Image courtesy of Nieuwpoort official website and GoneWest

Flanders Revisited. Highlights from ‘Lichtfront 2014’

Posted on centenarynews.com on 03 December 2014
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Centenary News writer, Jillian Davidson, gives a personal account of her journey through Belgium as part of 'Lichtfront 2014', an interactive event following the Front Line as it existed at the time of the ceasefire in the autumn of 1914. 

Flanders Revisited. Highlights from ‘Lichtfront 2014’

Visitflanders, the tourist office of Flanders, hosts regular trips for members of the media to revisit the past in the northern region of Belgium.

In October, during the week leading up to Lichtfront in Nieuwpoort (17/10/14), VisitFlanders invited a group of North American journalists, including myself as the NY representative of Centenary News, to tour Flanders and attend Lichtfront.

One hundred years ago, the driving imperative was “Remember Belgium. Enlist today.” A century later, the slogan has shifted slightly, but significantly to “Remember Flanders. Visit today.” This was the guiding principle of our tour.

From the moment we alighted in Brussels, we were immersed in the activities and paraphernalia of commemoration. At the airport’s concourse, poppies were suspended from the ceiling and columns of photographs and narrative arose from the ground, as a constant cue to visitors to remember World War One in Flanders. This unique “welcome” set the tone for our whole week.

Visit Leuven

Our first stop was Leuven, also known as “the Oxford of Belgium” and only twenty minutes by train from Brussels airport. According to a “Welkom in Leuven” guide: “There are few towns in Flanders that appeal more to the imagination than this haven for students, where history, culture, architecture, gastronomy and modern science are intermingled to form a compelling cocktail.”

Indeed, as part of our initiation in Leuven, Belgium’s “beer capital,” we drank beer cocktails. Not a beer drinker myself, but “when in Leuven” and on a beer tour, I partook! I especially recommend the beer, gin, and elderflower tonic with licorice stick, a house specialty at the M-Museum bar.

Leuven is, however, more than a haven for beer enthusiasts; it is the perfect destination for “Centenarists.” One of the seven martyred cities, it became internationally famous on August 25th 1914 when the German Army burned the University Library with its 300,000 ancient volumes and manuscripts, killed 248 civilians, and expelled the entire population of 10,000. Our guide made sure to inform us that it has now been proved that Belgians in Leuven did not shoot first, as the Germans had claimed.

Our visit to the landmarks of war in Leuven centered on the University Library. This was not just because this edifice symbolized Germany’s unprecedented injury on civilization and culture, but also because it is one of the largest war memorials in Belgium and because its restoration, completed on July 4th 1928, was America’s great gift to Belgium.

On the library’s façade there is a well-designed program of commemoration. The themes developed are the terror of August 1914, the Allied Victory and the international solidarity surrounding the reconstruction. The bas-relief at the top of the gable depicts the fire at the University. The helmed and armored Madonna, who pierces the head of the Prussian eagle with her sword, represents the Allied victory.

According to Leuven archivist, Mark Derez, “There is a whole zoological garden present” on the façade. The American eagle, the Italian she-wolf, the Belgian lion, the English unicorn, the French cock and the Japanese lion are all assembled. 136 engraved stones also attest to more than 300 American Institutes that gave financial support to its rebuilding by American architect Whitney Warren.

The library’s five-story climb, 289 steps in all, provides ample opportunity for an in depth display of its history. Beginning at ground level, an archway is dedicated to Hugh Gibson who was the secretary of the American Legation in Belgium 1914-16, a member of the Belgian war mission to the US in 1917, and US ambassador to Belgium in 1938. On each subsequent level, exhibits present pre-war photos of Leuven, before and after postcards, the appeal “An die Kulturwelt!” of 93 German scholars, scientists and artists who sided in October 1914 with the German military, the November ’14 protest of universities and cultural institutions against German action in Leuven, the J.P. Morgan Library’s resolution in 1919 to restore the library, and the announcement in the Columbia Spectator of the campaign to replace the library.

Atop the library tower, in addition to its magnificent panoramic view of Leuven, are the bells, dedicated to the memory of the American engineers who fell in the First World War. Originally, there were 48 bells to represent the number of states that then constituted the US, but when they were renovated in 1983, 15 more were added. Today, these bells are considered more as messengers of peace than reminders of war. As the Latin quote inscribed on the Liberty Bell of Louven proclaims: “Let there be peace and harmony on earth. This is what I wish to you all from high above.”

Visit Antwerp

At the outbreak of war, Belgium was home to 7.6 million inhabitants and the one of the world’s most densely populated countries. The German invasion created an unparalleled wave of refugees, who sought refuge first in Antwerp, which was the Nationaal Reduit (the government and military safe haven). After the fall of Antwerp, refugees escaped mostly to the Netherlands, but also to France and Britain. In total, one Belgian out of five fled the country.

A week before our arrival, Antwerp had seen the installation of a temporary pontoon bridge across the River Schelde. This rebuilding of a symbolic bridge of Peace and Commemoration in the first week of October 2014 in lieu of a supplies and escape bridge from 1914 dramatically conveyed the importance of building bridges between the past and present.

Whereas in Louven, we experimented with beer tasting, as part of our historic walking tour in Antwerp we tried “the chocolate shooter” at The Chocolate Line (Belgium’s Willy-Wonka). This was a cocoa-snorting lucite contraption created originally for a Rolling Stones birthday party.

Even when in the chocolate factory, however, our guide continued to school us in our lessons of local history. Amidst giant white and brown chocolate replicas of chess pieces, animals and Halloween-related pumpkins and skulls, he recounted the story of Winston Churchill’s mission. On October 3rd, 1914 the First Lord of the Admiralty came to persuade the Belgium monarch, King Albert, to continue his defense of Antwerp for as long as possible.

As in Leuven, our main stop in Antwerp held an American connection with Belgium: the Red Star Line Museum. The Red Star Line was an American-financed Belgian shipping company. It transported around 2.7 million immigrants to the U.S. and Canada between 1872 and 1934. Approximately half of their passengers were Jewish, among whom were such eminences as Albert Einstein and Golda Meir.

When the German Army occupied Antwerp’s harbor on October 10, 1914, these twice-weekly transatlantic voyages ground to a halt. Some 60,000 recent Belgian immigrants in the US became severed from their family in Belgium, and were forced to choose identities and loyalties. More than 300 Belgians, mostly from Detroit, crossed the border into Canada and from there returned to enlist in Europe.

“Far from the War? Belgian immigrants in America in World War I” is an exhibition at the Red Star Line Museum, which follows the stories of five American Belgians forced to make heartbreaking choices during the war.

One Russian-born Jew, a former passenger of the Red Star Line and a later recruit in the American Army in World War One, was Irving Berlin. He immortalized the cries of Belgian mothers, wives and children in his song “The Voice of Belgium” in 1915: “I hear the cries of children praying, sad as they could be/ I can hear them say ‘Please, send my Daddy back to me.’”

Visit Ghent

Following the direction and sequence of the German invasion, our next destination was Ghent. This was my favorite Belgian city that we visited, in part because of the discovery that Ghent is the “Vegetarian capital” of Europe, but also because a boat trip along the river affords a wonderful view of the most beautiful houses on the Graslei.

In our brief encounter, Ghent seemed to have a more nuanced and unusual relationship to its history. On Sunday October 12th, earlier that week, the 100th anniversary of the German advance into Ghent had occurred. As our guide explained, however, Ghent did nothing to mark the occasion.

According again to our guide, Ghent had to cope with half a million refugees in October of 1914, staggering when one considers its population was then one and a half million. The people of Ghent only had a civil service to protect them. The Germans were therefore able to mount the steps of City Hall without resistance. Lots of people were then forced to turn their homes into Bed and Breakfasts for the Germans. The Germans would ransack citizens’ wine cellars. If they saw paintings that they liked, they would put them on a transport for their wives.

Adamantly and repeatedly, our guide confided in us: “We have nothing sensational to tell. We have no heroes, or at least no heroes with names. Heroism was among the soldiers who fought. Our schools have nothing glorious to say about the Belgians in Ghent. We suffered, but we weren’t heroes. Some were spies, but they were so secretive that no one knows their names. Our women were forced to be prostitutes. That’s not heroism; that’s occupation. It isn’t something you tell your grandchildren about.”

Ghent is, by contrast, actively celebrating another anniversary, the bicentennial of the Treaty of Ghent. Our guide led us to the room in City Hall where US ambassador Denise Bauer, UK ambassador Allison Rose and Canadian ambassador Denis Robert officially launched the commemoration and she showed us the document they signed. At the beginning of the academic year, Ghent schoolchildren commemorated the treaty of 1814 with art projects. Still in the plans for later this year are a special choir performance with all the bells of 52 Catholic Churches on winter’s solstice, December 21st, and a special mass on Christmas.

Ironically, whereas the first centenary of the Treaty of Ghent was aborted because of the First World War, the Treaty’s bicentenary seems also to be greatly affected by the First World War and its centenary. The people of Ghent are eager to champion the Treaty of 1814 as ushering in an era of peace and cooperation between the US, UK and Canada and as the foundation for a strong transatlantic alliance. They want to embrace the treaty as a progressive initiative because it made promises to Native Americans and it made a statement about the abolition of slavery.

In a year of competing anniversaries, one for the outbreak of war and one for the return to peace, Ghent seeks to present itself not just as the backdrop to international battles and occupation, but also as the venue and partner of international peace.

Visit Weregem

Weregem was the first of several war cemeteries we visited. It is also the only American First World War cemetery in Belgium. Whereas the restored Leuven Library was a gift from America to Belgium, the land of Weregem was a gift in perpetuity from Belgium to America. Since 1926, families from all around the world have visited the fallen American soldiers who are buried there. Many of these soldiers were new immigrants from 1912-13, perhaps even passengers from the Red Star Line in Antwerp.

Two soldiers buried next to each other were best friends from Brooklyn: Russell B Swain and Norman K Stein, one Christian and one Jewish. They died together and they wanted them to be buried together. Norman’s mother had at first preferred that her son be brought back to America for burial but Russell’s mother asked for them to remain side by side.

Whereas much of our visit had thus far reflected upon change and ‘before and after’ comparisons, Weregem insisted upon maintaining a time capsule in the room for Gold Star Mothers and in the cemetery. As the cemetery’s Superintendent assured us, “When our great-great-grandchildren come here to visit, they will see it exactly as you see it now.” If a tree falls, it is replaced by another identical tree.

Visit Nieuwport

For our final preparation before Lichtfront, we participated in a Kunst workshop in Nieuwport. This was organized by Coming World Remember Me (CWRM), a workshop, which, from 2014-2018, intends to create 600,000 little commemorative sculptures to represent all of Belgium’s war casualties. Each sculpture is to be fashioned identically: cuddled inwards holding onto the painful memory of the past (the posture is reminiscent of a Kathe Kolwitz’s sculpture), but with a strong spine on the outside to ensure that he or she can stand up and walk onwards into the future with hope.

© Sivan Askayo

The project’s main impetus is to draw people together in a joint venture. Each participant becomes a godmother or godfather of a sculpture. The name of each participant and each victim goes on a dog tag, but that dog tag goes on another person’s sculpture, which forms another link. It costs 5 Euros to participate; half of this goes to the material and the other half goes to present-day victims of war creating yet another connection between past, present and future. The best-case scenario CWRM hopes for is that all 52 participating countries of the war will become involved in their project for peace.

At the New Visitor Centre at the King Albert Memorial in Nieuwpoort, our group of North Americans joined similar VisitFlanders tour groups from Australia, New Zealand and England. We gathered for Lichtfront, a unique initiative under Gone West, to commemorate the inundation of the Yser plain.

Since the German advance was stopped at Nieuwpoort in October of 1914, its reenactment by torches and fireworks was in many ways the symbolic conclusion par excellence to our visit. We too had gone west across Belgium, from Leuven to Nieuwpoort, as the Germans had done in 1914. Between 7 and 8:30 pm October 17, the westernmost part of Flanders was lit by a human chain of torches, linking the old and young, native Belgians and international visitors, spanning the 84km from the beach of Nieuwpoort to ‘The Memorial of the Missing’ in Ploegsteert.

© Sivan Askayo

Without the inundation of the Yser, the German army would have conquered the whole of Belgium and perhaps have gone on to win the war. There is something so epic in the story of the battle, something quasi-Biblical. As the war diary of Emiel Vandenabeele, in exhibit at the New Visitor Centre, reads, “The Yser runs red with blood and is full of floating bodies.” The inundation was a modern-day version of the Exodus story and the parting of the Red Sea. The flooding of the waters stopped the “Egyptians/Germans” in hot pursuit of “The children of Israel/the little Belgians.” Hendrik Geeraert of Nieuwpoort, with the help of soldiers of the Belgium Army, operated the locks and flooded the plains. They were modern-day Moses-figures. Instead of holding up a staff to control the waters, they opened and then closed the locks.

Without this victory, Belgium would have been hard-pressed to find a story of heroism that our guide in Ghent had felt was so absent in her town’s history. No wonder live broadcast of Lichtfront captivated the whole country. Here was a tale worth revisiting and sharing with grandchildren.

Conclusion

Earlier this year, I attended a conference in Halifax, Canada, on the relationship between war tourism and war remembrance. The conference presented the results of a World Heritage survey, which questioned the importance of visiting World War One sites. As can be expected, I go to quite a few World War One related conferences, exhibitions and performances. Upon my return from Belgium, had I been asked to participate in such a questionnaire, I would definitely have responded that a week-long pilgrim to Belgium, replete with museums, guided walks, cemeteries, monuments, memorials and, above all in our specific visit -- Lichtfront certainly provided an unsurpassed experience of learning and remembrance.