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:

Otlet Salons: inaugural session

Otlet Salons inaugural session: Dr. Didier Caluwaerts on “Challenges to Democracy in the 21th Century”

Otlet Salons logo

Wednesday January 7, 2014

Fulbright Belgium and Luxembourg are excited to announce the first edition of the “Otlet Salons.” These interdisciplinary sessions aim to bring together people to promote knowledge spillovers and create a strong impact on society.

Keynote speaker will be Dr. Didier Caluwaerts whose presentation is titled “Challenges to Democracy in the 21th Century.”

For more info on this specific event, please refer to:


Thanksgiving dinner 2014

Join us for Thanksgiving Dinner!

Thanksgiving dinner icon

Friday November 28, 2014

This year, our annual Fulbright Thanksgiving Day dinner will take place on Friday November 28, 2014.

Location of the event is Restaurant Mykene in Leuven. The cost p.p. is an estimated 50 euros.

If you would like to join us in celebrating Thanksgiving, please register online:

Palm brewery and Eddy Merckx factory event

Palm brewery and Eddy Merckx factory event

Wednesday November 19, 2014

Join us for a visit to the Eddy Merckx bicycle factory, the Palm brewery in Steenhuffel and the Diepensteyn stud farm.

Departure at 16:00 at Brussel Central station. Cost per person is 30 euros per person and includes dinner.

Register online: november-19-2014-faab-alumni- visit-to-the-palm-brewery/

Fall event preannouncement: WW I remembrance day

2014 Fall event pre-announcement: World War I remembrance day

Saturday 15 November


In August 2014 the world marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. By the end of the First World War there were very few people in the countries that took part who remained unaffected. The war reached out and touched almost everyone’s life in some way or other.

Children grew up in the shadow of battle, their fathers absent or lost. Women became directly involved, picking up the pieces of industry and agriculture as the men went off to fight. By 1918, they too could join the army and serve their country.

Men enlisted, or were called up, in their millions, being sent to fight in places that many had never heard of before. It was a global struggle. Life changed forever. Nothing was ever the same again.

‘Sometimes I don’t think about it for months on end, then I come back and dream about it all.  How really extraordinary it was.  I can’t quite get it out of my system.  I can’t sleep sometimes.  I just think about it.’
Stephen Williamson looking back at the First World War in 1985

In the opening moves of the war, both in the West and the East, the nature of modern warfare soon became clear. Armies were numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Modern weapons rapidly caused heavy casualties and laid waste to whole communities. Soldiers went to ground, digging trenches and dugouts that soon began to feel almost permanent.

The crucible of war also proved very creative. Aircraft developed quickly, taking death and destruction into the sky. New ways of fighting made better and more effective use of huge quantities of shells and bullets manufactured on a scale never seen before.

“I felt that I didn’t want to live, I’d no wish to live at all, because the world had come to an end, then, for me, because I’d lost all that I’d loved.”
Kitty Morter remembering the birth of her baby after her husband had died on the Somme

The power unleashed by modern war resulted in previously unimagined losses. Over 9 million soldiers died as a result of the fighting. Food shortages, sometimes deliberately inflicted by blockade and sometimes resulting from failed harvests, weakened the people who remained on the home fronts. Nearly 6 million civilians died from disease or starvation. Almost 1 million more were killed as a direct result of military operations. In all, the estimate of dead resulting from the war stands at over 16 million. And then there were the more than 21 million wounded. Some recovered, others were never the same again, either in body or in mind.

It was not just people who died. The old world order was also irreparably damaged. Both the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires were destroyed. Russia was wracked by revolution and became the world’s first Communist state. Monarchies fell. A new world order emerged, with the United States developing a League of Nations that they then opted not to join. The consequences of many of these political changes can be heard today reverberating around the world, nearly a century later.

“I am for the front on Tuesday, but if you write and say I am only seventeen it will stop me from going. Don’t forget.”
Stephen Brown to his mother, April 1915. He was killed in action at Ypres a month later.

Sometimes the First World War feels like distant history. The jumpy black and white films, the unfamiliar clothes and the horses pulling wagons, all look like something from a world long forgotten. Yet the last soldiers who fought in the war have only recently died. Only a few of the 1914–18 generation, who witnessed the war but were too young to take part, are still alive. The war is slipping inexorably beyond the fringes of living memory and, so we have to work harder to make sure we do not forget.

The Fulbright Alumni Association Belgium would like to take this unique opportunity to visit Ypres, an important enough site in the Belgian war context, but even more so in a global context due to it being the site of the first use of chemical warfare agents.

The program is not fully finalized, but here’s a sneak preview of what we have in mind for you:

09.00 h: Departure by bus in Brussels
10.30 h: Arrival in Ypres: Battlefield coach tour: northern salient
13.30 h: Lunch in brasserie Kazematten
14.30 h: CWXRM workshop (group 1) + walk on the ramparts (group 2)
15.15 h: CWXRM workshop (group 2) + walk on the ramparts (group 1)
16.00 h: Coffee break
16.30 h: Visit museum “In Flanders Fields”
18.00 h: Dinner in Ypres city centre
20.00 h: The Last Post

20.15 h: Departure
21.45 h: Arrival in Brussels

So: please stay tuned for more specifics as the program matures – but don’t forget to block your calendars already for this unique event on Saturday November 15th.

We’ve tried to keep the price for this full day program as low as possible to allow everyone to join in. We expect this be be about 35 euro pp.

We hope to greet many of you at this important site, at this momentous anniversary. Stay tuned for final enrollment detail.


The organizers, Filip Vandevelde and Paulien Detailleur

(Introductory text credit:

WW I remembrance event: final chance to enroll !

Last chance to enroll for 2014 Fall event: World War I remembrance day

Saturday 15 November

The Fulbright Alumni Association Belgium would like to take the unique opportunity provided by the 100th anniversary of WW I to visit Ypres, an important enough site in the Belgian war context, but even more so in a global context due to it being the site of the first use of chemical warfare agents.

The final program is as follows:

  • 09.00 h: Departure by bus in Brussels
  • 11.15 h: Arrival in Ypres: Battlefield coach tour: northern salient
  • 13.15 h: Lunch in Oude Kaasmakerij – Passendale (drinks not included)
  • 14.30 h: CWXRM workshop (group 1) + walk on the ramparts (group 2)
  • 15.15 h: CWXRM workshop (group 2) + walk on the ramparts (group 1)
  • 16.15 h : Visit museum “In Flanders Fields”: in the Cloth Hall of Ypres
  • 18.00 h: Dinner in Ypres city centre – Les Halles (one drink included)
  • 20.00 h: The Last Post
  • 20.45 h: Departure
  • 22.45 h: Arrival in Brussels

Electronic enrollment is now open at the following link:

Do not forget to hit confirm on the second page following submission of the initial form, your enrollment is not registered until you do so!
Final enrollment is not complete until payment has been received. Payment instructions are provided on the enrollment form.

Please do not delay, as we will close enrollment on November 11.

We hope to greet many of you at this important site, at this momentous anniversary.

The organizers, Filip Vandevelde and Paulien Detailleur

Brussels Chamber Music Festival

Invitation: Brussels Chamber Music Festival

The Brussels Chamber Music Festival is very proud to welcome you to its inaugural 2014 edition.  For three days in October, great musicians from around the world will converge at the Château du Karreveld, an idyllic setting in Brussels, to share the stage and make this festival a memorable event for everybody.

6 concerts on the program. Not to be missed !

For more info, please refer to

Julien Beurms
BCMF Founder & Director
Fulbright alum

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!

A Chinese concerto


A Chinese concerto van Jan Van Landeghem werd geschreven ter gelegenheid van Europalia China in november 2009, met premiere in het Paleis voor Schone Kunsten in Brussel.

De Koninklijke Muziekkapel van de Gidsen bestaat uit een groot harmonieorkest van 84 streng geselecteerde musici, allen afgestudeerd aan een van de Koninklijke Conservatoria van het land.

Kapelmeester Yves Segers treedt aan als dirigent. De partijen voor viool altviool en 5-snarige altviool zijn allemaal voor rekening van Jenny Spanoghe. Een huzarenstuk met indrukwekkend resultant.

Een concert i.s.m. Defensie en ten voordele van o.a. Kom Op Tegen Kanker.



Cultuurcentrum Ter Dilft

Sint-Amandsesteenweg 41-43.

2880 Bornem

tel. 03 890 69 30