Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembering Flemish American Veterans

Drie Staden - Belgian medal for WW1 Military Service

Tomorrow, Monday, November 11th, is Veteran's Day here in the U.S. It was started to commemorate the end of the "Great War": what we today call World War 1. In earlier posts here, here, and here, I have spoken of the contribution by Flemings and Flemish Americans to the events in World War 1. 

Although it is a National Holiday and U.S. federal government offices are closed, many people only have a dim understanding of the holiday's importance. My childrens’ high school invites local veterans to speak of what they have endured and done for this country. But there is (of course) no reference or mention of Flemish Americans and their involvement in World War 1 (or beyond).

Belgium at the start of the First World War (August 4, 1914) had a very small army of 48,000 men but quickly mobilized to more than 100,000 soldiers. Without question, this was tiny compared to the several million soldiers Germany sent over the frontier in August, 1914.[i]
Newly-enlisted Flemish Americans in front of St John Berchman's Church, Chicago ca 1917

As a result, many Flemish Americans responded to an inner 'call to arms'. So many Flemish Americans in Chicago responded to the call to arms in fact that their families were left destitute. The Belgian Government responded by redirecting a daily payment of 6.5 cents per family per day (even then, insufficient to feed a family used to living on $3 a day, as my grandmother’s family was).[ii] Newspaper reports of the time show long queues of women, old men and children lined up in front of the Belgian Consulate in Chicago receiving their daily allowance.[iii]

One of the very first Flemish Americans to heed the call to arms was Paul Vandervelde of Dallas, Texas. Vandervelde fought for 34 days in five significant battles before being forced to retreat. As a US citizen, he was returned to the US on the White Star Line ship Cedric.[iv] 
The inequalities of the Belgian Army - overwhelmingly Flemish soldiers fighting under overwhelmingly Francophone officers - spurred the movement for equal language and education rights for Flemings
On the home front, some Flemish Americans fought without weapons. Johannes Schreuers, a Flemish immigrant living in Chicago and playing for the Chicago Symphony, became a combatant (in a war of words and stringed instruments) with his German and Austrian colleagues (who outnumbered him 76:1). Eventually a sort of truce "for the duration of the war" was agreed upon.[v]

Others, who could not fight, opened their pocketbooks. The Belgian American Club of Chicago quickly established a Red Cross Society chapter, appropriated $200 from the club's treasury, and proceeded to discuss other ways to raise money for their ancestral homeland.[vi]

Led by Flemish American veteran (of the Spanish-American War of 1898) Felix J. Streykmans and supported by Belgian Consul General Cyriel Vermeren, the fundraising garnered support from civic leaders even outside of the Flemish American community.[vii] Eventually, seven Belgian Clubs in Chicago came together to raise money through a series of fund-raising events - such as theatrical performances.[viii] 

Herbert Hoover telegram in 1914
Despite all this support, by October, 1914 it was estimated that more than 1 million Belgians (out of a total population of 7 million people) were starving. Consequently, Herbert Hoover, future (31st) U.S. President, former global mining engineer, and occasional resident of Belgium, organized an ad hoc system of relief for those caught in the conflict.[ix] By the end of the war, at a time when individuals measured daily earnings in cents, the “Commission for the Relief of Belgium” (as it came to be called) moved nearly $1,000,000,000 in relief to these starving Flemish civilians.[x]

Flour Sack Reworked by Belgian woman

In addition to bringing money, food and clothing to family and friends in Flanders, Flemish Americans offered other relief. In the midst of the war, Fr. John B. De Ville of Saint John Berchman's "Belgian parish" in Chicago crossed the front lines to bring out 1500 noncombatants. Of those were 50 young women who decided to wed their Flemish American beaus on Ellis Island.[xi]

The Belgian state, long ambivalent about its Flemish-speaking majority, modified its Francophone bias during the later stages of the war in an attempt to dissipate Flemish nationalist sentiment.[xii] In an appeal to Flemish Americans in 1916, the Belgian Government in the Detroitenaar newspaper (later absorbed into the Gazette van Detroit), published the below picture and poem. 
De Detroitenaar's appeal to Flemish Americans December 1917

The poem, "Aan mijn volk" in Dutch:
Nieuwjaarsgeschenk Van De Detroitenaar
Ween niet mijn volk mijn natieNog leeft de Vlaamsche leeuwNog staat hij onverschrokkenOndanks het krijgsgeschreeuwAl is zijn huis vernietigdVerpletterd en doorzeefdVan kogels en granatenHij scherpt zijn klauw, Hij leeftNog sta ik aan zijn zijde, terwijl mij 't harte blaaktVan liefde voor mijn Vlaandren! Ween nietUw Koning waaktWeen niet mijn volk, mijn trouwenWeen niet, Uw Koning leeft!Ik weet, dat God ons eenmaalOns Vlaanderen wedergeeftAl is het thans vermorzeld,Vertrapt, verscheurd, vernield,De Vlaamsche leeuw is levendMet leeuwenkracht bezieldHoudt moed, mijn trouwe natie en nooit denplicht verzaakt!Eens zal verlossing komen, Uw Koninginne waakt!

In (rough) English translation: "To my people"
"New Year's Gift from the Detroitenaar"
Weep not my people, my nation
The Flemish Lion is still alive
[and] ever fearless,
Despite the battle cry
Though his house has been destroyed
Crushed and riddled,
By bullets and grenades
He sharpens his claws, he lives on.
Still I stand by his side, while [from] me it [blood?] oozes warm
O how I love my Flanders! Do not cry
Your King awaits
Weep not my people, my betrothed
Do not cry, your King lives!
I know that once again God will [give us]
Our Flanders again 
Though it is now crushed,
Trampled, shredded, destroyed,
The Flemish Lion is still alive
With lionine strength
Take courage, my faithful nation and never fail [to do your] duty!
Once [more] salvation will come, Your Queen awaits![xiii]

David Baeckelandt in Flanders, November 11, 2012
Even without the historical allusions to past Flemish history and King Albert's cloaking himself in black and yellow (the colors of the Vlaamse Leeuw/Flemish Lion) as above, the Flemish and Flemish Americans responded with fervor. Both in the Belgian and US armies they fought and died for rights and self-determination. Some, like Flemish American Charles S. Brokaw, whose ancestors left Flanders in the 16th century, returned to their ancestral home to fight and die. Today he lies buried in the American Cemetery at Wareghem.[xiv]

Cyriel Barbary
Flemings fought and died literally up until the last day of the war.[xv] At the end of the war, one of those veterans, Cyriel Barbary, gave up his devastated West Flemish home in Klercken, and together with his young bride, relocated to Detroit. There he quietly raised a family in the suburb of Royal Oak. Cyriel gained fame only in his last years: he became the last surviving Belgian veteran of World War 1.[xvi]  

Julien Baeckelandt in the Belgian Army, Ruhr, Germany 1924

Today, then, I wish to recognize all the Flemish Americans who fought for our countries. Closer to home, my grandfather Julian Baeckelandt served in the Belgian Army (during the occupation of the Ruhr in 1924) and my father Werner Baeckelandt served during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. Today my son Luke serves in the Golden Eagle Battalion. It is to you - mijn grootvader, mijn vader en mijn zoon - that I dedicate this post. Thank you - and all Flemish Americans - for your service to our countries.

Luke (Cadet, GEB) and Werner Baeckelandt (veteran)


[i] “The Belgian Factor”, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Aug 5, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), pg. 6. Accessed November 10, 2013.
[ii] The stipend eventually was upped to 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. Regardless of the improvement, these were subsistence amounts. My great-grandmother, before departing Antwerp for America in August, 1905, told the Belgian Inspector Venesoen that her husband-to-be, my great-grandfather Edmond Dupon, Sr., earned $3 a day as a butcher in Chicago. This may have been an exaggeration (one can almost feel the boast in the statement). The Chicago Daily Tribune, August 30, 1908 p. G2 claimed Belgian women working in mines in Wallonia earned 50 cents  - 75 cents/day. So 6.5 cents per day  - or even 15 cents per day plus a nickel a child - was hardly sufficient to feed a family.
[iii] “Belgium Caring for Its Defenders' Wives and Families”, AMERICAN PRESS ASSN. Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Aug 27, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), pg. 5. Accessed November 10, 2013. The August 3, 1914 edition of The Chicago Daily Tribune (p.7) estimated that 50,000 to 75,000 of Chicago's immigrants returned to their respective countries to enlist in the belligerents' miliatries. Of the 7,000 or so Flemings in Chicago at the time, it appears that at least hundreds of young men returned to Europe. 
[iv] See “Yankee, Former Belgian, Served 34 Days in War”, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Sep 19, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), p.3. Accessed November 10, 2013.  Unfortunately, Paul Vandervelde vanishes from history after his 15 lines of newsprint fame. There is no record of him in Ellis Island online archives. Nor is there a record of him in the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures’, Belgian Texans, (San Antonio: University of Texas, 1982 – Principal Researcher is Samuel P. Nesmith).  Nor is there any record in Ancestry’s voluminous online files of a Paul Vandervelde in Dallas of Belgian origins – among the 56 U.S. resident Vandervelde entries in its database.  For sports buffs, it is unlikely that Mr. Vandervelde is related to this Flemish American football player, Julian Vandervelde . And, since he is originally from Chicago, not to this Dallas resident either:  Genealogical note: My great-grandfather, Edmond Dupon, Sr., also traveled on the White Star Line ship Cedric to America – but at a different time and under better circumstances of course.
[v] “Martial Tunes Cause Near War”, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Aug 17, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), pg. 11. Accessed November 10, 2013.
[vi] “Belgians Aid Red Cross”,  Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Aug 11, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), pg.7. Accessed November 10, 2013.

[vii] “All Nations Help Belgian Benefit”, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Aug 27, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), pg. 11. Accessed November 10, 2013.
[viii] “Round About the Clubs and Societies”, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Oct 16, 1914;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), pg. 11. Accessed November 10, 2013.
[ix] “American London Committee to Carry Food to 1,000,000 Starving Belgians”, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); Oct 22, 1914; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), pg.2. Accessed November 10, 2013.
[x] To put this in further context, $1 billion in 1913 was the total national debt of the United States at that time. George I. Gay, Public Relations of The Commission for Relief in Belgium: Documents, (Stanford Unversity: Stanford University Press, 1929), vol.1, In 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 ipso facto were Flemings.
[xi] “50 Belgian Brides on Way to United States to Wed”, Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922); May 6, 1916;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers Chicago Tribune (1849 - 1986), pg. 4. Accessed November 10, 2013.
[xii] 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)”.
[xiii] This image appeared in the The Detroitenaar probably in December 1917. E-mail correspondence with Judy Mendicino, nee DeMeulenaere, November 3, 2013.  
[xiv] It is unclear to me whether this Brokaw is related to American television journalist Tom Brokaw (see but my suspicion is that he must be. Christopher Sims, untitled and un-numbered excerpt “Brokaw, Charles S., from “The Soldiers of Flanders Field American Cemetery”.  Waregem, W.Vl., Belgium. E-mail correspondence November 13, 2012. BTW, the official website of the cemetery can be found here: and a brochure is available online here: This is the only American cemetery remaining in Flanders.
[xv] It is possible that several Flemings perished in the very last minutes of the war. See, for a commentary about this (in Dutch): .

Copyright 2013 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction without my express, written permission.

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