The Belgian Experience in WWI

“And so – goodnight. We go over the top at dawn.” So ends Private Walter Blythe’s last letter, a poignant, prophetic epistle penned just hours before his untimely death in the grisly Somme Offensive. To be sure, Walter is the stuff of fiction – he figures, dreamy-eyed and doomed, in Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery’s mawkish but nonetheless moving novel of life on the Canadian home front during World War I – but it is to him that I owe my first brush with World War I history. I must have been about seven or eight years old when I received Rilla as a book-on-tape, and was jarred by the characters’ anguished discussions about the diabolical horrors of “the front”: mustard-gas and bayonets, bullets and shells – and, above all, the labyrinthine trenches, a morass of mud and muck. Even as I outgrew the novel itself, I retained a certain horrified fascination with World War I, or at least with its literary progeny, graduating from Walter Blythe to Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Brittain. Yet while these writers offered me a glimpse into the Anglophone experience in World War I, I had only a hazy conception of the conflict’s sociocultural impact on the Continent. Once I arrived in Brussels, where every commune seems to have its own monument to local men “morts pour la patrie, 1914-18,” and street names frequently recall the days of the “Grande Guerre,” my ignorance began to seem particularly unpardonable. Small wonder, then, that I was delighted to hear that Dr. Karen Shelby, an art historian and Fulbright Belgium alumna (Ghent, autumn 2015), would be leading a day-trip dedicated to exploring, as luck would have it, “The Belgian Experience in World War I.” Our Saturday in West Flanders proved as informative and engaging as I had hoped; Dr. Shelby skillfully blended military history with analyses of the visual culture associated with the war and its aftermath. Below, I have shared a few photos and notes from our excursion.

1. We left Brussels a little past eight o’clock on Saturday morning and arrived some two hours later at the Oeren Military Cemetery, where 508 cement headstones rise in prim rows against the close-cropped grass. All the graves belong to Belgian soldiers killed in World War I, and nearly all the stones are precisely alike, with rounded tops and scrollwork down the sides. I say nearly all, as there are five exceptions – five headstones in the shape of Celtic crosses, with the letters “A-V-V-V-V-K” carved within the intersection. Why the difference? Dr. Shelby explained that the crosses and their five-lettered message represent the intertwining of the Great War and Flemish nationalism, and she then sketched out some of the history behind the design. Since Belgium’s formation in 1830, members of the Flemish community had chafed at the perceived denigration of their language and culture and the privileged status accorded to all things French. Such tensions were further exacerbated by Flanders’s distressing slide into rural poverty even as Wallonia reaped the rewards of flourishing mines and sizeable industrial investment from the central government. Out of these grievances was born the “Flemish movement,” which sought to have Dutch instated as an official language of Belgium and lobbied for the fostering and reinvigoration of Flemish culture. The Catholic Church within Flanders – a region generally more devout than Wallonia – played a key role in the movement, as priests in many small villages made a point of instructing local boys in Flemish history and literature. These questions of privilege and identity grew particularly urgent during World War I: it was whispered that Flemish troops were being placed under the command of officers who spoke only French, the language of the Belgian elite, and that the resultant misunderstandings were responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Flemish soldiers. Dr. Shelby stressed that such stories are mere myths, but they nonetheless served to galvanize the Flemish Movement and stoke the resentment of many Flemish troops against the Belgian government. The result was the “Front Movement,” a group of Flemish soldiers determined to see their language and culture accorded greater respect within the Belgian army (and Belgium itself).

This, then, is where the Celtic crosses come into play: whereas the vast majority of Belgian soldiers killed in the war were initially buried beneath simple wooden crosses bearing the inscription “[He] died for his country,” the leaders of the Flemish Movement were eager to emphasize that their members had not died for Belgium as a whole, with its Francophilic central government and officers (allegedly) too supercilious to speak Flemish to their troops. Rather, the men were to be seen as martyrs for the cherished cause of Flemish nationalism. To that end, soldier/artist Joe English designed special headstones intended solely for fallen Flemish soldiers who had supported the Movement (though, as Dr. Shelby explained, such stones were granted at the request of a soldier’s family or friends, regardless of whether the man in question had ever been an enthusiastic Flemish nationalist). A Celtic cross, a traditional Irish symbol of martyrdom, was paired with the aforementioned cluster of letters – “AVVVVK,” which stands for “Alles voor Vlaanderen; Vlaanderen voor Kristus” (“All for Flanders; Flanders for Christ”). As might be expected, the new stones were not warmly received by French-speaking Belgians, and in some instances, vandals even painted out the “AVVVVK.” In the years after the war, the Belgian government went about “upgrading” the markers on its soldiers’ graves, replacing the temporary wooden crosses with cement headstones like those we saw at Oeren; at this time, the families of some of the men buried beneath Celtic crosses asked to have English’s politicized creation swapped for the standard, government-issued stone. This, then, explains why only five Celtic crosses, tall and defiant, remain at Oeren today.

Dr. Shelby discusses the difference between the headstones at the Oeren Military Cemetery; her hand is resting on one of Joe English's Celtic crosses (note the

Caption: Dr. Shelby discusses the difference between the headstones at the Oeren Military Cemetery; her hand is resting on one of Joe English’s Celtic crosses (note the “AVV VVK” at the center.

Standard, government-issued headstone (not a Celtic cross); the soldier's identity is unknown. Note the inscription,

Caption: Standard, government-issued headstone (not a Celtic cross); the soldier’s identity is unknown. Note the inscription, “[He] died for his country” – in sharp contrast to the “AVV-VVK” on the Celtic crosses.

2. Our next stop was the “Dodengang” (“Trench of Death”), a mock trench built very near the site of the Battle of the IJzer (October 1914). Dr. Shelby explained that the battle represented Belgium’s last, frantic attempt prevent further advances by the Germans – who already occupied much of the country, Brussels included. For weeks, the two armies struggled fiercely, while the near-incessant rain rendered the trenches cold and muddy. At last, as German forces seemed on the verge of crossing the IJzer River and wresting the last remaining chunk of unoccupied territory, Belgium played its final card: opening the IJzer’s floodgates. Over the next few days, the surrounding plain was gradually submerged, and, as the Belgians had hoped, the Germans found it impossible to continue their whirlwind advance. Though fighting along the IJzer and other parts of Belgium (notably Ypres) would continue until 1918, this particular chapter – with its dramatic final flourish – boosted Belgian morale in the grim first months of the war and to this day is still recalled with pride.

As we threaded our way through the narrow trenches, the blue sky and bucolic landscape belied the region’s grisly past. Dr. Shelby urged us to envision the area as it must have looked in October 1914 – the IJzer swollen and churning, trenches inundated, surrounding fields converted to treacherous bogs, civilians fleeing their flooded homes – but I, for one, found this difficult: the surrounding countryside, now so lush and tranquil, seemed incompatible with an episode of such panic and despair.

The walls of the Dodengang trenches can be seen at left; at right, the placed IJzer River.

Caption: The walls of the Dodengang trenches can be seen at left; at right, the placed IJzer River.

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Caption: Fulbrighters at the Dodengang. The pile of cement “bags” to the right is meant to represent the sandbags originally used to bolster the trench walls.

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Caption: A tunnel at the Dodengang

3. We ended our day at the IJzertoren (“IJzer tower”), a mammoth monument to Belgian’s World War I dead (particularly its Flemish victims). Twenty-two stories high and built of imposing grey-brown brick, the tower looms over the landscape; its cruciform shape and the massive lettering at the top – yet again, “AVVVVK” – link the monument unequivocally to the Flemish Movement, with its close ties to the Catholic Church and its narrative of injustice, sacrifice, and martyrdom. It is hardly surprising, then, that the memorial’s history is fraught with controversy and contention – indeed, today’s tower is really IJzertoren 2.0, since the original monument met with an unlikely end. Dr. Shelby explained that the first tower was built shortly after World War I, in tribute to the thousands of Flemish dead; over the following years, several soldiers closely associated with the Flemish Movement/Front Movement (including Joe English) were buried in the tower crypt, and the monument soon became a pilgrimage site for bereaved Flemish families. Its provocative “All for Flanders” message notwithstanding, the tower was largely viewed as an innocuous symbol of grief and human suffering. Not so after World War II: during the conflict, the Nazis attempted to coax Flanders into splitting away from Wallonia (and, presumably, allying itself with Germany instead, as Flanders was considered part of “Greater Germany”). Though such a division never took place, German appeals to longstanding cultural grievances struck a chord among some in the Flemish community (passionate nationalists in particular), and a measure of “big-C Collaboration,” as Dr. Shelby put it, ensued. In the wake of the conflict, many Belgians were infuriated by reports of such collusion, and the Flemish nationalist movement was regarded with renewed suspicion and resentment. One night in March 1946, those sentiments at last found vent in the dynamiting of the IJzertoren. The perpetrators went unpunished, and it seems likely that the Belgian government tacitly supported their handiwork.

The tower we visited, then, was built in the 1950s-60s, and is even taller than its predecessor. Material from the original tower was used to construct a “Pax Gate” (“Gate of Peace”); the gate’s pacifist message is echoed throughout the multistory museum housed the new tower. Though our time in the museum was limited, the exhibits – which dealt with wartime propaganda, life in the trenches, uniforms, and weaponry, among many other topics – offered a powerful reminder of the war’s horrific scale. Our tour ended at Henry Luyten’s The Golden Painting of Flanders, an enormous painting displayed on the museum’s first floor. This somewhat perplexing work – Dr. Shelby herself laughingly acknowledged that it is “very weird” – is modeled after traditional “descent from the cross” paintings, but here key players in Flemish history have replaced the customary Biblical figures. The result is an unsettling dialogue between past and present: Luyten, painting in the 1930s-40s, presented a hodgepodge of contemporary public figures, among them nationalists and Collaborators, alongside beloved and decidedly uncontroversial native sons – Rubens, Erasmus, Rembrandt. An unusual painting, indeed, and one that pays tribute to the vexing questions of identity and autonomy that are inextricably bound up in Belgium’s World War I ordeal. Given my own interest in the effect of World War I on art and literature, I found this final portion of the itinerary especially intriguing: the painting, in spite of – or perhaps because of – its oddness, captures with remarkable efficacy the war’s complex ramifications for Belgian society. What better way to end a fascinating and thought-provoking Saturday?

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Caption: The Pax Gate, as seen from the topmost floor of the IJzertoren.

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Caption: WWI nurses’ uniforms on display at the museum within the IJzertoren.

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Caption: Dr. Shelby discusses Luyten’s “The Golden Painting of Flanders”


Author: Pari Jafari, 2015-2016 U.S. Fulbright grantee to Belgium

More photos of the event:

Save Fulbright from an unprecedented budget cut

Save Fulbright from an unprecedented $ 30 million budget cut

Yes, you read that correctly. The President’s budget request includes a massive cut of $30.5 million or roughly 13.5% to the Fulbright Program.

This would represent a unprecedented reduction in the number of grants and the U.S. commitment to the Fulbright program.

As members of the alumni community we must act NOW to prevent these cuts from passing the final budget.

Read more about the ongoing budget proposal and cutback details on the Fulbright program website here.

Once you’ve informed yourself, don’t forget to let the government know we alumni value the program and sign the petition here!

36th Fulbright Association Annual Conference

36th Fulbright Association Annual Conference


October 3-6 2013, Washington DC


This year’s annual Fulbright Association Conference was attended by 250 people from 35 different countries on 6 different continents.

John Vogel,  president of the Fulbright Association, opened the conference with his discussion of Fulbright history and current program facts. Today, there are over 300,000 Fulbright scholars, and almost 8000 Fulbright awards are granted per year. The theme for this conference was:  Fulbright in action.  What are these Fulbrighters doing around the world?

The welcome speech was given by Harriet Fulbright, who stressed the importance of change and innovation.  Global demographics have changed, and people around the world have become more mobile. Despite this trend in mobility and interaction, education and politics have remained transactional processes. For example, many people used to seek higher education to “find a meaningful life;” however, now the focus on higher education is about securing the credentials for jobs. Ms. Fulbright said that if more people adhered to the culture of exchange and mutual understanding that the Fulbright Program promotes, perhaps current situations like the US government shutdown could be avoided.

While many of the more specific conference discussions revolved around Fulbright alumni chapters in the US, it was clear that all alumni chapters seem to have the same problems :

  • How to recruit younger people
  • How to delegate alumni leadership positions to the younger generation
  • How to involve new Fulbrighters and make them leaders
  • How to create a young professional network with career development  opportunities
  • How to set up a mentoring program
  • Website development

The use of social media in alumni membership maintenance was stressed.  A consensus developed that there is a need for an international alumni chapter, which could receive funding from alumni members and US sources. It would be helpful if a member from the international chapter was represented on the Fulbright Association’s board.  The use of video conferencing and streaming could be used for conferences.

Other initiatives at this conference included discussions about diversity and crowdfunding. What should be the Fulbright Association’s stance towards Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender persons? While the Fulbright Program should remain un-political, it should build awareness and educate people about issues of diversity, discrimination, and respect.  It was suggested that alumni chapters consider making diversity policies and organize efforts that would help facilitate dialogue in countries where US grantees are sent. In 78% of Fulbright Program countries, LGBTQ is still a criminal offense, so the issue of how to prepare future grantees for this is a relevant one.

CROWDFUNDING, which has its origins in the concept of crowdsourcing, was also a topic of one of the mini-conferences. Crowdsourcing is the broader concept of an individual reaching a goal by receiving and leveraging small contributions from many parties. Crowdfunding is the application of this concept to the collection of funds through small contributions from many parties in order to finance a particular project or venture. It was discussed how the use of social media and crowdfunding could be used to gather alumni support for current grantee projects.

Overall, there was a lack in the representation of European Fulbright Alumni Associations at the conference; however, it was stressed that all alumni around the world belong to an International Organization and should participate.  During the next conference, the Fulbright Association will work together with the European Associations, and perhaps in the future there could be an European co-president to serve the Association.

To stay involved in the global network of Fulbright and other U.S. State Department program alumni, visit

Eliane Vanstichele,
International Secretary

German Fulbright Alumni Association Announces Call for Applications for Jürgen Mulert Award

German Fulbright Alumni Association Announces Call for Applications for Jürgen Mulert Award

Since 2010, the German Fulbright Alumni Association grants the “Jürgen Mulert Award on Mutual Understanding”, in memory of the association’s initiator and founder, Dr. Jürgen Mulert (1938-2008).

The Mulert Award is bestowed annually to researchers, artists, professionals and volunteers across disciplines, whose work reflects and advances discourse and peace through mutual understanding.

It is our pleasure to invite all Fulbright Alumni to submit online nominations for candidates for the 2014 Mulert Award. Nominees must be former participants of one of the many Fulbright programs worldwide. Nominated projects may be professional or volunteer, and may have an artistic, social or economic character.

The prize package for the Mulert Award winner includes the following:

  • recognition during the award ceremony at the Association’s annual Winterball in February, 2014.
  • presentation during the Fulbright Commission’s Berlin Week in March, 2014
  • project presentation and short author biography in the 2014 FRANKly magazine as well as on the Association’s website
  • networking opportunities within the Fulbright Alumni community
  • full travel support

The Call for Nominations will be accessible online until November 29th, 2013.

For further information, please refer to

Contact: Steffen Schmuck-Soldan (

Eliane Van Stichel to go to Fulbright Conference in Washington, D.C.


Eliane Van Stichel to go to Fulbright Conference in Washington, D.C.

Eliane Van Stichel will go to the 36th annual Fulbright Conference in Washington, D.C. from October 3-6, 2013 to represent the Fulbright Alumni Association of Belgium, which is one of the oldest and most-well functioning associations in the world.

While she is there, Eliane will discuss best practices with members of other global alumni associations and discover new initiatives for FAAB to try. We especially look forward to her reports on the sessions: “Achieving Diversity in the Fulbright Program” and “Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons : What Should Be Fulbright’s Role?

For more information about the conference and what Eliane will be doing, visit

The Fulbright Association 35th Annual Conference

The Fulbright Association 35th Annual Conference

The Fulbright Association’s annual conference is held each fall and attracts alumni and friends from throughout the U.S. and around the world. The conference provides an important forum for the discussion of international issues and developments in the field of international educational and cultural exchange.

The theme of the world annual conference was: “Fulbrighters minding the gaps and bridging them”

The theme of this year’s conference focused on the role of the Fulbrighters in responding to, and bridging, the gaps in our world. Whether they be gaps in the financial world, the socio-economic sector or technological connections, Fulbrighters across the world are working to bring people closer together. The conference highlighted the place of the Fulbrighter in bridging gaps of all kinds to encourage dialogue for understanding that benefits the community.

The plenary discussion treated the economic and financial gaps in the world whereby the solution has to be global and even though the financial crisis and the political and economic situation has lead to a recession, the speakers seemed optimistic, at least for the US where the US is leader in higher education (labor market is active), in technology (entrepreneurs are active) and in innovation (financial system is active). Europe needs to unite and move away from local politics and economics. Asia is emerging with global growth. The world economical gravity has shifted from the Atlantic to China and India. Globalization must keep it’s human aspect.

Another interesting speech talked about Health and how to distribute medicine and make sure that the right pill goes into the right mouth! How to bridge the gap between the supply of medicine to the reception by the patient. How to get DRUGS to PATIENTS on TIME and EVERY DAY. How come Coca Cola is available in the most remote places and why can drugs not be provided? Obviously, commercial help and business cooperation is needed. The road from diagnosis to treatment is a long way… if something goes wrong in any of the many steps it is too late… This was an eye opener as we are not aware of the many difficulties.

The conference on bridging war gaps described the gap between conventional war where the object was to destroy the enemy and the war of insurgency (now progressing because of technology) where a mass of people lives with the enemy inside. A mind shift is needed as here the population has to be protected.  Hence, cultural insight, human rights knowledge and cross-cultural knowledge are necessary. The speakers message was that WAR SHOULD LEAD TO A BETTER PEACE.

The conference on Dance introduced technology into dance to bridge the gap with reaching remote places.  The speaker talked about a virtual cultural exchange program to teach dance. There are virtual office hours, on-line collaboration  etc…which leads to what the author called “LAPTOP” dancing.  There is an on-line space where dancers in remote places come together in the same space. It is also a bridging of the physical world with the on-line world. Anyone can be connected to countries and cultures through dance!

The talk about multi-racism, multi-religion and multi-ethnicity which is typical of our society stressed the need for different values and to accept the values and customs of others. But, where is the balance between their values and one’s own values. There are several steps from integration (community) and assimilation (legal) and accommodation. Do we want a melting pot or a salad bowl where individuality still can exist? A salad bowl with a sauce to cover it all seems to be the solution, according to the speaker. Race will disappear but religion is becoming more obvious.

There were of course, many more talks and discussions.  Overall, the level of conferences given was one of the best ever.

The new Director of the Fulbright was announced, Mr. Stephen Reilly and the Director of the Fulbright Alumni Association is John Vogel (former Fulbright to Belgium).

The meeting took place in London, UK – October 18 – 21, 2012. About 17 countries were represented: UK, USA, France, Germany, Pakistan, Morocco, Switzerland, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea, Romania, Japan, Slovak Republic, Netherlands, Moldova and Belgium.

Dr. Eliane Van Stichel, International Liaison

Report from the International Secretary

Dear friends,

The Fulbright Association’s 34th Annual Conference will be held from November 3 through 6 in Washington, D.C. The special session will take place at the new headquarters of the United States Institute of Peace. The mission of the USIP is to find solutions to global conflicts in a diverse and overcrowded world. They are now very active in Haiti and Sudan. Fulbright alumni, visiting Fulbright students, teachers, scholars and friends of international education will work together and share their Fulbright experience and their current work or research with colleagues from around the world in order to participate in the Annual Conference entitled “Living in a Diverse, Overcrowded World”.

There will be a luncheon to explore diversity issues with the Board of Directors ‘Task Force’ and a plenary luncheon speech from ABC’s foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto (Fulbright to Hong Kong in 1993). As usual there will be member-led round table discussions, Arts Task Force sessions related to “Assessing Quality in Contemporary Art” and an International Education Task Force Session (no specific topic yet).

The French Fulbright Association is currently planning to organize the next European Conference. The date has been set by the ENA in Strasbourg and is set to be September 28/29, 2012. However, the U.S. Fulbright Association’s annual meeting might conflict with the French dates. Following the tradition set in Athens in 2004, the venue for the 2012 U.S. conference (always in October or early November) would be London, the host of the Olympics next year. This would mean that there would be two international Fulbright meetings within 6 weeks of each other in Europe. Discussion is under way. I will keep you informed.

Fulbright greetings,

Dr. Eliane Van Stichel, International Secretary


Biomedical Imaging Fellowship opportunity: Madrid – MIT

Biomedical Imaging Fellowship opportunity: Madrid – MIT

Make an impact on YOUR CAREER – and on THE WORLD!

With a focus on accelerating innovation in biomedical imaging, promoting translational research, and encouraging entrepreneurship, the Madrid-MIT M+Visión Consortium is currently recruiting bright young talent from all over the world – engineers, physicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs interested in biomedical imaging who are in search of a career-enhancing experience and want to make their mark on the world.

Over the course of a one- or two-year fellowship in Madrid, Spain, and Boston, Massachusetts – supported by a generous stipend and travel expenses – you will be part of a team that will accelerate cutting-edge research in imaging, translate that research from bench to bedside, and establish new enterprises to enhance and enrich Madrid’s biomedical research community. Your knowledge, skills, network, and career track will all be enhanced from this remarkable experience.

Applicants from any country who meet the following requirements:

  • MD, PhD, or 5+ years of work past a Bachelor’s degree
  • Experience in some aspect of biomedical imaging
  • English fluency

The current deadline is January 25th 2011.

For full details and application form, please refer to the website.

FAAB 2010 Scholarship Fund Drive

FAAB 2010 Scholarship Fund Drive

Dear Fulbright Friend,

Thanksgiving may have come and gone but the Thanksgiving Fund Drive is here to stay!

For 29 consecutive years, thanks to your kind and generous contribution, the Fulbright Alumni Association has been able to financially assist outstanding Belgian graduate students for further studies in the United States.

We take particular pride in that. The Fulbright organization as such has many sources of funding and is able to award multiple scholarships. But none of these grants are quite as heart-warming as the grant made possible by you, ex-Fulbright scholars, through the alumni association.

Let’s make it happen again! If you did not contribute last year to our November Thanksgiving Fund Drive, now is the time to make up for that!

You, as a Fulbright scholar yourself, do not need to be reminded of the tremendous contribution to personal enrichment, for the rest your lives, that a year or more of postgraduate studies or research in the US can procure. It is so much more than a decisive edge in your careers back home. It is so much more than a way to learn close to perfect English. It is the experience of a lifetime!

It has also become more and more expensive. The average cost of one year of postgraduate studies in the US is now around 70,000 USD.

We must therefore urge you once again to give, and give generously, to the Fulbright Alumni 2010 THANKSGIVING FUND DRIVE.

And last year’s tip still stands: the more you give, the more you can deduct from your taxes…


With best Alumnus regards,




Arne Gutermann
Co-Chair, Scholarship Committee



Your payment can be made to the order of the Koning Boudewijnstichting / Fondation Roi Baudouin (bank account n° 000-0000004-04) with the reference “Fulbright Fund – FAAB.”

Since the King Baudouin Foundation manages many different funds, it is essential that the reference “Fulbright Fund – FAAB” be mentioned with your bank transfer.

If paying from abroad, the IBAN and BIC codes for the King Baudouin Foundation are the following: IBAN: BE10 0000 0000 0404; BIC: BPOTBEB1.

We remind you that all contributions of € 30 or more are fully tax-deductible in Belgium. A receipt for tax purposes will be sent to you automatically. Contributions received before December 31 of this year qualify for a tax deduction next year, so don’t delay!

And when making your contribution, do not forget about Company Matching Gifts: if your employer has such a policy, it will be possible to double your gift!

PDF copy here.