In the spring of 1910, a Belgian farmer by the name of Adolph Coninx sold all of his property, bid farewell to his two eldest children, and together with his wife and his nine other children, boarder the SS Vaterland bound for New York. With tensions growing in Europe, Adolph decided he did not want his sons conscripted into the Belgian Army—especially his two eldest sons, Julius, 18 and Joseph, 17, both of whom had already started farming. The next oldest to walk up the Vaterland’s gangway was an 11-year old girl, Celine. It is from her, who I have learned of the personal hardships faced in Belgium at this tumultuous time. She was my grandmother.
Known to me simply as “Grandma” or “Grossmutti,” Celine shared vivid recollections of Belgium with me before she died. In fact, many of her stories of the War came from her eldest sister, Irma, who stayed in Belgium when the rest of the family relocated to the United States.
“Aunt Irma,” as I knew her, had already married when her father decided to leave Belgium She and her husband had already established a life at their home in Hasselt. Her eldest brother, Walter, also was married. He decided to stay in Belgium and weather any storm that may come.
By the time the Coninx family established themselves as farmers in northwestern Minnesota, the clouds of war fully descended over Europe. On July 24, 1914, the Belgian government had announced that if war came it would uphold its neutrality in any impending conflict. On August 1, the German government sent an an ultimatum to the King of Belgium, demanding passage through the country after German forces invaded Luxembourg. Two days later, the Belgian Government refused the demands. The German government declared war on Belgium on August 4 and field gray-clad troops crossed the border to attacked the Belgian city of Liège.
The Germans intended to bring the 1st, 2nd and 3rd armies into positions in Belgium. Then, they could stage a full invasion of France. What they had not figured into the formula, however, was the defense the Belgians would throw against the invasion.
The Belgians had vested much of their confidence in a series of fortresses along the Meuse River at Namur. After Liège fell to the Germans on August 7, the Belgian Army held onto their fortresses until the last finally surrendered 10 days later. The same day, the Belgian government abandoned the capital, Brussels, and the remnants of the Belgian field army withdrew westwards, to the National Redoubt at Antwerp on August 19. Brussels was occupied the next day and Namur was besieged on August 21.
After the battles of Mons and Charleroi, the bulk of the German armies marched south into France, leaving small forces to garrison Brussels and the Belgian railways. The III Reserve Corps advanced to the fortified zone around Antwerp and a division of the IV Reserve Corps took over in Brussels. The Belgian field army made several sorties from Antwerp in late August and September, to harass German communications and to assist the French and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), by keeping German troops in Belgium. German troop withdrawals to reinforce the main armies in France, were postponed to repulse a Belgian sortie from 9–13 September and a corps in transit was retained in Belgium for several days. Belgian resistance and German fear of francs-tireurs, led the Germans to implement a policy of Schrecklichkeit (“frightfulness”) against Belgian civilians soon after the invasion, in which massacres, executions, hostage taking and the burning of towns and villages took place and became known as the Rape of Belgium.
And it was about this horrific period, my Grandmother would relate to me. She told me how Irma’s husband died during the initial fighting. Irma, along with the other residents of Hasselt fled after the Germans took over. Forced to use the ditches because the roads were occupied by long lines of German troops and equipment, Grandma told me how Aunt Irma found the town’s priest, lying dead among the weeds, stripped of his garments and his crucifix stuffed into his mouth. Grandma’s big sister told of days and nights, struggling to walk along the ditches and avoiding direct contact with any Germans. With no food, she ate wild onions that she found along the pathway.
By November 1914, most of Belgium was under German occupation and Allied blockade. A military administration Kaiserliches Deutsches Generalgouvernement Belgien was established on 26 August 1914, to rule Belgium through the pre-war Belgian administrative system, overseen by a small group of German officers and officials. Belgium was divided into three administrative zones: the General Governorate, which included Brussels and the hinterland; a second zone, under the 4th Army, including Ghent and Antwerp; and a third zone under the German Navy along the coastline. The German occupation was maintained until late 1918.
This horrific time in Belgian history permeated the national soul. After the war, and before a second German invasion, Aunt Irma relocated to the United States, moving close to her family in Minnesota. As a little boy, I remember sitting with Aunt Irma in the nursing home, listening to her relive this horrible period in her life. Her husband dead, her country invaded, and fleeing her home with only what she could carry—had deeply affected Aunt Irma, though by the time I knew her (she was in her 80s then), I couldn’t think of her as anything but peaceful, gentle, and with a thick accent that would urge her to laps into Flemish while telling her stories.
It is this time of year…the time of year German chose to invade the Lion-spirited little nation of Belgium so long ago, that I think of Grandma, Aunt Irma, and all those who have fled their home in the face of war and uncertainty. This year marks the 101st anniversary of the invasion of Belgium and the beginning of the Great War. As collectors, let us all remember the deep, deep pain this—and all other wars—inflict on a generation. It’s why we collect—so that others never forget.
Preserve the memories,
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine