BRUSSELS, Nov 8 – Belgium will mark the centenary of World War I proud of its resistance to invading German troops in August 1914 but also haunted by the bloody disasters which followed.
The “Great War”, the “War to End All Wars” ravaged Belgium but rallied national sentiment in its divided Flemish and French halves around King Albert I who refused to surrender.
It is this story the country will celebrate even if doing so now highlights some of the differences the war covered over, at least for a time.
The focus is on “Flanders Fields”, the flat muddy killing ground of many wars but none to rival World War I, wedged between the North Sea and the French border.
The local Flemish authorities there began preparations six years ago, without waiting for their French-speaking compatriots in the south, where the medieval town of Ypres is the centrepiece.
Ypres is a well-established starting point for tourists coming from all corners of the world to see the surrounding battlefields and the countless monuments to the hundreds of thousands who died.
It was also the key defensive point where desperate British and French forces finally combined with the remains of the Belgian army to halt the Germans’ northernmost advance in October and November 1914.
They were soon joined by troops from their colonies — from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, in North Africa and the Far East, for whom the war became a rite of passage to their own nationhood.
Ypres, poison gas, modern warfare
Ypres is another marker too — it was here that German forces led the world into a new, even more horrific era with the use of chlorine gas in 1915 in an effort to break the deadlock of the trenches.
In 1917, they deployed mustard gas, which blinded and poisoned thousands and became known as “Yperite”, but with both sides using such weapons, no advantage was gained by either.
On Monday, Armistice Day marking the November 11, 1918 end of the war, the city welcomes Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to lead a ceremony at the Menin Gate.
The Menin Gate memorial carries engraved on its walls the names of the more than 50,000 British Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. It is built on one of the roads leaving the city towards the front line.
For Belgium, a key date in Ypres comes next year on October 24, the day 100 years earlier when Belgian forces flooded the surrounding area to block German troops and give the allies just enough time to regroup.
In August 1914, Belgium was neutral but German war plans for a quick victory on the Western Front required a thrust into France across its territory, which in turn prompted Britain to enter what became the first truly global conflict.
After a heroic defence around the eastern city of Liege, the army fell steadily backwards towards the French border to make a last stand with King Albert I who was determined to remain in Belgium and preserve its identity at all costs.
For Belgium, the centenary ceremonies therefore begin on August 4 next year in Liege just as Britain marks its entry into the war at Mons, in the southwest.
It was in Mons that the first British soldier was killed — the first of some 800,000 by the end of the conflict — and where one of the last died.
Belgian casualties came to some 59,000 while France lost 1.4 million and Germany more than 2.0 million.
Belgium plans, like many of the allied countries, to hold ceremonies through to November 11, 2018 to mark key points leading up to the Armistice.
With the focus on Flanders, however, some in Belgium’s French-speaking community complain that experiences in the rest of the country — occupied by Germany for the war — are not getting the attention they deserve.
For the Flemish, some feel it is they who bore the brunt of the fighting in Flanders, driving a sense of community and a separate identity which remain very live issues today.