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The First World War in Belgium: A Resource

Horses were used a lot in the First World War to pull wagons, machinery and guns

How did the First World War start?

This is probably a good place to begin. I have prepared a timeline of the First World War in Belgium, starting with the assassination that catalyzed the outbreak of war, leading through the main battles and events in each year, and ending with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Actually it didn’t end then, as the timeline also covers the post-war consequences for Belgium.

The burning of the Library of the University of Leuven

The burning of the University of Leuven Library in 1914 led to the loss of over a quarter of a million books and manuscripts. It was rebuilt, but 26 years later, during the Second World War, it was burnt down again – and rebuilt for a second time. Read the distressing yet amazing story of the Leuven University Library.

Leuven university library
University Leuven Library 1914

The Battle of Passchendaele

In July 1917, one of the most costly and bloody offensives of the First World War took place: the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. It was a nightmare mission. Torrential rain turned the ground into a quagmire. The thick, stinking mud swallowed man and machine. Wave after wave of Allied forces were mowed down. Troops were called in from Australia and New Zealand only to perish within days. Passchendaele became known as ‘Passion-dale’ — the valley of suffering. It resulted in the deaths of 310,000 Allied soldiers and 260,000 Germans. Here are four ways to remember the Battle of Passchendaele.

Memorial Museum Passchendaele

The Battle of Passchendaele is the main focus of Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke. Called MMP17 for short, the museum is housed in the attractive Zonnebeke Chateau. If you want to understand the why and how of the Battle of Passchendaele, this is the place to visit. It takes you through the run-up to the battle, the goal, the various attacks, and the result. A short animated movie explains the timeline of the battle with a series of maps and original movies. And of course there is a vast collection of historical objects, authentic letters, posters and other documents, uniforms of the various armies and photographs which give a vivid insight into life and death in the thick mud of Passchendaele. For more information read my review of Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917.

Memorial Museum Passchendaele in Belgium
Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917

Canadians in the First World War

In the course of the First World War, over 600,000 Canadians enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force; a huge number considering that the population of Canada was under 8 million at that time. Canadians were involved in many key battles in Belgium, such as Passchendaele, Mount Sorrel and Hill 62. But their participation came at a cost: more than 60,000 Canadians were killed and 172,000 wounded. To know more, read my article in Flanders Today about Canada’s involvement in the First World War in Flanders.

What about women during the First World War?

If this is a question that piques your interest, read this fascinating guest post on my blog on the role of women (and horses) during the war. It’s by military historian Lucy Betteridge-Dyson (before she became a well-known British TV presenter).

Talbot House: A shelter from the storm

For almost the entire duration of the First World War, the village of Poperinge, close to Ypres, remained one of the few unoccupied towns in Flanders. Located ten kilometres behind the front line, and with a good railway connection to Ypres, it was a natural destination for soldiers looking to find some rest and relaxation. The most popular place was Talbot House, where soldiers could feel at home for a day or two. They could have a cup of tea, buy postcards or soap in the small shop, or write a letter home. Visiting or even staying overnight in Talbot House is a unique experience. If you’re interested in a visit, you might find my review of Talbot House a useful place to start.

Soldiers relaxing in Talbot house
Soldiers relaxing in Talbot House

Armistice Day 1918

On 11 November 1918, at 11 a.m., the First World War came to an end. What happened on Armistice Day in Belgium? And what did the date mean afterwards? Here are 11 facts about 11 November 1918 from a Belgian perspective.

What happened after Armistice Day 1918?

It’s easy to think of the relief and optimism sweeping across Europe that the signing of the peace treaty must have brought. Perhaps we have visions of people returning to their homes in previously occupied territories, greeting loved ones, restocking the shops, and getting “back to normal”. Or we imagine citizens and soldiers dancing in the streets of villages and towns, to the pealing of church bells. But for thousands of Flemish people returning to Flanders Fields, the reality was totally different – and brutal. There were no churches, no shops, no streets. In fact, there were no villages, nor towns. There was virtually nothing remaining of the land they used to know. Read the story of what happened in Flanders Fields after Armistice Day 1918.

Flanders Fields after the Armistice
The dangerous clean-up of the desolated land begins

The Iron Harvest

Even today, over 100 years after the end of the First World War, shells, grenades, other armaments as well as items used in everyday trench life turn up in Flanders Fields. This is known as the “iron harvest”. DOVO, the Belgian military’s bomb disposal unit, removes around 150 tons of unexploded ordnance every year! Sometimes if a farmer or even a child disturbs a shell, it can result in injuries, or even deaths. Read an article about the Iron Harvest I wrote a few years ago for a Flemish newspaper.

The reconstruction of Ypres

During the First World War the old medieval town of Ypres was virtually totally destroyed. Yet just ten years after the Armistice, Ypres looked like the town had never experienced a war. Almost all the destroyed buildings had been rebuilt. Today, Ypres is generally considered one of the best examples of post-conflict reconstruction. Read how Ypres was reconstructed.

The construction of the Menin Gate

The construction of the Menin Gate took place between 1922 and 1927. This well-known war memorial commemorates Commonwealth soldiers who died during World War One. Discover how the Menin Gate was constructed, thanks to some photos sent in by a reader, whose grandfather was involved in the construction of the building.

The construction of the Menin Gate in Ypres
The construction of the Menin Gate in Ypres

Visiting the Menin Gate for the Last Post

The Last Post is still faithfully played every day at the Menin Gate in Ypres by the buglers of the Last Post Association. This short, poignant ceremony remembers those who lost their lives during the First World War. The Menin Gate was chosen as location for this ceremony because it was from this spot that countless thousands of soldiers set off for the front. As we know, all too few made the return journey. Here are some practical suggestions for paying a visit to the Menin Gate for the Last Post.

Two walks around Flanders Fields

If you are interested in walking around Flanders Fields and visiting some of the most poignant war memorials and cemeteries, here are two suggestions. They both start from the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 in Zonnebeke. One goes to Polygon Wood, scene of a massacre of British and Australian troops during the Battle of Passchendaele. It takes in Polygon Wood Cemetery, Buttes New British Cemetery, the 5th Australian Division Monument, and Polygon Wood Cemetery. The other goes along the old Passchendaele railway line to Tyne Cot Cemetery. Read the details of two walks around Flanders Fields.

The Foresters’ Memorial

Hidden away in the Forêt de Soignes, a few kilometers to the south of Brussels, is this charming woodland memorial to a dozen or so foresters who lost their lives while defending Belgium in the First World War. It’s well worth a visit.

The Foresters' Memorial in the Sonian Forest
The Foresters’ Memorial is accessible by public footpath

The First World War Experience Center

In the First World War Experience Center small village of Tildonk in Flemish Brabant you can travel back 100 years and discover what life was like for Belgians under German occupation. You can read personal diaries, and listen to testimonies and anecdotes from civilians. You can learn how people tried to go about their daily business as much as possible, such as coping with food shortages and malnutrition. Photos, maps and artifacts are on display. Read my review of the First World War Experience Center in Tildonk.

What’s the deal about poppies?

Why were the poppies of Flanders Fields so numerous? Did they appear on other battlefields? How did they become the symbol of remembrance? I explore answers to these and other questions about poppies in my article on The Poppies of Flanders Fields.

Poppies of Flanders

Why do we remember the casualties of war?

Some thoughts of mine on why we remember the soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War – or during any war actually. It’s a complex issue. There’s no single, easy answer. Why you remember is likely to be different to why I remember. Some people don’t want to remember; they would rather forget. If you are interested, check out my post on Why do we remember the casualties of war?

Touring the battlefields of Flanders Fields

Very soon after the guns fell silent on Flanders Fields and northern France in November 1918, visitors to the battlefields began arriving. It was a difficult and expensive journey, but these first “battlefield tourists” or “pilgrims” as some preferred to be called, were driven to make the trip to see where their sons, fathers, brothers, uncles and friends had fallen. Nowadays, many organizations conduct battlefield tours. Read my article on touring the battlefields of Flanders Fields to see which battlefield tour I recommend.

From The Ashes

The book “From The Ashes” tells the remarkable story not only of the rebuilding of bricks and mortar of Flanders Fields, but also of the recovery of the region’s social and cultural life. It also describes a number of short walking routes around the towns of the Westhoek. Read my review of From The Ashes, which includes details of one particular walk: a 3 km historical walk around the centre of Nieuwpoort.

From The Ashes

King Albert’s Heroes

In 1915 a group of 400 Belgian soldiers making up the Belgian Expeditionary Corps of Armoured Cars (Corps Expeditionnaire des Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses Belges) were sent to France to fight. But their vehicles were useless in the mud so they were transferred to Russia. Here they got caught up in the Russian Revolution and were unable to return safely to Belgium. So they decided to go “the other way around”: via China and the United States! Read the fascinating 3-year global odyssey of “King Albert’s Heroes“, who include World Wrestling Champion Constant Le Marin, Belgian poet Marcel Thiry, and the eventual leader of the Belgian communist party, Julien Lahaut.

King Albert's Heroes
The global odyssey of King Albert’s Heroes

Two heroes of the First World War

  • Gabrielle Petit was a Belgian woman who spied for the British Secret Service during the First World War. She was executed in 1916, aged just 23. Read this account of the life and death of Gabrielle Petit.
  • Edith Cavell was a British nurse who was based in Brussels during the war. She worked closely with members of the Resistance, and helped hundreds of Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. She was eventually arrested and executed in 1915. Read the story of Edith Cavell.

First World War Quiz

Now you have read some – or maybe all? – of these articles, how about testing your knowledge of the First World War with this fun quiz? There are 20 questions, and it’s multiple choice: just select the option that you think is correct. Try my First World War Quiz.

I hope you find these articles useful, especially if you are researching aspects of the First World War in Belgium, perhaps for an educational topic. As you can see, I keep Discovering Belgium advertisement-free, in order to make the content easy to read without distractions. If you would like to support this blog, feel free to buy me a coffee. Thank you. Denzil

12 thoughts on “The First World War in Belgium: A Resource”

  1. Wow, this is fantastic! Thanks so much for putting all this in one place. It’s been bookmarked, and I’m sure I’ll be coming back to it again and again. Nogmaals bedankt!

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