Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wapenstilstandsdag/Veterans Day - In Flanders Fields

Flanders' Fields....of Mud: Passchendaele 1917

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— Lt.-Col. John McCrae December 8, 1915. McCrae died January 18, 1918 - and is - buried in Flanders

Armistice Day

Today, November 11, 2008, is Armistice Day. Although commonly referred to as Veteran's Day here in the U.S., it is of course meant to mark the date ninety years ago when the guns fell silent on the Western Front in World War 1. In Dutch, this day is called Wapenstilstandsdag and just as here in the U.S., in Belgium it is a national holiday. In both countries we are meant to remember the fallen dead and the futility of war. We are also called to reflect upon the purpose of their sacrifice and ensure that such sacrifices were not in vain.

Flemish Americans as well as Flemings would do well to re-examine our own special tie with this date. It is from the crucible of this war that not only new waves of Flemish immigrants left a wrecked and lunar landscape and came to America. But, equally important for our history, is that the sacrifices on the fields of battle birthed a stronger self-consciousness of and for the Flemings.

The military artist Joe English (1892-1918), born in Brugge of an Irish father and Flemish mother, served on the Ypres front and his artwork not only captured the Flemish-Catholic consciousness of his fellow front-liners but also served as the inspiration of later generations of Flemings.

Invasion and Occupation

Many commentators forget that for the Western Front, the First World War began with an invasion of neutral Belgium. And it was Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality that brought Great Britain into the war. The German plan - called the Schiefflen Plan, after its author - was to slip behind the French frontier fortifications facing Germany via relatively defenseless Belgium. The German High Command's belief was that by doing so they could knock France out of the war early - and before either the British could field a meaningful expeditionary force to support France or, more ominously for them since Berlin sat only 100 miles from the Russian frontier - Russia could mobilize and bring to bear their overwhelming numbers on the Eastern Front.

Within the first 3 months of the war - August through October, 1914 - Germany had occupied more than 75% of Belgium. Immediately, coldly-efficient German authority was imposed on the local, Flemish-majority populace. But the harshest repression was inflicted on that part of Belgium closest to the front: West Flanders.

The initial impact of German occupation was harsh. As one German officer in November, 1914 recalled (according to Larry Zuckerman in "The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War 1" (NY: NY University Press, 2004 p.94):

“’Only a month ago, this country might have been called rich; there were cattle and pigs in plenty.’
Now, requisitions had emptied the place.

‘We have taken every horse, every car; all the petrol, all the railway-trucks, all the houses, coal, paraffin, and electricity, have been devoted to our exclusive use.’ “

German occupation troops requisitioning supplies in the West Flemish town of Koekelare.

It may be hard to believe now, but on the eve of World War One, in 1913, Belgium produced 4.4% of the world’s commerce (Zuckerman, op.cit., pp. 44-45, 50).

“[Belgium’s] population, in short, on the 31st of December, 1913, numbered 7,685,000 souls. … This means an average of 676 inhabitants to the square mile. …. “Finally, we shall find that the national trade of Belgium - that is, the sum of her imports and exports (through freights being deducted) – amounted in 1913 to L350,000,000, or L46 5s. 7d. per inhabitant, which was – proportionately – three times the trade of France or of Germany: an enormous figure, which gives Belgium the fifth place in the statistical table of the world’s commerce.”

The above quotes are from "Belgium in Wartime" by Commandant De Gerlache De Gomery (New York: Doubleday, 1915). Certainly not the most objective of sources. Yet it captures the impact of Germany's barbaric, systematic, despoiling of occupied territory. Zuckerman - and others - in fact claims that the lessons learned by the Kaiser's military administrators in Flanders in 1914-1918 were copied and refined by Nazi Germany and applied to Europe in 1940-1945.

The Westhoek corner of West Flanders where the bulk of the fighting in Flanders took place from 1914-1918. It is also the home of dozens of military cemetaries holding the war dead on both sides as well as the world's largest peace memorial to the First World War, the Ijzertoren.

What makes this more shocking perhaps was that this did not occur in some lawless land on the fringes of Western civilization but smack dab in the heart of Europe. In 1913 Belgium was not only the world’s most densely-populated country but it ranked sixth among all countries in terms of GDP (contradicting the good Baron above). Antwerp was the world’s second busiest port (after New York) – busier than London, Rotterdam or Hamburg. Belgium was also the most densely populated country in the world with an average of 250 inhabitants per square mile. And since the bulk of the population of 7 million (nearly 70%) were Flemish and Flanders comprised less than half of the total Belgian land area, the densities in the area most wracked by warfare – West Flanders – meant that the impact of the war was devastating and concentrated on an area where the human impact was extreme.
The fighting on the Yser Front, the tiny corner of southwestern West Flanders that the Belgian Army held behind the Yser River from 1914-1918, was characterized by vicious actions like the one depicted here.

In other words, Belgium in 1913 was one of the 10 largest industrial powers. By 1919, the first full year of peace after the war had ended, Belgian production was up to 64% of its 1913 levels, according to a New York Times article. Not only had her fields and farms been destroyed by the battles raging across them and her towns - especially the Flemish towns - but the Germans had imposed wholesale deportations of working age males to German factories. German soldiers also inflicted atrocities on the civilian population - in part perhaps due to the savagery of war but these atrocities became not only widely known but helped tilt public opinion in the U.S. against Germany and the Central Powers (as Germany and its allies were collectively known as).

Even in 1918, four years after the war began, the American public's desire to wage war in Europe for the Allies was easily stoked by references to brutal German atrocities against Belgian civilians, as depicted in this suggestive Ellsworth Young poster.

The Cost of War

When, on November 11, 1918 at 11 AM the guns fell silent on the Western Front in World War One - or as it was known for more than twenty years in nearly every language, the Great War, the full scale of human losses could only be guessed at. It was a 'Great War' in large part because of the horrendous loss of life. Superficially, the United States and Belgium saw relatively low military casualties. In the case of the United States, this was due to our late official (April 6, 1917) and effective (Summer, 1918) entry into the more than four-year war. For Belgium, the numbers do not tell the full story. Although 270,000 men were mobilized for war only 100,000 men remained under arms in Belgium at the end of the war (see table below). tens of thousands were interred by neutral Holland - and not released until more than four years after the war's end. Tens of thousands more were MIA. An innocuous designation for those dead not recovered. Thus the true toll is far, far greater than simple tables below suggest.

Numbered tables also hide the human element. The human element for the Belgian army was overwhelmingly - some documents claim 85% - the Flemish element. And, as in many wars, some families bore this sacrifice in greater numbers than others.

In his book "The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War One" (p.83) Larry Zuckerman gave horrific descriptions of the plight of the refugees.

‘The forty-mile road to Ghent [from Antwerp] “was a solid mass of refugees,” as was “every road, every lane, every footpath leading in a westerly or northerly direction.” And when the army retreated, the soldiers slogged the same routes. “White-haired men and women” clung to harnesses of horses hauling guns, and “springless farm wagons literally heaped with wounded soldiers with piteous white faces” leaked bloody trails. The din was dreadful. Wheels rattled, drivers cursed, the wounded groaned, women and children cried, and one heard “always the monotonous shuffle, shuffle, shuffle of countless weary feet.”

Flemish refugees fleeing the German attack on Antwerp, October, 1914

“The [Belgian Government] cabinet left Belgium for the French port of LeHavre, whereas 1.4 million or perhaps even 2 million less distinguished Belgians, almost 27 percent of the prewar population, had also fled. More than a million civilians went to Holland, and so did thirty thousand soldiers, whom the Dutch interned, as the Fifth Convention required.”
(Zuckerman, op.cit., p.85)

Take also the story of the last surviving WW1 Belgian veteran, Cyriel Barbary (1899-2004). Barbary volunteered, fought in the Belgian Army on the front line at the Yser Front while his refugee family eked out a living near the Belgian front lines taking in wash and doing odd jobs. After the war ended, the family returned to their farm in Klerken, West Flanders to find it literally obliterated. All they found of a thriving farm and home were posts marking their property boundaries. At that point, as his great-granddaughter later recalled in an award-winning essay, the family gave up on Belgium to emigrate to the promise of America. Thus, the last surving veteran of World War One's Belgian Army was not only Flemish but died a Flemish-American in Michigan.

The Van Raemdonck brothers, Edward and Frans, as sketched by Joe English in 1917.

Other Flemish families gave even more. The story of the Van Raemdonck brothers, Edward (22) and Frans (20) captures the sacrifice of Flemings. The two brothers, who had volunteered as teenagers in 1914, died on a patrol to try and rescue a Walloon soldier lost behind German lines in March, 1917. More than two weeks later their bodies were found in the pose sketched above by Flemish frontline artist Joe English. Although hastily buried due to wartime exigencies, the Flemish frontline troops wished to arrange a brief truce to retrieve the bodies. Senior Belgian Army generals rejected the idea - reportedly in part because the brothers had been outspoken in defense of Flemish rights - such as receiving orders in the language they understood, Flemish, instead of a foreign tongue such as French. Not only do the brothers' deaths underscore the commitment to the ideal of sibling devotion but the reality that although Flemings had spilled their blood in disproportion to Belgian demographics, they remained second class citizens in a country where they numerically were the majority.

On the front lines, this translated into tragic events. Walloon officers shouting commands in French to Flemish farmboys whose French was imperfect while the din and confusion of battle, which made even regular discussion impossible, resulted in what in effect was tragedy but by Walloons was perceived as insubordination or treachery. Flemish soldiers - and even in so-called Walloon regiments, the majority of serving soldiers were, in fact Flemings - felt that they were oppressed by a country where true universal suffrage did not yet exist and where the majority not only were politically disenfrachised but forced to abandon studies in their mother tongue for a foreign language (French) and culture. Thus, more than 100 years after the American and French revolutions, in one of the most industrialized countries in the heart of Western civilization, the Flemings whose own history in fact inspired the ideas of universal suffrage, were prevented from exercising not only universal suffrage but also more basic rights such as secondary education in their native Dutch. Flemish soldiers began to ask: "Hier ons bloed, wanneer ons recht?" ("Here is our blood; where are our rights?"). This consciousness sparked the Frontbeweging or 'Front Movement' for Flemish rights. Later this would become known as the Flemish Movement.

The AVV-VVK - "Alles Voor Vlaanderen - Vlaanderen Voor Kristus" superimposed upon a celtic cross gravestone was designed by Joe English and became a symbol of the futility of the Great War.

Cyriel Barbary in other words fought a futile war. Not just because of his personal sacrifices or the mindless waste of young lives. But because the sacrifices he made were for a country whose birth was by deception (see Paul Belien's superb "A Throne in Brussels: The Belgianization of Europe"). A country, Belgium, where demographically the Flemish majority were a disenfranchised and subjected minority in their own land.

The image that many Flemings had of their work toward building an equitable, new world was captured in this Joe English pen-and-ink sketch of a Flemish soldier building upon the foundations of the Battle of the Golden Spurs (Guldensporenslag) in 1302 through the battles of WW1.

Although now the stuff of legend, these stories of sacrifice deserve retelling here. In part because they are formative for me and other Flemish Americans. They form the bedrock of familial remembrance of things that were unnecessary and needless. The insensitivities of one community upon another. They tie very directly into the Flemish community here in Chicago. Less than three years after the war's end, in 1921, the Flemish colony in Chicago laid the cornerstone of the Belgian-American Club of Chicago. The legend was an aspiration still not realized today: "All Belgians Are Equal."

If we then wish to commemorate those who have served, sacrificed, and died on Flander's Fields ninety years ago today, what better way than to commemorate the peace they strove for and the rights they died for: the rights of Flemings and Flemish Americans. Perhaps Flemings are best served by remembering that the monument to Flander's contribution to "the war to end all wars" is the largest peace monument in Belgium, the Ijzertoren. And the annual August pilgrimmage to commemorate this peace, the Ijzerbedevaart, is the remembrance of this urge for world peace.

For Flemish Americans, it is important that we not only recall what our forefathers fought for at the Yzer, but also what they dreamed of: equal rights for Flemings in their own country. For those rights to happen - and for our 'cousins' in Flanders - the best service we can render is to remember that we are not 'Belgian-Americans'. As Jules Destree, the prominent Walloon politician, stated in his Lettre au Roi sur la separation de la Wallonie et de la Flandre ("Letter to the King concerning the separation of Wallonia and Flanders") to King Albert in May, 1912, as war clouds loomed over Europe: "Sire, il n'y a pas de Belges, il n’y a que des wallons et des flamands" ("Sire, there is no such thing as a Belgian; there are only Walloons and Flemings"). And, if there is no such thing as a 'Belgian', as this prominent Walloon parliamentarian pointed out, and we are indeed either Walloons or Flemings, then it is hardly likely that there is anything such as a 'Belgian-American'.

Jules Destree's detailed and rational letter ended with a plea. "A dishonest unity, imposed...that exists in official proclamations but not in the hearts of citizens, will never be worth a union freely agreed to" (quoted from "The Flemish Movement: A Documentary History, 1780-1990" edited by Theo Hermans, et.al. London: Athlone Press, 1992; Document 31, pp 206-217). I for one, could not agree more.

As Flemish-Americans, it is time all those of us with Flemish ethnicity recognize and catelogue our unique cultural roots. To our cousins in Flanders, we Flemish Americans here ask that you recognize that the literally millions of Americans with Flemish roots will only begin to connect with their cultural and ethnic origins when the haze of ambiguity over the status of Flanders is cleared up. Only then will the suffering, death and destruction inflicted on Flanders' Fields 1914-1918 be atoned for. Only then will the "wapen" truly 'stand' 'still'.

© 2008 by David Baeckelandt - All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written, consent.


  1. Wow, fantastic write-up.

    To read about WWI is depressing. The war, too avoidable; the strategies, myopic; the tactics, too rigid; the duration, unnecessarily long; the magnitude of the casualties, nearly unfathomable; and the outcome, more war.

    That WWI only served as a preamble to WWII is disheartening. After 40 million casualties (military and civilian), countries erased, and nations destroyed, nothing was solved; nothing was fixed or cured or learned.

    It is really to the shame of all people, that the ‘war to end all wars’ can be said to have caused an even greater war.

    Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of WWI is that it teaches us how unstable the world can be.


  2. Thanks very much BE. I couldn't agree more with you about the depressing loss of life. Especially the youth. I can't remember the source (but I will try and source it) but on November 11th several aggressive commanders on the Allied side launched literally last minute attacks on German positions. That afternoon, as the stretcher bearers crossed the fields, they discovered the bodies of three British dead on the field. Each wore a special service ribbon only issued to those soldiers part of the original BEF sent to France at the beginning of the conflict in 1914. That to me is one of the saddest of a string of sad stories. Thanks again for commenting,

    De bende van...

  3. This is a very interesting and informative blog post. I never knew so much about Flanders and its part in World War I.

    Here's a great site I stumbled upon that happens to be in West Flemish that I thought you might enjoy:

    West-Vlams wiki browser

  4. Bryce, thanks very much for your kind comments and for the link to the West Vlaams wiki browser. My future postings will focus more on the Pilgrims, New Netherlands, the Flemings among both groups, and the Christian connection between them through Flanders.
    Thanks again,
    De bende van ...

  5. Thank you for a wonderful site. I found it as part of my research on Fr. Damien who might be called a Flemish-American although he never in his lifetime considered any place other than Flanders his homeland and which is rightfully his final resting place. I have been so grateful that my research has led me to further study of these strong and true people! I am currently self-teaching myself the Dutch language so that I can discover even more in primary sources. Dank u opnieuw en de God zegent.

  6. Roylene, Thanks very much for your very kind note. I am delighted that you found something here helpful.

    My thoughts have turned to Fr. Damian from time to time. My good friend Dirk Musschoot has written an excellent book on the good Fr (in Dutch) that may nicely combine these interests of yours: Dirk Musschoot, Damiaan, de held van Molokai (2009), Lannoo, ISBN 978-90-209-8414-9

    In the meantime, Dank U wel voor dit bericht en natuurlijk, Vlaanderen boven nu en in de toekomst!