First World War centenary: finally liberation came after four years of a dreadful occupation

Wednesday, 07 November 2018 14:24
World War One left Belgium devastated, with a population starving, scarred by killings and wounded by the hardships that the occupation has wrought upon it. World War One left Belgium devastated, with a population starving, scarred by killings and wounded by the hardships that the occupation has wrought upon it. © Belga
On November 11th, 1918, Armistice finally spells the end of the war for soldiers but also for the Belgian civilian population, which has lived through four years under German oppression.
The country is devastated, the population starving, scarred by killings and wounded by the hardships that the occupation has wrought upon it.

On 11 November 11th 1918, part of Belgium had already been liberated from the Germans thanks to the last offensives of the Allied troops. However during most of the war, only a small amount of Belgian territory, covering the Ypres-Nieuport-La Panne triangle, remained under Belgian sovereignty.

After four years of war, so-called “Little Belgium”, a symbol of Allied bravery and resistance, came out of the conflict in a moribund condition, with plundered industry, a population that had lost everything, towns and cities devastated by showers of shells and a society dismantled to the immense pleasure of the Germans.

On August 4th, 1914, the German army invaded Belgium in breach of international law, thus precipitating our country’s involvement in the First World War.

During the morning of August 4th, Germany goes on the offensive and attacks Belgium and heads towards Liège and its ring of forts, which will put up unexpected resistance in the face of the enemy, thereby offering respite to French troops and those in Great Britain.

The invasion of Belgium is accompanied by a multitude of acts of violence, on the part of imperial troops against civilian populations, and that the Germans will justify by deploying the irregular military. Visé, Dinant, the municipality of Andenne, Tamines, Leuven, Aarschot and Dendermonde will thus inherit the little envied title of martyr towns and cities. Such a tittle follows their being looted and burned, and in view of the number of their inhabitants massacred or sent to concentration camps in Germany.

Although the Germans seize the “burning city” from August 7th, the last Liège fort will only fall into the hands of the Kaiser’s troops on August 16th.

After the fall of the Liège forts, German troops head for Antwerp, Hainaut, Flanders and northern France.

On August 20th, King Albert I orders the withdrawal to Antwerp. German soldiers seize Brussels on the same day, without encountering resistance. Brussels will thus be the only capital to be occupied during the entire duration of the conflict and the occupation will prove to be particularly testing for its civilian population.

On August 22nd, Charleroi is pillaged and burned and on August 23rd, 1914, the British confront the Germans during the Battle of Mons. The memory of the battle has remained vivid in Britain, being the first confrontation involving His Majesty soldiers (the British Expeditionary Forces) since Waterloo.

Having reduced Dinant to ashes, General von Büllow’s troops cross the Sambre river on August 24th, and take Namur at the end of a 20-day siege.

Between September and December 1914, the various warring parties fight after the victorious counter-offensive of the Marne, and before the entrenchment of the front on the Yser river in the Race to the Sea battle, during which Belgians, English, French and Germans attempt to outflank each other, but without ever quite succeeding.

Finally, on October 9th, Antwerp, defended by 20,000 soldiers, both ill-managed and ill-equipped, surrenders after ten days of fighting. On October 10th, the Belgian government establishes itself in the north of France, in Sainte-Adresse, near Le Havre. On October 12th, the Germans penetrate Ghent, whilst King Albert withdraws with his army behind the Yser river.

Cramped together on this thin strip of land, the Belgians will firmly resist but on October 27th, King Albert resolves to flood the floodplain by opening the locks on the river. The decision enables the Franco-Belgian troops to firmly establish themselves on the west bank of this small river, and to stop the German advance. The trench warfare can then begin and will last four years along a 700-kilometre front, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

During a period of four years, the front will become entrenched in Belgium, despite Allied attempts to penetrate it at the cost of heavy losses. The region of Westhoek still bears the stigmas of the global conflict, the memory of which also remains vivid, even a century later. 

Lars Andersen
The Brussels Times
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