By Stéphanie Borrell-Verdu, USAG Benelux Public AffairsFebruary 16, 2018
CHIÈVRES, Belgium -- This year marks the centennial of the end of World War I. On this anniversary, it is important to understand the involvement of Belgium in the Great War as well as the consequences that the conflict had on its population.
Belgium had been a neutral country since the Treaty of London in 1839. So how did the country get involved in World War I? Well, the answer is simple: Germany's Schliefen Plan. Germany declared war on France. To avoid the French fortifications along the French-German border, the troops had to cross Belgium and attack the French Army by the north. Of course, Belgians refused to let them through, so the Germans decided to enter by force and invaded Belgium on Aug. 4, 1914. By doing so, they violated the Treaty of London, which is why Great Britain, that was bound to guard the neutrality of Belgium, entered the war. Belgium's small Army could not defeat the invaders, but they did manage to slow them down. Despite their resistance and the British Army's help, the German troops soon invaded the country, which remained in their hands for four years until the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.
THE BATTLE OF MONS
The fiercest battles took place in Flanders, but Wallonia also played a major role in the war and suffered tragic consequences. Mons, for example, was the scene of several major events during World War I. The Walloon city is often referred to as "The First and The Last," because the first and the last British Soldiers that died during the war were actually killed in Mons. It also staged both the first and the last Allied engagements of the war. Moreover, some of the most mysterious events of World War I happened during the Battle of Mons, such as the famous legend of "The Angels of Mons." On the night of Aug. 26, 1914, several British Soldiers claimed that angels carrying bows came down from the sky to help them at a crucial time and saved their lives. However, it seems that this was a fictional story by the Welsh writer Arthur Machen, who published it in the London newspaper Evening News.
The British Army fought brilliantly but was forced to withdraw during what was later known as "The Great Retreat." The Battle of Mons was considered a success by both the Germans and the British, because despite being outnumbered, the British troops managed to prevent the French Army from being outflanked. As for the German troops, they managed to gain a lot of ground to get closer to their final goal: Paris.
The German mistreatment of Belgian civilians during the invasion was tragic. Civilians lived in a nightmare during the four years of occupation. The numbers speak for themselves: almost 9,000 civilians were deliberately killed by the Germans and 6,453 of them were killed during the first week of occupation. This impressive number mobilized the public opinion of the Allies. It became a major propaganda object.
THE FLANDERS FIELDS AND THE U.S. ARMY IN WWI
The Americans, who were really moved by what was going on in Belgium, entered the war in 1917. While most of the American Expeditionary Force was fighting in France, four Army divisions fought in Belgium alongside the British Army in the "Flanders Fields," the name given to the battlefield stretching from West Flanders to East Flanders and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais in the north of France. The Flanders Fields was the theater of some of the fiercest battles of World War I. Many Soldiers were injured and killed there, and several villages of the area were totally destroyed. The battlefield has now been converted into a memorial site with monuments, museums and cemeteries. Today, 368 American Soldiers who lost their lives to defend Belgium are resting in Flanders Field Cemetery in the town of Waregem. Their memory is honored each year on the Sunday before Memorial Day with a special ceremony at the cemetery. The name "Flanders Fields" comes from the poem "In Flanders Fields" written by the Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae. "In Flanders Fields the poppies blow," said in the poem. Poppies have become the symbol of the great loss of the war, because they were flowering the battlefields, especially in the fields of Flanders.
World War I left its mark on the country. Today, Belgium is home to hundreds of sites, cemeteries and monuments commemorating the battles fought in its lands and honoring the memory of those who died to defend the country. In the local area, people can learn war history first-hand by going on a battlefield tour of the Battle of Mons and visiting the Mons Memorial Museum. Almost half of the museum is dedicated to WWI. About two kilometers away from Mons is the St. Symphorien Military Cemetery, where lies the remains of British and German Soldiers killed mainly during the Battle of Mons.
Other famous sites in Belgium include the Fort de Loncin, which is about seven kilometers from the center of Liège. This is a worth-seeing vestige of the Battle of Liège as it is the site where the Belgian Army remained under siege for three days before being blasted out by the Germans. Another famous site is the Citadel of Dinant. The fortress offers magnificent views of the city and holds an amazing exhibition dedicated to the history and consequences of World War I on the city and its population. The "Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing" and the "Ploegsteert 14-18 Experience," both located in Comines-Warmeton, are also worth a visit.
For more information on World War I sites in Wallonia, visit walloniabelgiumtourism.co.uk/en-gb/3/i-love/heritage-and-culture/wallonia-in-the-wars/14-18.
For more information on World War I sites in Flanders, visit www.visitflanders.com/en/themes/flanders_fields/.
REMEMBER WWI THROUGH MWR
Remember World War I is a two-year collaboration among various libraries whose purpose is to highlight and celebrate the centennial of the U.S. involvement in World War I. Books, videos and other materials are available at the Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation's libraries, the Donovan Research Library and the Marine Corps Community Services Libraries. In U.S. Army Garrison Benelux, people can visit libraries at Chièvres Air Base, SHAPE, Brussels and JFC Brunssum. For more information, visit www.benelux.armymwr.com. and www.rememberww1.com.