The End of the Nineteenth Century in 1914

On Gas Attacks, Poetry, Cruelty and Increased Mobility in WWI Belgium

The attack of last Thursday evening was preceded by the rising of a cloud of vapor, greenish gray and iridescent.’ This is how Will Irwin, correspondent for the New York Tribune, described the German offensive at Ypres on 22 April 1915. It was a historic moment: the first successful gas attack in military history, instantly resulting in 1,200 dead and 3,000 wounded. The French had already used tear-gas grenades, but that wasn’t an illegal weapon, because it wasn’t deadly. Strictly speaking, the Germans were also ‘safe’ as far as the Hague Convention was concerned, because that prohibited only the use of ‘projectiles, the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating gases. And on 22 April the Germans simply released the gas from cylinders and let the wind carry out the destructive work. Later the British would significantly improve the diffusion technique. In spring 1916 they introduced the Livens projector, a sort of grenade launcher that could fire projectiles with 13.6 kg of pure phosgene. As Christ’s catchy phrase about turning the other cheek isn’t all that popular in wartime, every country involved in the war soon began to regard the use of gas as Legitimate. In total around 112,000 metric tons of gas were employed by all the warring parties during World War I.

1915 was the year of the first gas attack and of the Second Battle of Ypres, but it was also the year that John McCrae wrote his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, on the night of 2 May at the Essex Farm dressing station, just to the north of Ypres. On 2 May 2005 a new monument is being unveiled there. In conjunction with this, there will be a small exhibition about McCrae and the significance of his one world-famous poem at the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, which took its name from the celebrated poem by this Canadian military doctor. The museum is also commemorating the 90th anniversary of the fifteen famous lines with a number of activities focusing on the Literature of the First World War. For example, at the end of March 2005 you could follow, text in hand, in the footsteps left by the most important war poets left in the fields of Flanders, a trip culminating on 3 April at Wilfred Owen’s grave at Ors. On 30 April 2005 five speakers are giving introductions to literature from and about the First World War written in English, German, French, Italian and Dutch.

However, the Great War was about more than gas attacks and the despair of the poet-soldiers in the muddy trenches. During the first weeks after the German invasion of Belgium it was largely a mobile war. The Belgians had been living in peace for some generations and now they were suddenly confronted with the pandemonium of modern warfare: rattling machine guns, exploding shells and droning aircraft. Added to this was the German strategy of Schrecklichkeit and the associated bloody reprisals against the civilian population. In 2001, the American historians John Horne and Alan Kramer published an extensive study thoroughly documenting the German war crimes against the Belgian population. Their German Atrocities, 1914 has the subtitle ‘A History of Denial’. Their contentions are supported by Larry Zuckerman in his more recent The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I (2004): just as the Germans had made efforts between 1914 and 1918 to play down the atrocities in Belgium, so ‘poor little Belgium’ suddenly became considerably less pitiable to the British, French and Americans during the peace conference in Versailles. This meant that Belgian demands for German reparations could be tempered, thus providing a larger share of the cake for France and Great Britain. And so the executions, rapes, burnt-out villages, looting, demands and deportations were erased from history, and even the Belgians have come to believe over the years that it’s all part of the Myth of the Cruel Hun. Zuckerman wants to expose the wartime suffering of the Belgians once again. For him, the nineteenth century stops in 1914: not only did Europe rip itself to pieces in that year, but an end also came to the ideas of honesty, beauty, progress and the possibility of improving humankind.

The German acts of violence and the – admittedly – often embroidered rumours about those crimes certainly served to foster a climate of mass hysteria: at one time no fewer than two million Belgians were fleeing the country. Following the fall of Antwerp, a million Belgians found themselves on Dutch territory. The other half of the refugees sought refuge in France and England. After the fall of Ostend, the number of Belgian refugees on English soil increased dramatically, although that number decreased somewhat when a substantial number of them left for France. So France was the only nation to see the number of Belgians within its borders increase up until 1918.

In France and England, the necessary humanitarian relief measures were immediately put into effect, as they also were in the Netherlands. This happened through official channels as well as through private initiatives. In England, aristocratic ladies fought to get the few wealthy refugees into their houses. In Chelsea there was even a residence for ‘First Class Belgians’. But it was also a privilege for the less well-to-do to have a Belgian in their home. A worker wrote to the War Refugee Committee: ‘I’ve got five of them myself, but I would still like to have another Belgian. However, there was of course the occasional disappointment. For example, there’s a letter from a Mrs Lovatt, who was complaining that the Belgian child she had taken in not only had lice, but – to top it all – might also be Jewish.

The war lasted much longer than everyone had expected, and now and then the well of charity did indeed dry up. Fortunately, the refugees themselves rolled up their sleeves and got to work. In France they could work in the agricultural sector, and in England in the war industry. There was a dire lack of munitions, and the first Belgian factories in England started up as early as 1914. In 1916, there was even a sizeable Belgian industrial zone in Birtley, with a Belgian town-within-a-town for the employees of the National Projectile Factory. Elisabethville was a sort of mini-Belgium: the streets had Belgian names, there was a chef du village and Belgian gendarmes (although they were replaced by British police following riots). The social and cultural life was in the hands of a Vlaamsch Verbond, a Cercle Walton and Les Amis de Luxembourg. This Belgian linguistic-social stratification was also apparent in another area: the management and assistants in the factory were mainly French-speaking, whereas the workers were almost exclusively from Flanders.

As the war progressed, a kind of weariness developed, and the initially charming idiosyncrasies of the Belgians suddenly became irritating characteristics. People began increasingly to perceive the refugees as a burden and xenophobia reared its ugly head. In the suburbs of London there were disturbances directed against the refugees in 1916; in 1917 a couple of Belgians in the Netherlands were beaten up because they were suspected of having eaten a loaf of bread that was reserved for Dutch people; and in 1916 the home for First Class Belgians in Chelsea closed its doors, because the Belgians’ occupancy of the house had become ‘very difficult. In this context it’s not surprising that Elisabethville was closed off from the outside world by an iron fence. As far as possible, the Belgians were kept away from the local population, one consequence of which was that the number of British-Belgian marriages remained remarkably low. In The Birtley Belgians Schlesinger and McMurtrie mention the fact that ‘the segregation of Belgian workers in their own village was a deliberate policy aimed at great productivity. But they also add: ‘the question arises how much was lost in terms of mutual understanding between the two communities. The author J.B. Priestley described Elisabethville in his English Journey (1934) as a noxious haunt of apartheid, ‘a nightmare place that seemed to have been constructed out of small army huts and unwanted dog kennels. Although Schlesinger and McMurtrie believe that this should be taken with a pinch of salt, as ‘the huts had flush toilets, this at a time when most locals had open sewers or middens.’ The nineteenth century really was over.

By Filip Matthijs
Translated by Laura Watkinson

First published in The Low Countries, 2005

John N. Home & Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. Yale University Press, 2001.
Larry Zuckerman, The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I. New York University Press, 2004.
Schlesinger & D. McMurtrie, The Birtley Belgians. (4th revised edition, ISBN I- 870268-07-5). Information: The History of Education Project, Durham University School of Education, Leazes Road, Durham DH I I TA, United Kingdom.