A SHORT HISTORY -
Belgium was first conquered by Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar in 57BC and in 22BC it became the Gallia Belgica Province of the Roman Empire.
In the centuries since it variously came under the control of the Austrians, Spanish, French and Netherlands with many battles fought by different warring parties. Just one of these battles was in 1302 – the Battle of the Golden Spurs between the Flemish forces and the French, but many other battles would follow. The most famous of these battles was the Battle of Waterloo, when Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in 1815 but it was not until 1830 that Belgium gained its independence – again with great battles to achieve this independence. See Place des Martyrs in Brussels.
In August 1914, Belgium would again be invaded, this time by the Germans at the start of World War One and it would only be liberated in 1918 when on the 11th November 1918 after the Armistice was signed.
The 1930’s saw the Great Depression take hold and Belgium declared it neutrality in any conflict that might occur in Europe, signing a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1937.
On the 10th May 1940 Germany invaded Belgium and in the winter of December 1944 the Battle of the Bulge took place and in January 1945 Belgium was liberated.
Today in Belgium it is possible to visit a number of places that commemorate the places where battles took place, to see fortifications, museums, war cemeteries and a concentration Camp to see and learn about what has taken place in Belgium in times of war.
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels is a good place to see and learn about the battles for Independence and the two World Wars – seeing aircraft, uniforms, armaments, hearing the stories of resistance, the battles and much more. It is located in the Cinquantenaire Arcades building in the Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels.
Also – see section on Battlefields – in the French section of this website.
THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO –
Waterloo Village is just 25 kilometres from Brussels and in and around the small villages of Braine-l’Alleud and Plancenoit is where the Battles took place in the days leading up to the final battle – the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th, 1815.
On this day, the French forces under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) were defeated by the combined forces of English, Scottish, Welsh, Belgium, Dutch under the command of the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) with William of Orange (1792-1849)who later became the King of the Netherlands and the Prussian, Hanoverian forces commanded by the Prussian leader Gebhard Leberecht Blücher (1742-1819).
The battle led to Napoleon abdicating and being banished to the island of St Helena in the South Pacific, the island at the time being under the control of the British East India Company and then a few years later it became a British Protectorate. Napoleon lived out his days on the island with a house being built for him – Longford House- with the house later being bought by the French Government.
The battlefield was a slaughterhouse with some 15,000 of the British forces dying in the battles, 7000 Prussians and 24,000 French, with 7000 more French troops captured and about 15,000 French Troops disserting. Some 20,000 horses would also die here too.
Today the battlefield and Musket fire is silent and the land has returned to farmland, but in recognition of the Battle of Waterloo – a 40 metre high earth mountain was built between 1823 and 1826 and topped with a large cast iron lion mounted on top of what is now called “the Lion’s Mound” or “Lion’s Hillock” (Butte du Lion). Some 226 steps lead you to the top of the Hillock, to look down on what was once a Battle Field of the dead and dying. In Waterloo there is the Wellington Museum and also Caillou Farm, where Napoleon had his breakfast before the day of Battle began. Other commemorative memorials are here too and in June each year there is a re-enactment of the battle held here.
WORLD WAR ONE –
Ypres (Ieper) –
The Battle of Waterloo was fought on horseback – with Napoleon, The Duke of Wellington and the Prince of Orange all riding their horses into battle. The horse of the Prince of Orange actually died in the battle, but by the time of the First World War, muskets and to an extent Cavalry horses were being replaced by armoured Tanks, the first aircraft, rifles and lead balls by bullets, machine guns, grenades, mustard and Tear Gas.
The First World War escalated the amount of weaponry and its power and the consequences of this would also be horrendous too in the number of deaths and wounded, with the war fought in the Trenches and even underground in tunnels dug under Enemy positions where they would detonate bombs.
When you think about the Battle of Waterloo – and the fact that Napoleon on the day of battle sat down with his commanders for breakfast, planning to make the attack in the early afternoon – it almost seems like planning for a football match, more so than a battle where thousands would die.
The city of Ypres has a history dating back to Roman days and built its reputation in the Textile trade. Like most of Belgium, it too, had come under the control of French, Austrian, Spanish and Dutch over the centuries, only gaining its independence in 1830.
If you read the French Battlefields section on this website – you can read more about the First World War.
While Belgium’s Independence was gained in 1830, the Dutch did not recognize it, and it was only in 1839 under the Treaty of London that they did. The Treaty was then signed by the Dutch, and also by Great Britain, Austria, the German Confederation, France and Russia all recognizing Belgium’s Independence and Neutrality status.
When Germany on the 4th August, 1914 invaded the Belgium city of Liège, this violated the London Treaty and Britain and France both declared war on Germany as a consequence.
In Germany the Kaiser and his Generals were no doubt in shock to find that the Treaty – which they described as a ‘scrap of paper’ would lead to Britain declaring war on Germany and coming to the defence of Belgium.
In Britain however, the reaction was very different, and recruitment Posters carried a picture of the Seals on the Treaty that had been signed, along with a call to enlist for King and Country, to “Keep your Country’s Honour Bright by restoring Belgium her Freedom”.
Germany had calculated on the war taking 40 days to capture Belgium and France, knowing too that they would also be fighting on their eastern front.
Then, assuming that they could enjoy a swift victory over France, this would mean that could re-deploy their troops to the Eastern Front.
In Britain and its Colonial Empire too, including Australia, New Zealand, African Colonies and Canada, there was a sense of excitement to join up for the “adventure” and there are stories of many 16 and 17 year olds who tried to look older or showed false papers to be over 18 and join the war effort. There was a general view, even by the leaders at the time that this war would be over by Christmas. It wasn’t to happen.
Just after 2 months after the German invasion of Liège, around 10,000 Germans had reached Ypres on the 7th October, 1914 and on the 13th October the Allied troops had arrived in Ypres too and a battle line was formed as a salient line of defence established in an arc shape to the east, north and south of Ypres. Battles would be fought here right up to October 1918 – four long and hard years.
A “salient line” is the Military term for a random shaped line of defence that is more like a wave that advances both forward and backwards as ground is won or lost relative to the landscape and enemy positions.
During these years, Ypres and the villages that lay near it on this part of the western front would be bombed many times and the battles would rage along the front line, one of the most deadly being the Battle of Passchendaele that took place between the 31st July 1917 and the 10th November 1917.
If there was excitement in heading to fight, there was no excitement in living in a trench, digging tunnels to plant bombs, being increasingly cold and rained on as summer became autumn and then became winter.
Here in the trenches there was frostbite, constantly being wet, dysentery, deep mud, always under the threat of aircraft dropping a bomb on the trench, or being gassed, shot at any time of day or night and witnessing the death and wounding of fellow soldiers around you. Wounded might well be taken from the battlefield, but those who deserted and were caught, would be shot as deserters.
Many of the men who returned from the War would never speak of it, the memory simply too stressful.
The Great War was not one sided either. The Germans, also all young men too also suffered the same hardships and their losses were equally horrendous in numbers.
The city of Ypres (Ieper) during the War was almost flattened by bombs and artillery fire, with the massive Ypres Cloth Hall that was built in the 13th Century was destroyed in the first days of battle in 1914 along with the Town Hall (Stadhuis), Saint Martin’s Cathedral that dated back to 1221 and What you see today are these same buildings but rebuilt after the war.
Today Ypres (Ieper) has been rebuilt as a City, so the City has the central Grote Markt with its fountain, cafés and Saturday Market and the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) with its carillon bells and Belfry bell tower in the centre of the city. Parts of the original old ramparts and towers on the wall around the city can also to be seen.
What makes the City different to any other Belgium City however is the story of World War One and what happened here during the Great War that took place on the Poppy Fields, where Red Poppies still grow.
In the Cloth Hall there is the Flanders Fields Museum that reveals the story of the battles, the soldiers, the armaments and memorabilia with displays and moving photos, images, stories and tributes to those who fought. There are also smaller museums here too, with their own stories and memorabilia.
There are also tours that will take you to the former battlefields to see the concrete bunkers (Pill Boxes), bomb craters and parts of the trenches, but it is the memorials and War Cemeteries that truly bring home the enormity of the number of soldiers who died here through the marked Graves and white crosses of those whose identity is known and the thousands of others who died but are marked as Unknown or are in mass-graves.
There are war graves of British, New Zealanders, Canadians, Australians and Germans too – the two biggest War Cemeteries being the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Memorial and Cemetery and the German Langemarck War Cemetery. The main Cemeteries are managed and maintained by the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission and they have an office at Elverdingsestraat 82 in Ypres. See wwwcwgc.org if you are seeking to find a particular grave site.
In Tyne Cot Cemetery alone there are the name of 35,000 soldiers whose graves are not known, and the Cemetery also has a large Memorial at its centre with a White Cross – the Cross of Sacrifice located on top of what was a German Pill Box that was located here.
The Menin Gate Memorial (Menenpoort) in Ypres, constructed in 1927 on the eastern side of the city with its grand archway entrance and columns on each side contains the names of 54,896 British and British Empire soldiers who died here on the Battlefield. At night the Menin Gate is lit up and at 8 o’clock each night the sound of Pipers playing can be heard.
With the number of dead, there are a number of Cemeteries, not just the ones listed above – but just the names Passchendaele, Hill 60, Hill 62, Polygon Wood, Messines Ridge and Tyne Cot all have great significance as places where both gallantry and sacrifice took place.
SECOND WORLD WAR -
The Great War was supposed to be “The War to end all wars”, but it was not to be.
While Adolf Hitler and the German Government had signed a “Guarantee of Neutrality” with Belgium, German forces on the 10th May 1940 attacked Belgium and that same month on the 28th of May the Belgians surrendered following the deaths of 6000 of its troops and over 15,000 wounded.
Many Belgian soldiers and government Ministers fled to Britain via Dunkirk in the mass Dunkirk Evacuation of British, French and Allied Troops that took place, joining Allied forces as soldiers or airmen in British Special Forces and becoming a government in exile. Between the start of war and its end of the war on the 8th May 1945, some 88,000 Belgians would die. Many more would be injured or feel the effects of war for years to come.
Belgium came under German control during the war years and it would only be liberated by Allied Forces including the Americans after fierce fighting towards the end of 1944 with the last German Battles being fought in the Ardennes in December 1944 where the “Battle of the Bulge” took place.
Many Belgium cities came under attack by both Allied and German Bombers with substantial damage to property and lives during the war. Over two thousand German V and V2 Bombs (fired as long distance missiles) were fired at Belgium towns, and particularly the Port city of Antwerp.
In Belgium there is the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels (see Brussels section) and in Mechelen (see Mechelen section) there is the Internment camp and also Fort Breendonk Concentration Camp that was used to house Jewish and Roma prisoners of the Nazis.
While there are memorials to the War in many towns and cities throughout Belgium, it is in the Ardennes Forest region, in and around the town of Bastogne where the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ took place.
If you read the French Battlefields of this website, you will read about the French Defences including the Maginot Line and the German Siegfried Line.
In the French defence planning prior to World War Two, they had built the Maginot Line along the borders with Germany and Switzerland, but believed that the rough terrain and heavy forested region of the Ardennes would be almost impregnable to tanks and armoured vehicles, so it was unlikely that any attack would come from here. This would prove to be wrong.
The Netherlands and Belgium are often referred to as the “Low Countries” due to their largely flat lands, but the Ardennes is a rugged mountainous region and it was here that one of the last big battles of World War Two would take place.
While Belgium had largely been liberated towards the end of 1944, the Germans still fought battles in their occupied parts of France and the Netherlands with the Allied forces split between France to the south and the Netherlands to the north. Hitler and his Generals seized on this opportunity to attack what they saw as the weakest link in the Allied front – the Ardennes hoping to push through and head west to capture back the port city of Antwerp. Some 250,000 German troops were pulled into the offensive and the “Battle of the Bulge” ensued starting on the 16th of December and lasting around 6 weeks. Some 80,000 Americans and many Belgians would die in the offensive and 100,000 Germans. It was a turning point in the war and would be one of the final actions in the war in Europe.
Today in Bastogne and the smaller village of Mardasson (where the American War Memorial is located) and the towns of La Roche-en-Ardenne and Diekirch (in Luxembourg) there are memorials, war graves, cemeteries and museums that commemorate the “Battle of the Bulge”.
Today, the Ardennes are best known as a place to go hiking, mountain biking, cycling, caving and kayaking, cross country skiing in winter and just driving to see the rivers, forest and some of the cities, towns, small villages and Castles dotted throughout the hills and valleys in the Ardennes region.
It is hard to imagine when you see the quiet beauty of the Meuse River, the Ardennes Valleys and forest, how this area would have looked when the “Battle of the Bulge” took place.
There are a number of cities, towns and villages in the Ardennes region and some of these are listed below –
- Liège – on the River Meuse is the biggest city with a population of around 200,000 people, and during World War I it was the first city to be attacked by Germany, who used their new Zeppelin airships to drop bombs on the City. Liège was the home of the writer, Georges Simenon (1903-1989) the creator of the Detective books and TV Series, Maigret.
- Verviers – with a population of about 50,000 people lies just to the east of Liège on the Vesdre River and this is an old textile town that today makes the green baize used on Billiard Tables. Look to see the old Verviersima Textile mill that explains the process.
- Namur – is where the Sambre River flows into the Meuse River with a massive Citadel fortress straddling the ridge above the two rivers. The old Citadel is now the main tourist attraction but also look for Mosan Copper Art and take a cruise on the River.
- Dinant - is a city of around 12,000 people located next to the Meuse River with a sharp escarpment rising behind it and a cable car taking you up to the top where there is a citadel fortress located. Dinant is perhaps best known as the city where the Saxophone originated, its inventor being Adolphe Sax (1814-1894).
- Huy – with a population of around 20,000 people is located mid-way between Liège and Namur on the Meuse River and also has a fortress overlooking the city. Close to Huy is the village of Modave where there is the impressive Modave Château dating back to 1673. Another Château to see is the Château de Jehay in Jehay Village dating back to 1550 and in the village of Crupet, the Château des Carondelet and in the village of Maillen the Château de la Poste.
- Han-sur Lesse – is a village located on the Lesse River and here the River partly flows underground. The Lesse River is used by kayakers and there is also the famous Grottes de Han limestone caves that are here too. Close to Han you will also find the Château Lavaux-Sainte-Anne with its moats, towers and gardens.
- Rochefort – in a bigger town with a population of about 12,000 people. It too has a vast cave system, the Grotte de Lorette and it also has a Château, the Château Comtal.
- Bouillon – on the Semois River with a population of around 2000 people is where you will find the Château de Boullon, a castle that dates back to 988 and to the days of the murderous Crusader, Godefrois de Boullon (1060-1100).
- La Roche-en-Ardenne – has a population of around 4000 people this is where the Battle of the Bulge took place. Today kayaking, mountain biking and hiking have replaced the bombing, but take a look in the Museum here to hear more about that time.
- Spa – Yes, there is a real town called Spa, and the name says it all. There are the spas, saunas and wellness centre and they also bottle Spa water here too. In town there is a Casino, while nearby is a Lake for swimming in summer, and in winter there is cross country skiing.
There are of course many other towns and villages in Belgium that we have not talked about and as with all travel it is not just the places you see that make for a great time, it is also the people too.
Being a relatively small country means that there are shorter distances between places of interest, and the more you stay off the main roads, time permitting, the more you will find that special small village square with a great Patisserie and atmosphere.