Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembering Flemish American War Veterans And Their Contribution to Veterans Day

November 11th we celebrate, here in the U.S., as “Veteran's Day”. It is not a holiday for most Americans beyond government employees and some financial sector workers. Rather, the day remains a tribute to the sacrifice of the military men and women in uniform who have suffered and died for the rights that we exercise as Americans. This holiday came about directly in response to the end of the “Great War”. In earlier times this day was more frequently called Armistice Day, to recognize the effective end of the "Great War", (as World War 1 was known until World War 2 began in 1939) on November 11th, 1918 at 11:11 AM.

Within that wider context, I believe it is important to chronicle the contribution of Flemish Americans to this time in history. Building upon work in previous years (2008 and 2009), I would like to offer a slice of the history of Flemish Americans in Chicago in the “Great War”.

To those in uniform today, November 11th, on active duty stationed at the bulwarks of Western Civilization wherever that may be around the world, I salute you. To those who have fallen in these wars and earlier ones, I pay tribute to you. To those of you who have not served but offer support to our men in uniform – Flemish, Flemish Americans and others – I thank you.

World War I and the Flemish Americans
World War 1, while devastating to Belgium (especially the Flemish part where the war waged for more than four years), helped cement a positive image of Flemings in the U.S. and globally. Belgium began the war with one of the world’s top ten economies. During the war perhaps a third of the population was displaced. Forced requisitions by the German army subjected as many as 1 million Belgian civilians to starvation in the first months of the war [1] .

The country literally never recovered its pre-war economic preeminence. But the image of “Little Belgium” as a ‘plucky’ nation of honorable but independent people was permanently fixed in American minds. The men who made that image possible were the front line troops along the Ijzer River in the Westhoek of West Flanders. 80% of these Belgian troops – or more – were Flemings.[2]

While the war started in the Balkans it spiraled out of control in August 1914 when Germany invaded Belgium. Great Britain entered the war to defend Belgian neutrality (violated as millions of German soldiers stormed across the frontier). The domino-effect invoked as commitments to overlapping alliances triggered the first truly global war.
German military excesses – such as the massacres of civilians (including women and children), reprisals against guerrilla fighters in Belgium, and especially the burning of the library and cathedral at the University of Leuven (the oldest university in the Low Countries) – in August and September 1914, aroused sympathy among Americans. The hardiness of the Belgian troops – overwhelmingly from the Dutch-speaking provinces – gave the Belgians the status of ‘underdog’. To the American public this became a compelling reason to aid the Allies against Germany and the Central Powers.

Like other ethnic groups, Flemings in Chicago responded fervently and immediately to the invasion of their homeland. But even before the extent of this was known, concern over the general impact of the war upon Belgian civilians spurred Chicago's Flemish American community into action hosting fundraisers for Belgian Relief [3].
A byline in the Chicago Tribune, dated August 1914 stated that: “A campaign to raise funds for the Red Cross society of Belgium was started on Sunday at Belgium-American [sic] club of Chicago in Schoenhofen Hall, Ashland and Milwaukee avenues. The club appropriated $200 for the society and personal subscriptions were started. A call for a Belgium [sic] massmeeting [sic] on Thursday evening in the Belgian church at Maplewood avenue [sic] and Logan boulevard [sic] to continue the collection of funds was issued.”[4]

More than 1,000 Chicagoans gathered at the “Belgian Church” (St. John Berchman’s) on the night of August 13, 1914, representing all six of the Belgian clubs in the city and formed a new entity called the Belgian-American Relief Society of Chicago.[5]

For many Flemish Americans the start of the war in 1914 was a difficult time. Many dropped everything and heeded the call to service in 1914. Paul Vandervelde, a Flemish American from Dallas, Texas, volunteered for the Belgian Army early in the war and fought for 34 days straight, before returning to the U.S. in September, 1914 [6]. (with apparently no training either). In fact, enough numbers of Flemish Americans nationally enlisted in the Belgian army in the first month of the war that the Belgian government was compelled to offer a stipend for all spouses and their children remaining in the U.S. [7].

Some Flemish Americans in Chicago fought back by refusing to play German and Austrian songs. Johannes Schreuers, the sole Fleming on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led a revolt against the playing of German composer's tunes within the first weeks of the war. Outnumbered by the Germans and Austrians in the group, however, there was little he could do but glare [8].

Flemings on the front lines in particular felt a positive tie to the United States. In the Belgian Army headquarters at Veurne a New York World cartoon, showing an Uncle Sam standing behind King Albert of Belgium (a youthful leader who literally shared the hardships of the front lines with his troops) with his hand on the young king’s shoulder above a caption which says: “King or no king, you are my kind of a young man.”[9]

Likewise, the determination of the Flemish troops in holding back the Prussian onslaught captured the imagination of Americans. Americans love to champion the causes of an underdog – especially one with pluck and verve. The manifestation of this was expressed in titles centered on the Flemish front lines or on features from a happier time in Belgium. Just a few of the titles in my library [10] are:

“Fighting in Flanders” [1914]
“Belgium in Wartime” [1915]
“The Belgians to the Front” [1915]
“Boy Scouts in Belgium: Under Fire in Flanders” [1915]
“A Young Lion of Flanders” [1915]
“Women of Belgium: Turning Tragedy to Triumph” [1917]
“Brave Belgians” [1918]

Because the Belgian part of the “Great War” (as it was referred to then) was largely fought in Flanders, Flemish Americans had daily reminders of the war. Americans of all ethnicities were reminded of the war and the suffering of the Belgians by the efforts of the Belgian Relief Organization, run by a former engineer and missionary to China (and future U.S. president, from 1929-1933), Herbert Hoover.[11] The Germans lost the propaganda war largely thru unrestricted submarine warfare, epitomized by the sinking of the Lusitania in May, 1915. Included among the civilian dead was a Flemish American woman from Chicago, Ms. Marie De Page, for whom funeral rites were held at the Belgian Church, St. John Berchman’s.[12]

A few Flemish women returned to Chicago in happier circumstances. Father John B. De Ville of St. John Berchman’s Church, convinced the German occupational authorities to permit him to take back to the United States with him fifty young Flemish women. There, in a mass ceremony, they were wed to fifty young Flemish American men from Chicago. Appropriately the ceremony took place at Ellis Island.[13]

When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917 recruiting posters evoked German atrocities and the plucky courage of Belgians in holding back the Germans. Many Flemish Americans in Chicago enlisted and served with the Doughboys in WW1. For some of these Flemish Americans joining the battle on the Western Front was returning to their birthplace.

One such soldier – who was decorated for heroism in combat – was Florent Verhulst. Florent Verhulst was born in Vrasene, East Flanders on February 19th, 1888. Via the SS Finlandia, Florent had emigrated with his large extended family in 1908 through nearby Antwerp [14]. Like many Flemings, Florent debated joining the Belgian Army in 1914. However, when America declared war on Germany Florent joined up, leaving a wife and child behind. Florent captured the imagination of Americans during the fierce battle of the Argonne Forest in August, 1918.

On August 20, 1918, the Chicago Daily Tribune printed a picture of Florent and his battlefield exploits. While in hand-to-hand combat in the German front lines, he was wounded and lost contact with his unit. With no food and little water he evaded capture behind enemy lines for three days before crawling back to the American front lines. For this Florent earned a Purple Heart. While he served in Europe, Florent’s wife and young son (also named Florent) lived at 1358 W. Thorndale, in Rogers Park, across the street from Senn High School.[15] He died on January 2nd, 1962, in Chicago.

Like many Flemings in Chicago, Florent worked as a janitor. The Census showed Florent's job as "janitor, apartment building". Like millions of other Europeans, he had left the Old World for economic reasons and had been pulled to Chicago because he had a friend working as a janitor there [16].

Florent’s family would eventually spread out across the vastness of America. One brother, Paul, lived in Detroit. Other siblings lived near the Wisconsin border in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. One brother, Albertus, even tried his hand at farming in South Dakota. Incidentally, it was a daughter of Albertus, Lea Verhulst, who eventually married Arnold Van Puymbroeck (leader of the Flemish “Belgian Colony” of Chicago for the last half of the 20th century).[17]

Of the Belgians in Chicago at least 225 Flemish parishioners of St. John Berchman’s had enlisted in the U.S. armed forces by July, 1918. [18] One in particular stands out as an example of the ties to original and adopted homelands. “Valere Meerschaert (born October 11, 1890) had emigrated with his parents from Pittem, Belgium to Chicago in 1906. While visiting relatives back in Belgium, in the summer of 1914, WWI broke out and Valere signed up with the Belgian army, serving throughout the war.

In February of 1918 the Belgian military sent him on a special mission to the USA to entice other Belgian-Americans to follow his example and help in the liberation of the old country. He returned to the front lines later that year, and died in battle in Westrozebeke at age 27, on September 29, 1918, just six weeks before the war ended. Valere Meerschaert’s gravesite in the cemetery of Pittem was recently restored, and a rededication and commemorative ceremony was held on June 30, 2007.” [19]

Post World War I
After WW1 many Flemish Americans returned to the U.S. more completely “American” in self-identity than before. They were veterans now and had fought and bled for their adopted country. Often they served physically in the front lines of Flanders.

The end of the war also unleashed a new round of immigrants to America from Belgium. Some, like Marguerite and Marie Dupon, returned to Chicago, a city they barely knew, even though their Belgian parent immigrants lived out the war years in Chicago and they themselves had been part of the first generation of Flemish Americans born in Chicago.[20] Others, like 14 year old Michael Gilhooley, had nothing remaining for him in Belgium and sought to reach America by any and all means. Young Gilhooley stowed away on ships five times in one year (1919) before being adopted by kindhearted Americans and permitted to stay in the United States. [21]

The 1920 Federal Census recorded this dramatic jump in numbers. 63,236 residents claimed to be Belgian born and a further 59,454 were the American-born offspring in that year. Of those 122,690 individuals, 87,890 claimed Flemish as their ‘mother tongue’[22]. Illinois again topped the states in terms of Belgian-born (nearly all Flemish) population with 11,329 of the 62,686 recorded residing in Illinois[23]. The next closest state was Michigan (10,501) distantly trailed by Wisconsin (3,444)[24]. In those immediate postwar years, Illinois was the center of Flemish America and Chicago was their home.

Once again Flemings – including veterans of the “Great War” flocked to America in increased numbers. One family, from West Flanders, moved to Detroit despite having strong Chicago ties. Later, the patriarch of that family, Cyriel Barbary of Klercken, would gain recognition after passing the century mark. He ultimately was recognized as the last surviving Belgian WW1 Veteran. In fact, he was a U.S. citizen. The last living veteran of the Great War on the Ijzer Front was, appropriately, a Flemish American.[25]

[1]The Chicago Daily Tribune, October 22, 1914, p.2. Herbert Hoover asserted that there were 1,000,000 civilians starving of which more than 700,000 were Belgians. The overwhelming majority of the Belgians were in what is now called Flanders and therefore were Flemings.
[2] There is, of course, a great deal of debate as to actual numbers of Flemings in the Belgian Army during World War One. At the high end are some immediate postwar documents that suggest that the Flemings constituted upwards of 90% of all enlisted men. According to these sources even nominal Wallon regiments received reinforcements that mainly if not wholly included Flemings. The Flemish units were of course 100% Flemish. The only exception to this rule was the officer corps, which were overwhelmingly Francophone. See Daniel Vanacker, De Frontbeweging: De Vlaamse strijd aan de Ijzer, (Kortrijk: De Kaproos, 2000), p.15 for the discussion of numbers as low as 60%. See Luc Schepens, 14/18: Een Oorlog in Vlaanderen, (Tielt: Lannoo, 1984), p.162, for the belief that the true percentages were “65 to 70% (and not 80 to 90% as widely believed)”.
[3] The relief was intended for all soldiers in the Belgian area regardless of nationality. The organization was called the Belgian American Association of Chicago. The President of the Association was the Belgian Consul of Chicago, Dr. Cyrielle Vermeren. The Treasurer was Spanish-American War veteran and President of the Belgian American Club of Chicago, Major Felix J. Streyckmans. See "All Nations Help Belgian Benefit", The Chicago Daily Tribune, August 27, 1914, p.11. Streyckmans had organized a club meeting of the BACC as early as August 10th and appropriated $200 (equal to 100 days wages of a skilled laborer). See "Belgians Aid Red Cross", The Chicago Daily Tribune, August 11, 1914, p.7. These meetings were supplemented by others at St. John Berchman's church, the locus for the Flemish diaspora in Chicago. Later, all seven of the Belgian clubs in Chicago jointly sponsored fund-raising activities for Belgian relief. See "Round About Clubs and Societes", in The Chicago Daily Tribune, October 16, 1914, p.11.
[4] “Belgians Aid Red Cross”, The Chicago Daily Tribune, August 11, 1914, p.7.
[5] The Chicago Daily Tribune, August 14, 1914, p.5. The $844 raised in one night (about the annual salary of a working man) was sent to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium.
[6] See "Yankee, Former Belgian, Served 34 Days in War", The Chicago Daily Tribune, September 19, 1914, p.3.
[7] The stipend was 15 cents per day plus 5 cents a day for each child. In the event of her husband death while in service, the children's daily allowance would be doubled, to ten cents per day per child. See The Chicago Daily Tribune, September 10, 1914, p.8.
[8] "Martial Tunes Cause Near War", The Chicago Daily Tribune, August 17, 1914, p.11. The August 3, 1914 edition of The Chicago Daily Tribune (p.7) estimated that 50,000 to 75,000 of the Chicago's immigrants were heading back to their respective countries to enlist in the war.
[9] Henry N. Hall, “Pen Picture of King Albert of Belgium Fighting in the Trenches,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, May 22, 1915, p. 5.
[10] The postwar interest also remained strong with a flurry of titles about Belgium, the war, King Albert and Queen Elisabeth. The war also produced a plethora of propaganda books produced by both the Allies and Central Powers dealing with Belgium specifically. For example, in my library I have “The Last Phase of Belgium” [1916], “The Belgian Deportations” [1916], “The Condition of the Belgian Workmen Now refugees in England” [1917], “Memorandum of the Belgian Government on the Deportation and Forced Labour of the Belgian Civil Population Ordered by the German Government” [1917], “Belgium and Greece” [1917], “The Belgian Front and its Notable Features” [1918]. Nearly all of the preceeding titles were printed in England. The Germans, however, were not silent. Their own excellent English language press churned out (again, from my library): “The Belgian People’s War: A Violation of International Law” [1915]. After the war, those in Belgium felt a sufficient need to produce detailed rebuttals in English to the claim that they violated international law by waging a guerilla war, to publish “The Legend of the ‘Francs-Tireurs’ of Dinant” [1929].
[11] “American London Committee to Carry Food to 1,000,000 Starving Belgians”, in The Chicago Daily Tribune, October 22, 1914, p.2.
[12] The Chicago Daily Tribune, May 29, 1915, p3.
[13] “50 Belgian Brides on Way to United States to Wed,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, May 6, 1916, p.4
[14] Florent boarded the SS Finland May 23rd, 1908 at Antwerp and disembarked June 2nd, 1908 at New York. His Ellis Island manifest can be found here: Florent Verhulst married Elisabeth Eeckelaert in the U.S. (date unknown) but likely at the "Belgian Church", St. John Berchman's in Chicago.He also had a son named Florent and a brother named Augustus. Florent Sr. was the son of Joseph Verhulst and Victoria Coeckelbergh - who also ultimately emigrated to the U.S. Florent Sr. was the paternal uncle of Lea Van Puymbroeck, who in turn was the wife of Arnold Van Puymbroeck, leader of "de Belgische Colonie" in Chicago for the last half of the 20th century. He apparently was close enough to his niece to offer her and her husband Arnold Van Puymbroeck a place to stay for several weeks when they arrived (with her parents) on July 4 1952. Part of this information is courtesy of an e-mail from Mr. Curt Hartwig (dated April 8th, 2010). Florent Verhulst was born in Vrasene, Belgium 19 Feb 1888 and on 2 Jan 1962 he died in Chicago.
[15] The Chicago Daily Tribune, August 20, 1918, p.5. Curiously, this author grew up in the building next door, 1356 W. Thorndale, Chicago, without being aware of his close proximity to Mr. Verhulst.
[16] Florent's friend's name was Courland Van Der Leyden according to the Ellis Island records. His Ellis Island manifest can be found here:
[17] For the story of the Belgian Colony and the individuals who made up this vibrant community on the near-North side of Chicago for 100 years, please see: David Baeckelandt, Arnold Van Puymbroeck: The First Eighty Years, 1952-2002, (Glenview, Illinois: Blurb, 2010).
[18] The Chicago Daily Tribune, July 18, 1918, p7. St. John Berchman Church flew a Belgian flag as well as an American on to which 225 stars were sewn to commemorate the contribution of this one parish.
[19] Ronald V. Mershart, “WWI: Belgian-American from Chicago dies in West Rozebeke,
Belgium, 1918”, BAHSC Newsletter 2007 6 v3 n1 p.5
[20] The girls had been brought ‘back’ to Belgium to give them a ‘proper’ education by their parents in 1913 when the girls were 7 and 4. Events moved too quickly for their parents to intervene and they were stranded in Roselaere, West Flanders with three other young girls of Flemish emigrants. Their wartime experiences would provide an excellent material for a dramatic novel.
[21] Gilhooley was adopted “first by singing star Elsie Janis, ‘the Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Forces,’ and later by a wealthy Cleveland family.” David M. Borwnstone, Irene M. Franck, Doyglass Brownstone, Island of Hope, Island of Tears, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2000), pp. 138-139.
[22] The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1931 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1930) pp.425-6
[23] The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1931 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1930) pp.427-8. I am not sure where the 1,500 count discrepancy in the 1920 census numbers is from. The Almanac does not explain it. That said, the aforementioned Carl Darling Buck noted the frequent discrepancy between school census numbers and official census claims. Mr. Buck suspected that official data were understated and that school census data were a more reliable indicator of ethnicity.
[24] The Chicago Daily News and Almanac and Year Book 1931 (Chicago: Chicago Daily News, 1930) pp.427-8. Curiously, the 1930 Federal Census numbers lost many of these finer gradations and began, for example, to record the immigration of Dutch-speaking Belgians under the heading “Dutch and Flemish”. In large part I suspect that this is due to the (historical) relative status between French speakers and Dutch speakers in Belgium. The Dutch-speakers were looked down upon by the French speakers; the Walloons’ disdain for the Flemish a reflection of the French disdain for all things ‘Belgian’. Note that the Belgian-American Club of Chicago is almost 100% Flemish. When the club built their ‘Belgian Hall’ in 1921 on West Fullerton Street in Chicago, the cornerstone was engraved with the declaration “All Belgians Are Equal”. See for the most recent U.S. government census data by ethnicity and state.
[25] A Wikipedia reference to him as Cyrillus-Camillus Barbary can be found here in English: His death (September 16, 2004 at the age of 105) is noted here . The source here in Dutch: As an aside, Klerken, where Mr. Barbary was born, was just inside the German side of the front lines. Young Barbary then may have had to cross into neutral Holland (as many young men did) to reach, in a laborious way, the Allied lines and enlist. Such was the dedication of Flemish youth then!

Copyright 2010 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express, written permission.