Much of the fighting during the First World War took place on Belgian soil. More than 100,000 Belgians died during the war, and many others had their homes destroyed and fled the country.
From 1914 to 1918 Flanders Fields was a major battle theatre in the First World War. One million soldiers from more than 50 different countries were wounded, missing or killed in action there. Ypres and Passchendaele became worldwide symbols for the senselessness of war. The peaceful region still bears witness to this history in monuments, museums, cemeteries and the countless individual stories that link it with the world.
The German Invasion
At the very beginning of the war, the Germans wanted to march through Belgium in order to attack the French from the rear. They demanded that the Belgian King, Albert I, grant them passage through the country, but he refused. On 4 August 1914, the German army invaded Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan. The Plan was designed to bring a quick end to the war with a decisive German victory.
On 12 August 1914 at Halen (a market town in the province of Limburg), Uhlans of the German cavalry (light cavalry armed with lances) attempted to charge a strong Belgian position with naked swords. This was unsuccessful and the Belgians defended the town.
The German advance moved through Belgium much more slowly than the German high command had originally hoped. At several places, the Germans believed that they were shot by ’civilians’. The often incomplete uniform of the Civil Guard made it hard to recognise the soldiers. A large number of civilians were executed in retaliation in Dinant, Aarschot and Leuven. In Leuven 2,000 houses and the university library were also burnt to the ground.
The fortress of Antwerp fell in October 1914. After the fall of Antwerp, the tired troops of the weakened Belgian Army withdrew behind the line of the River Yser. Trenches were dug, and the ‘Yser Front’ became part of the Western Front, a section that was held by the Belgians until 1918.
The Flooding of the Yser Plain
In October, the German army launched an offensive aimed at breaking the Allied lines. They wanted to take Ypres and the roads leading to the channel ports, meaning they would be controlling the outlets to the North Sea. However, the German advance was stopped when the Belgian Army deliberately flooded the Yser Plane.
At the same time, to the south, British and the French reinforcements successfully prevented a German breakthrough at Ypres.
The Menin Gate
Built in 1927, the most famous Commonwealth War Memorial bears the names of 54,896 soldiers who were reported missing in the Ypres Salient between the outbreak of the war and 15 August 1917. There was not enough space on the gate for soldiers reported missing after that date, so their names are listed on the wall of nearby Tyne Cot cemetery. An exception was made for Australian and Canadian soldiers who were missing in action until the end of the war. There are no New Zealand names, as their missing are commemorated in cemeteries near to where they died.
Every night at eight o’clock, the Last Post is played under the Menin Gate by the volunteers of the Ypres Last Post Association, who are members of the Ypres Voluntary Fire Brigade.
Huge numbers of Belgians had their homes destroyed in the German invasion, and many people fled the country in the autumn of 1914. About 250,000 turned to Britain, and the War Refugees Committee (WRC) coordinated relief work to help them once they arrived. The WRC asked the British public to help with accommodation, and within two weeks received 100,000 offers. Local committees were set up and charity events were organised all over the country.
Some refugees lived in purpose-built villages, which were considered Belgian territory, were administered by the Belgian government and used Belgian currency. One of these communities was Elisabethville in Birtley, Tyne and Wear. However, most refugees were housed by families in all areas of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Some remained in contact with the families for long after the war ended.