Some time ago, I happened to buy some Belgian medals, seduced by their design. I kept them in a drawer for a while. Now, in a year full of commemorations —don’t miss the museum “In Flanders Fields” —, on watching these medals, I have learned a lot about the struggles of Belgium from WWI to WWII.
In 1915, a century ago, the part of Belgium that was not a battlefield was suffering under German occupation. Ypres became a symbol of the atrocities of the war after continued attacks and the use of poison gas for the first time in history in April 1915. There the Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae composed his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” in May 1915. Belgians relied on the heroic figure of their king Albert I, “the knight-king”, and queen Elisabeth to overcome the nightmare.
In 1935, bad omens did not prevent Brussels from enjoying its International Exhibition. One year before, Leolpold III had succeeded his father Albert I, who had died in a climbing accident near Namur. On August 29th the beloved queen Astrid died in a car accident while Leopold was at the wheel of their Bugatti. Leopold was never going to be loved like his father by his people, who lamented the loss of Astrid and regretted the marriage to Lilian Baels under occupation during the WWII.
In 1939, Belgium was irredeemably heading to another German invasion. The Liege International Exhibition of that year was intended to celebrate the new Albert channel, which would connect this industrial centre with the port of Antwerp while offering a defensive line against the German army. The exhibition ended abruptly when WWII broke out in September. The channel failed to stop the German troops. The nightmare of 1915 had not finished yet.
Lest we forget:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Image credits © Ruskin in Brussels