Treurend Ouderpaar.

Since 1956 Grieving Parents by Käthe Kollwitz has stood in the German war cemetery in Vladslo, a sub-district of Diksmuide |, photo Hugo Maertens

Power & Resistance
1914 - 1918
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Grieving Parents by Käthe Kollwitz

The First World War

Grieving Parents by Käthe Kollwitz in the German war cemetery in Vladslo near Diksmuide gives striking expression to the universal grief of the First World War. The German artist lost her youngest son Peter at the beginning of the conflict. She expressed her grief with two figures: a grieving mother and father.

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Käthe Kollwitz designed the work as a grave monument for her 18-year-old son Peter who was killed during the battle of the Yser. She completed the pair of statues between 1927 and 1932. It was a tribute to all young victims of war.

Never before had so much blood flowed on Belgian soil as during the First World War. Of the millions of dead worldwide approximately 600,000 died in the Westhoek in Flanders. They came from all corners of the world and all left grieving loved ones behind.

In 2023 UNESCO recognised the Germany cemetery in Vladslo as a world heritage site, together with 138 cemeteries and locations in Flanders, Wallonia and France associated with the First World War.

Lakenhal Ieper.

Westhoek verbeeldt, private collection

The Cloth Hall in Ypres before and after its destruction during the First World War.

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The First World War

When the First World War began on 28 July 1914, Belgium was a neutral country. It did not belong to one of the two great power blocs confronting each other: the Central Powers (the German Empire and Austria-Hungary) and the Entente (France, Great Britain and Russia). That neutrality did not stop the German army from invading Belgium on 4 August 1914. The Belgian army fought back, with the support of the French and British empires.

The German advance ground to a halt at the end of October 1914 on the Yser. An extensive trench front line stretched from the coast in Nieuwpoort through Northern France as far as Switzerland. Only a small corner of Belgium, in West-Flanders beyond the Yser, remained free. The Belgian army, with King Albert I as its commander had its headquarters in Veurne. The government departed for France.

The greater part of the country was occupied by the German army. The occupation was hard. Countless decrees restricted the life of the population. The most hated measure was compulsory labour from 1916 onwards: over 180,000 Belgians had to work for the German war effort.

Military innovations such as poison gas, tanks and planes ensured an unprecedented slaughter. Only when the United States of America actively engaged in the war in Western Europe, was there any movement in the front line. The German army was forced back. On 11 November 1918 the warring parties signed an armistice. Belgium mourned over 40,000 military and 23,000 civilian deaths, a great deal of its industrial infrastructure had been destroyed and numerous towns and villages had been laid waste.

Focal points

Vluchtelingen Wereldoorlog I

Alamy Stock Photo, Colin Waters

Belgians fleeing the German invasion in 1914.




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The war triggered a great movement of peoples. An estimated one third of the then 7.6 million Belgians fled from the advancing German troops. Many were trying to avoid the bombardments, but also the violence and the atrocities. The German army murdered over five thousand civilians during revenge actions and set whole towns on fire, such as Dinant, Leuven, Aarschot and Dendermonde.

Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to France, Great Britain and the neutral Netherlands. After the front had stabilised, most returned. Nevertheless, no less than 600,000 Belgians were to spend the whole war abroad. In their guest countries they were given humanitarian help and Belgian camps sprang up. In the British and American press Belgium was treated with much sympathy as ‘Poor Little Belgium’.

On both sides of the front line whole villages and towns were regularly evacuated. The inhabitants of Roeselare were forced to leave their town in 1917 and found shelter in Duffel, Lier and Herentals. Those people, like Belgians abroad, could often only return home after the ceasefire of 11 November 1918 – assuming that home was still there. In the Westhoek alone 65,000 dwellings had been destroyed. For countless families the misery of the war lasted for years after 1918.

Last Post

Ypres, Last Post Association

Every evening at eight o’clock since 1928 the trumpeters of the Last Post Association have played The Last Post at the Menen (Menin) Gate in Ypres. Only during the Second War could the ceremony not take place because of a ban by the German authorities. The photo shows the ceremony in 1929.

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Commemorating the War

The First World War was fought out on almost all continents. In Belgium the Westhoek had a particularly hard time of it. The German army confronted Belgians, French and British there for four years.

France and Great Britain drafted in many troops from their colonies to fight on the European Western front. In the years 1914-1918 the West-Flemings got to know people from Morocco and Algeria, British India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Belgium did not use any soldiers from its African colony, apart from 32 Congolese. Thousands of black soldiers, though, did take part in the Belgian campaign in East Africa.

People from every corner of the world found their last resting place in the Westhoek. Most were given a grave in one of the numerous military cemeteries which are so characteristic of this region. Monuments were built to commemorate the dead and missing. The best known is perhaps the Menin Gate in Ypres with the names of almost 55,000 missing soldiers from the British Empire. The Westhoek became a place of pilgrimage for veterans and family members of soldiers who had died. Even today the First World is omnipresent in the area and in many countries the victims are remembered with the poppy from ‘Flanders Fields’the expression became known worldwide through the 1915 poem by the Canadian poet and medical officer John McCrae: In Flanders Fields the poppies blow… as a symbol.

Regionaal Archief Tilburg

From spring 1915, along the whole 450 km length of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, the German occupying forces erected a triple barbed-wire barrier. The middle barrier had a deadly current of 2,000 volts running through it. Over 1,200 people died on this ‘death wire’: war volunteers, refugees, letter-carriers and smugglers, people-smugglers, members of the resistance and deserters. This photo shows the barrier north of Wortel-Kolonie (Hoogstraten) in 1917.

Belgenmonument Amersfoort.
Wikimedia Commons, Dick Bos

An estimated one million Belgians fled to the Netherlands at the beginning of the war. Even before the war was over Belgians built the Belgian Monument in Amersfoort in gratitude for the hospitality enjoyed. It is the largest monument in the Netherlands.

Spahis Veurne.
Westhoek verbeeldt, private collection

Inhabitants of Veurne watch a parade of Spahis: French light-cavalry recruited in North Africa (present-day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), autumn 1914.

KU Leuven, University Archives, Archief en Museum van het Vlaams Studentenleven

Cardinal Désiré Mercier (1851-1926) accompanies the Japanese crown prince Hirohito (1901-1981) on a visit to the destroyed university library of Leuven, 1921.

Ypres, In Flanders Fields Museum

Decorated flour bag of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1915. The flour bag is a symbol of the international food aid that Belgium received during the war, making it the first great international food aid campaign in the world.

Chinese labour corps lage resolutie.
Michaël Depestele

The grave of Hsu Tien Hsig a Chinese worker at the front, in Reninghelst New Military Cemetery (Poperinge).

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