The Belgian Experience in WWI

posted in: International News | 0

“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.

New Picture (34)

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.

New Picture (35)

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?

New Picture (36)

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

New Picture (37)

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

New Picture (38)

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:

Leave a Reply