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The electrified frontier: the border fence between Belgium and the...

The border region between occupied Belgium and the neutral Netherlands soon became a smuggling paradise. Traffic in letters, military information and foodstuffs was rife. Young men who wanted to join the Belgian army also crossed the border. From the spring of 1915, the German troops decided to call a halt to this. They constructed a barbed wire ...

Overstepping the mark: the border with the Netherlands

From the beginning of the war, the border with the neutral Netherlands had bustled with activity. Almost immediately after the occupation, the German authorities sealed off the border to the Netherlands with barbed wire. The Germans wanted to prevent Belgian war volunteers from reaching the front via the Netherlands, and at the same time to call a ...

Four years a refugee

The First World War created a gigantic stream of refugees. At least 500,000 Belgian citizens, more than 7% of the Belgian population, spent four long war years abroad.    Driven out by horror stories and the advancing German army, millions of Belgians fled their town or village. Many ultimately reached the borders with The ...

Tourism in time of war

Immediately before The First World War, a democratisation of tourism took place. Tourism was no longer only reserved for the very wealthiest; the well-off middle class could also afford a trip every now and then too. At the outbreak of the war, tourism in occupied Belgium initially fell completely still. Conveyances such as cars and bicycles were ...

A deadly cloud: the first big gas attack in Belgium

On 22 April 1915, French and British troops were surprised by a yellow cloud drifting towards their lines between Steenstrate and Langemark. When the cloud reached the soldiers, they suffered violent and painful coughing fits and burning eyes. This first large-scale gas attack using deadly gas sent a wave of panic through the soldiers. On that ...

A Pint Brewed from Treacle and Pigeon Feed

The First World War had a devastating impact on most economic activities in Belgium. The breweries in the unoccupied part of the country behind the front formed an exception, however – they flourished, thanks to an explosive population growth in the region during the war years. This growth consisted of soldiers of various nationalities ...

Football in times of war: the Front Wanderers

Football was a popular pastime behind the front line. Soldiers would play a game themselves or watch matches played by former and current football stars serving in the ranks at the time. Popular football clubs of the past, such as Royal Antwerp FC and Beerschot VAC, regrouped in the unoccupied parts of Belgium, and teams from different regiments ...

Soldier newspapers: the last link with the home front?

For most of the foreign soldiers at the Western Front, keeping in touch with friends and family was relatively easy. They wrote and received letters, and some used their leave of absence to make quick visits home. Most Belgian soldiers did not have those options, as they were cut off from their loved ones in occupied Belgium by the front line. For ...

Laughing at misery

‘Always look on the bright side of life’, the crucified messiah Brian and his fellow-sufferers sing in the final scene of Monty Python's notorious film, ‘Life of Brian’. Brian and his companions aren't the only ones to laugh about their own fate. Gallows humour is a widespread phenomenon, especially in times of war. ...

Education

According to Belgian law, every child was required to attend school between the ages of six and twelve. In the first months of the school year 1914/1915, however, this proved very difficult. Mobilisation had thinned out the teaching staff and many school buildings were occupied by refugees or Allied or German soldiers. The best the pupils could ...

New Year's greetings and gunshots

After the spontaneous Christmas truce of December 1914, army command was not eager for any new fraternization between the contesting parties. On New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, rifle shots rang out and the guns pounded as usual. Yet, some soldiers still tried to give the passing of the first year at the front a festive character. ...

A Christmas spirit with a dark side

The first Christmas at the front, in 1914, passed in a remarkable atmosphere. At the start of hostilities, the soldiers had hoped for a short war. They had expected to be home long before Christmas and were surprised to find themselves still in the trenches. This is why there was little will to fight amongst many of the soldiers. This attitude was ...

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