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The larger empires of Europe had fought for control over the Flemish lowlands for centuries. After the wars between Napoleonic France and Hapsburg Austria, the European powers agreed to put their claims aside and set up this small region as an independent kingdom in 1837, with the status of a neutral, unaligned to any other nation.
Belgium would have liked to remain neutral in World War One but geography was not on its side. When Prussia seized the Provinces of Alsace and Loraine as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, these new territories acted as a protective buffer to the Rhineland. While the natural features of the new border helped protect Prussia from French aggression, it also made it very difficult for Germany to attack France in 1914. This task was made even more difficult by the massive fortifications the French had built in the region, especially around the choke point at Verdun.
Believing it could not successfully fight a two front war at once; Germany planned to temporarily hold off the Russians in the East until their armies in the West could win a quick victory over France. This strategy required speed, which could not be accomplished by battering their way through French fortifications. The only path to victory lay through the lowlands of Belgium, and so a request was made to let German armies pass without molestation through its countryside to France. The problem was that Belgium was far less neutral than she seemed. Military agreements had been made in secret with both Great Britain and France that most government officials were not even aware of. Plans had already been drawn for British and French troops to come to Belgium’s aid should her border be violated. When Britain insisted that Belgium deny the Germans free passage, King Albert obliged them by refusing the Kaisers request. The next day on August 4th, 1914 German armies crossed their border.
Though the leaders of Belgium could read a map as well as anyone else, internal bickering prevented an adequate defensive policy from being adapted for years. Belgium was a densely populated nation yet its army remained relatively small in comparison, and only began to be enlarged as war neared. They primarily relied on an extensive system of fortifications built along the German border to slow down an invasion until help arrived from Great Britain and France. Unfortunately they miscalculated; between the poor deployment of their troops, slow and uncoordinated efforts by the British and French to reinforce them, and the massive use of heavy artillery by the Germans, their fortified cities fell rapidly.
By the end of October all of Belgium except for a small corner of Flanders was under German control. The Belgian government moved into exile at Le Havre, France but they no longer had a country to govern. Those that could fled, many winding up in England by way of Antwerp. These included large numbers of civilians, many of whom would enlist in the Belgian army and return to fight. Britain however would hold a large refugee population for the remainder of the conflict.
The secret agreements Belgium made with Britain and France allowed it to concentrate its defensive works to meet an invasion from Germany. While their main defensive efforts on the Meuse River at Liege were some of the most extensive in all of Europe, they did not want to spend the money required to upgrade their antiquated system when it became susceptible to bombardment by the latest guns. Once the Germans finally made an organized attack, these fortifications quickly fell. With some experience behind them, the Belgian forts at Namur fared even worse.
The siege and fall of the Belgian forts were depicted as great victories on numerous German postcards. It is difficult however to find Allied cards referencing these actions in any way, which is not unusual when a nation suffers a painful defeat. Even so some publishers felt the need to depict the Belgian army in action. On the filedpost card above, the defeat at Liege is not only presented as a heroic defense, the Belgian Revolution is evoked to enhance patriotic enthusiasm from an historic event when current victories are lacking.
One of the great myths of the propaganda war is the heroic defense of poor little little Belgium, and how it greatly slowed the German advance so it could eventually be thrown back at the Marne. While the Germans had to stop and fight, they were moving far faster than anyone thought possible while the Allies were moving slower than expected. Most of the Kingdom was overrun before Allied reinforcements were ready to help. Without positive news to present, many Allied publishers just produced generic cards promoting heroic myths.
Even through Great Britain was the official guarantor of Belgian neutrality, a number of French publishers portrayed their own army as the savior of the kingdom. Most of their troops however were involved in attempts to reclaim Alsace and Lorraine early in the conflict. While success may have threatened any German advance into Belgium, the Battle of thee Frontiers was a major French defeat. Troops sent to Belgium came too late and were to few to have any significant effect on the German advance. The British Expeditionary Force would play an ever increasing role on this front.
When the sluice gates of the Yser at Nieuport were opened to stop the German advance through Flanders, the lowlands were flooded for miles. Specially trained sappers were assigned to this task to make sure that the flood waters were deep enough to become an effectual barrier to infantry while not too deep to allow for the passage of boats. The Germans never really understood what had happened, which prevented them from draining the lowlands. After some initial fighting, this front would remain quiet for the duration of the War. This did not mean that postcard publishers stopped depicting this front. The flooding itself was a curiosity that made this landscape stand out from the rest, and so it drew attention. Many cards were made that capture the quiet desolation of this place, but they rarely capture the deplorable living conditions the soldiers were forced to live in. Many men on this front would die from Typhus.
While the flooding of the Yser basin is often touted as an ingenious move that saved the last remnants of the kingdom, it did not go as smoothly as it might have. Belgium was an ethnically divided Kingdom with most soldiers being drawn from the Dutch speaking Flemish peasants, while the officer class came from the French speaking Walloons. Many Flemish soldiers resented the flooding of these valuable lands that had been made productive by their own hands, and were now being destroyed on the orders of Walloons who were perceived as outsiders. These feelings of alienation only grew stronger as the War progressed, making the management of the Belgian army ever more difficult. By 1917 Flemish soldiers within the Belgian army had secretly organized into a nationalist movement, the Frontpartij (The Front), and they began to make demands. This ethnic divide would play an important role in Belgian politics in postwar years.
Long seated cultural and religious hatreds combined with fears of partisan warfare and the greenness of German troops all came together to produce a deadly and destructive mixture when the invasion of Belgium began. War had freed these soldiers of normal social norms that made it possible for them to act harshly in reaction to their fears whether they were real or imagined. Confusion often led to panic and many innocent civilians were massacred by the invading troops as punishment for crimes they did not commit. This sometimes devolved further into bloodlust and the destruction of cultural icons. While not planned, German officers often looked the other way at atrocities because the fear they put in the Belgian people made them reluctant to interfere with the German advance toward France. Belgium’s policy of only maintaining a small army meant that when the Germans quickly overran their country, many able bodied men were left behind the advancing battle lines and this raised real concerns. This situation was further confused by the newest Belgian recruits in the civic guards who were not issued uniforms but only wore a shoulder medallion or badge.
The German army only saw their actions in military terms; where civilians were completely expendable to their aims. This also made them blind to the consequences, which was providing the Allies with a great deal of ammunition to use against them in the propaganda war. These atrocities plus many more imagined were all rolled up into the story of the rape of Belgium. Its success in swaying public opinion surprised the Germans, and they then took more control over the behavior of their troops. The propaganda war, caring nothing for truth would be unrelenting. By early 1915 the German governor of occupied Belgium forbid the mailing of any postcard that depicted destruction within the kingdom, but they had already acquired the label of Barbarians for the duration of the War.
It did not take long for the myth of German barbarity to become set in the public’s mind, and this provided fertile ground for the tremendous amount of propaganda cards that followed. All sorts of horrendous fictional acts attributed to Germans continued to be produced for the duration of the war for the public was now ready to believe sensational story above the truth. When the same sorts of atrocities became repetitious, artists resorted to depicting them through allegory. These types of cards were especially common in France where their vitriol knew no bounds. Postcards depicting German transgressions played a major role in stirring up hatred for the enemy, so much so that they helped make any notions of a negotiated peace unpalatable.
While the Allies concentrated on depicting fictional atrocities, they often missed the real tragedies affecting the Belgian people. By the autumn of 1915 Belgian civilians began being conscripted for labor in the industrial Ruhr. This situation grew worse after Ludendorff took control over the German economy and deportations increased to fill the arms factories of Krupp. Belgians had just become an expendable resource to keep the War going. Those left behind faced shortages of food and fuel that brought great suffering and sometimes death. Some cards were published that deal with this less dramatic aspect of the War but they are rare. The great amount of propaganda produced that portrayed Germans as barbaric monsters had a detrimental effect on the truth after the War. When it became easier to see these representations as exaggerations, they all began to be viewed through this colored lens and many real atrocities were temporarily forgotten. Even today it is sometimes difficult to separate truth from fiction.
(See From Iberia to Syria dated August 30, 2010, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on this subject)
The violation of Belgian neutrality and the rape of Belgium that followed greatly influenced public opinion in other neutral nations. Many of those who had been pro-German suddenly turned against them. Recruiting efforts were boosted from those outraged at the news. The propaganda war managed to create a Belgium that was perceived as an innocent victim suffering at the hands of a brutal bully. Every act against them was turned into a war against civilization while their own horrific crimes in the Congo were completely forgotten. The postcards of many nations were harnessed for this propaganda war to great effect, while the inept German efforts to counter it were largely ignored.
During World War One armies had grown to a tremendous size and supplying them with food became a perpetual problem. By the time German troops were fighting in northern France their supply lines back to Germany were stretched thin and it was easier to take resources directly from Belgium. Consumption was so great that it led to starvation among Belgian civilians, but charitable efforts to relieve this situation ran into political obstacles. While Germany thought it the fault of the British for enacting a naval blockade of foodstuffs, the British felt it was the responsibility of the German occupiers to supply food and they should take the consequences of not being able to deliver it. Despite these strong positions, Herbert Hoover, at the urging of the American ambassador to Britain, Walter Hines Page, managed to negotiate through them to form the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Britain reluctantly agreed to let the Commission’s ships pass through the blockade, and the Germans agreed to let the food be solely distributed to Belgian and French civilians as it was considered the property of the American ambassador to Belgium, Brand Whitlock. The program seldom worked smoothly but it saved millions of lives.
In the years of the Great War nearly all the belligerents were monarchies, and as such many postcards were produced portraying royal families. Many of those depicting King Albert I of Belgium are different in that he was obliged to take personal command of the Belgian army and fought with it at the front in the siege of Antwerp and on the Yser. By December 1914 he made it clear to the Allies that he would not allow Belgian troops to be used in the kinds of offensive operations that had already wasted the lives of so many soldiers. As the War grew more destructive, he secretly tried to negotiate a peace deal but this ended in failure because both sides thought they could achieve a military victory without compromise. There are numerous postcards of King Albert in posing in uniform as well as more active scenes of him surveying the fighting or talking to soldiers in the trenches.
Many postcards of King Albert’s family were also produced but these aren’t the typical posed scenes in palaces or at ceremonial events. His wife Queen Elizabeth became a nurse, and there are cards that show her in uniform while serving in this capacity. His son Prince Leopold also fought in the Belgian army as a private early in the War. In a kingdom where class divisions were further divided by ethnicity, it was important for this type of propaganda to show that the royal family thought it was no better than any ordinary citizen.
Even after most of their country was occupied, Belgian troops continued to fight alongside the British in Flanders but they were only involved in minor engagements after the winter of 1914/15. By this time the British and the French had no faith in the Belgian army, and King Albert did not want them assisting in major Allied offensives. While there are postcards to be found showing Belgian soldiers manning the trench lines around Nieuport, their numbers declined as the front grew more quiet.
Most of the fighting that took place in Belgium was performed by the British Expeditionary Force centered at Ypres. With so little of Belgium left in Allied hands they refused to give it up despite very aggressive German attempts to take it. The salient just became a killing field in three major battles with nothing of real importance gained. Despite the nearly constant action on this front, relatively few Allied postcards picture it. Those cards that do exist were largely British or French made depicting British troops early in the War.
Belgians also fought against German colonial forces in East Africa. There are a number of military themed photo-based postcards from the Belgian Congo but they do not tend to display combat situations. They are not always easy to tie to events in World War One. Belgium employed armored cars in their defense and even sent a small armored car expeditionary force to Russia that was deployed in Galicia. While cards of these vehicles in Belgium are common, it is difficult to find cards of those deployed in Galicia. Most of the real photo cards of armored cars from Russia do not seem to be captioned.
At the end of September 1918 the Allies launched a general offensive along the entire western Front. General Foch appointed King Albert to lead Army Group Flanders, which consisted of the Belgian army supported by British and French divisions. They broke through the German lines pushing toward Liege, but when German reinforcements arrived in early October the Allied attacks came to an end. Within fifteen days of the Armistice being signed, King Albert and his army were able to make a triumphal return into Brussels and reoccupy their entire former Kingdom.
Though never officially one of the Allied nations, Belgium was given a seat at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. There King Albert warned against destabilizing the Central Powers but the Allies were not interested in what he had to say. Despite this stance, Belgium made a land grab for all it could get. The Versailles Treaty would cede the German Cantons of Eupen-Malmedy to Belgium, but they did not succeed in annexing Luxembourg or provinces in southern Holland. They were also given trusteeship over Burundi and Rwanda when German East Africa was carved up despite their history of crimes in the Congo.
While the Americans did not fight in Belgium, they played a huge role in providing food relief while under German occupation that kept millions alive. Some publishers saw felt that this combined with overall participation of the United States in the War was the reason for their liberation. This attitude was widely expressed on postcards at the expense of their British ally. Once the War ended Belgium finally broke their 1837 defensive pact with Great Britain, which terminated their official status as a neutral nation.
Manneken Pis (Little Pee Man) is a small bronze statue adorning a public fountain in Brussels. Designed by Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder in the 17th century, it has survived many disasters and has come to symbolize the city. The statue was already a popular tourist attraction before the Great War and was captured on many postcards. Its irreverent but lighthearted spirit carried it onto many comic cards produced during the War years, only now the tone was a lot more bitter. Sometimes the statue’s flow of piss was used to symbolize the flooding of the Yser River that halted the German advance through Belgium.
Although Belgium had a strong publishing industry along with many fine illustrators, it found itself under German occupation soon after the War broke out. The vast majority of postcards depicting the early fighting in Belgium would be produced by German publishers. There are some scenes of combat published by “Notre Pays” in Brussels and by CAP for the Society of Friends for the Army Museum in Paris but both these artist drawn series were published after the War.
Max Albert Carlier was a painter who primarily produced floral still lives and interior scenes in the classic Dutch style. In the postwar years he provided illustrations for textbooks published by Librarie Istra. A number of his fine line illustrations from Histoire de France were placed on oversized postcards for publicity. These include subjects pertaining to the First World War.
Coin de Westende is typical of the strange situation most Belgian publishers were put in once their kingdom was largely overrun by the German army. Once producing souvenirs for those visiting the shore near Neiport, they switched to military related postcards after the invasion. They were then forced to move as the Germans advance, and eventually came to publish cards again from Tilburg in Holland. Most of their cards seem to deal with the Belgian army on the Yser.
The London View Company was a British publisher that captured many of the War’s early events and its soldiers. While these cards captured a number of fronts, many of their cards were dedicated to picturing the Belgian Army. A small Belgian flag usually appears in the corner of these cards with the letters L.V.C. contained within. Most are captioned in both English and French.
Armand Massonet was an academically trained painter who served two roles in the Belgian Army during the First World War. One was as a stretcher-bearer, and the other was as an official war artist. He produced many sketches near the front lines that often depicted medical services. A number of his illustrations were used on charity postcards to raise funds for the Belgian Red Cross. While serving at the front, he also published the art and literary paper, Le Claque à Fond.
Alfred Ost worked out of the Flemish town of Mechelen since 1902, but as a pacifist he fled with his family to neutral Holland in October 1914. There he first took up residence in Sluis, but moved to Amsterdam in early 1915 where he found a job with the printer Jan Kotting. Ost also designed numerous posters and postcards for the benefit of charities dealing with refugees and prisoners of war. These cards do not present military themes but views of Amsterdam in his highly graphic style. He returned to Belgium in 1919 after the Great War ended.
Another large publisher from Brussels was Photo Belge who produced some of the best postcards on Belgium’s involvement in the Great War. There are highly dramatic scenes of the Belgian army in combat during the early months of the War, as well as scenes of documented and generic atrocities. These cards were printed just after the War in 1919.
Reldian of Brussels published a large number of photo-based postcards in collotype depicting soldiers of the Belgian Army during World War One. These tend to be posed shots or scenes behind the battlefront. They are a commemorative set produced in the postwar years.
A large monochrome set of drawings depicting fierce scenes of combat were reproduced as real photo postcards by an unknown Canadian publisher. Most of these cards seem to capture scenes of Belgians, British, and French forces fighting in Flanders early in the War.
After the fall of Antwerp in October 1914, Alfred Bastien fled to Britain where he enlisted in the Belgian army. After being sent to the battlefront at Nieuport he was made an official war artist and captured scenes along the Yser through 1915. With the support of King Albert and Queen Elizabeth, Bastien and Leon Huygens founded an Art Section within the Belgian Army in 1916 to document the warfront. Eventually twenty-six artists in exile would be included in this group. Many of the images they would produce wound up on charity card sets published by the Asiles des Soldats Invalides Belges in London. Bastien continued to sketch on the front and was attached to the Canadians in September 1917. In addition to a series of postcards depicting the Belgian army, his nervous looking line drawings were used in the Illustrated War News.
Although Alfred Bastian began planning a great panorama to capture the fighting along the Yser in 1914, this 377 foot work was not completed until 1926. The finished piece is an artists conception rather than a single moment in time for it depicts a number of different events from a multitude of viewpoints. Installed at Ostend, the Panorama de l’Yser became a very popular attraction with locals and tourists, which created a demand for postcards. Many cards sets in black & white as well as color where produced for years. The painting was heavily damaged during a British air raid in 1940, and deteriorated further after being exposed to the elements. It is still undergoing restoration.
Albert Delstanche was primarily known for his series on Flemish legends. This narrative style was reflected in the charity postcards he illustrated though they manifest in two distinct sets. One shows black & white images of Bruges, reproduced to take on the look of a wood engraving. In his other work he presents us with haunting landscapes, filled with bombed out ruins and refugees.
Andre Lynen had been known for his paintings of the coast at Neiport and Ostend. He was inducted into the Belgian army in 1916 where he continued to create watercolors of the flooded region around the Yser. These tend to be benign scenes from behind the front or of distant fighting.
The Walloon painter, Pierre Paulus also illustrated charity cards. His images also focus on relief workers but they are far more expressive in both style and content, often depicting the wounded and the dead. He was drafted into the Belgian Army in 1916 where he served as an official artist documenting the front line for the Art Section.
Michel Sterckmans was a modernist painter who put his talents to work in depicting the devastation left behind by the German army in Belgium.
James Thiriar also illustrated cards for the Invalid Asylums for Belgian Solders. His line and wash drawings typically portray the quiet moments of relief workers. He had been wounded early in the War while serving in the civil guard, but continued work with the Survey Department as a mapmaker. In 1916 he was transferred to the Arts Section where he produced many more illustrations of the front line that found their way into magazines and onto postcards.
Maurice Wagemans was a landscape painter who captured many scenes of the coast. During the War he used his brushy style to depict the soldiers of the Belgian army in their various uniforms. These paintings were used to illustrate charity cards.
Many cards depicting Belgian troops involved in the early fighting were published in Great Britain. This was to help satisfy the public’s general thirst for war news, but it probably also catered to the large amount of Belgian refugees who had fled to England. Raphael Tuck & Sons was one of these publishers that issued numerous photo-based cards depicting the Belgian army in combat. Some of these situations appear to be real while others are obviously posed.