistible fascination for all generations. And Belgium was at the centre of the action. It was witness to the start of the war in August 1914 and its end in November 1918, the first and last British soldiers were killed and are buried in Mons, and it was the backdrop for some of the war’s fiercest fighting.

Belgium’s experience of the war differed to that of other countries. The small and relatively new nation was drawn into the conflict by the violation of its neutrality. It experienced trench warfare, devastating battles and occupation, with civilians massacred, towns destroyed and communities pillaged. Misery and hunger led to the launch of the first international humanitarian aid in history.

Heroism was not restricted to the front line. A significant military and civilian resistance movement grew out of the population’s refusal to accept military invasion, despite the reprisals this incurred. Networks of informers – the most famous was La Dame Blanche, with 400 agents, half of them women, spread across the country – provided intelligence on rail transport, helped move wounded soldiers out of Belgium, assured a mail service and published forbidden patriotic newspapers such as La Libre Belgique.

One hundred years on, Belgium is honouring all the victims of the war and joining in an international reflection of the profound impact that the war had on its own history and that of the whole world.

How the war started in Belgium

With its neutrality guaranteed by an 1839 treaty signed by the chief actors of WWI, Belgium nevertheless feared attack by any one of its neighbouring countries and had strengthened its military defences at the end of the 19th century. Rings of fortresses had been built around Antwerp, Liège and Namur. In 1914, though, the Belgian army was still small and the majority of its soldiers reservists. For the Germans, it was a tempting alternative to the strong fortifications on the Franco-German border. The day before Germany declared war on France, it wrote to the Belgian government demanding free passage for its troops. Albert I, the ‘soldier king’, famously retorted: “Belgium is a nation, not a road.” But just after dawn on August 4, 1914, the German army crossed the border at Membach, in the strategic province of Liège, and two hours later, lancer Antoine Fonck became the first Belgian soldier to be killed.

For centuries, Belgium’s geographical position had earned it the dubious title Battlefield of Europe. Expecting little resistance, the German army was nevertheless stalled in Liège until it sent for its secret weapon, the long-range howitzer called Big Bertha. When its shell hit the powder reserve of Fort Loncin on August 15, killing the majority of the garrison, it effectively destroyed Belgium’s military resistance. Besieged Namur held off the Germans for a few more days, but the German Army then advanced across Wallonia, destroying villages and towns and massacring civilians. Brussels was occupied within two weeks of the declaration of war.

The Belgian army retreated to Antwerp on August 17 while the Germans’ unexpected delay in Liège and Namur gave both British and French armies time to amass their forces. It resulted in the Battle of the Frontiers, a series of battles in the south of Belgium and along the eastern frontier of France, that resulted in terrible losses for the French Army and reprisal killing of thousands of Belgians. The small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) moved into position south of the Mons-Condé canal on August 23.

As the French needed to fall back, the British were requested to hold the canal. Though outnumbered, the BEF was a veteran force with outstanding rifle and machine-gun skills. Its first skirmish with Germany began that day, with Drummer Edward Thomas firing the first British shots. Early the following morning the Germans launched an attack on British lines at two bridges over the canal at Nimy. Already prepared, the BEF succeeded in decimating German ranks until the arrival of further troops forced the British to prepare their own retreat. In the early afternoon Mons was abandoned and the British fell back into northern France. The first two Victoria Crosses of the war were awarded at the Battle of Mons, to machine-gunner Private Sidney Godley, buried at Saint-Symphorien, and Lieutenant Maurice Dease. There are plaques in memory of both soldiers on the bank of the canal beneath Nimy Bridge.

By September, German armies were advancing towards Paris, until the French launched a surprise attack in the Marne and the BEF exploited a breach in German lines. The German advance had been halted but there was now a race to the sea as both sides moved towards the North Sea. Each built a series of trenches which would characterise the next four years of combat. As the Allies reached Nieuwpoort, German forces descended from Antwerp and thus began the First Battle of Ypres on October 14. In the following weeks, casualties mounted on both sides as German assaults almost succeeded in taking the medieval town. Fighting around Ypres continued until the onset of winter weather forced a break in hostilities. The ‘First Ypres’ became a synonym among soldiers for gaining fighting experience. The British held the town and did so until the end of the war, with the Allies also controlling a small area extending into German lines, known as a salient. This was the start of a lengthy stalemate in which the line of the Western front was barely to change. Belgium was almost entirely occupied except for a sliver of land in northwest Flanders, which would become one of the most strategic areas of Belgium and the scene of two further major battles, in 1915 and 1917.

There may no longer be any survivors of the Great War, but its memory is being perpetuated, as new technology means records, photographs and archives are now being digitised. The war was an extraordinary era that radically changed society, from technological and medical advances to the politics and economy of the 20th century. One hundred years on, with conflict still raging in the world, remembrance of earlier wartime human sacrifice continues to resonate.

Written by The Bulletin