# Helping the country and helping yourself: acts of resistance during the First World War

Postcard illustrating the patriotic efforts of certain people, that constitutes a kind of passive resistance  - Private collection, Mr. Bertholot ©

Postcard illustrating the patriotic efforts of certain people, that constitutes a kind of passive resistance - Private collection, Mr. Bertholot ©

The maquis, Jean Moulin, the attacks, the Righteous amongst the nations : for the vast majority of the population, the term "resistance" directly refers to the Second World War. While certain acts of resistance in 1914-1918 were repeated some 30 years later, a large number of these were of very different kinds. There is no reference to armed resistance, for example. During the First World War, Belgium's aspect as a combatant, one that did not capitulate, the neutrality and integrity of the Netherlands, that remained neutral during the four years of war, as well as a particularly dissimilar political dimension, have a very significant impact on the resistance and its actions. Indeed, while Belgium had to abandon its status as a neutral country during the German attack in order to join the French-Russian-English alliance, its neighbour the Netherlands, while never attacked, will play a very special role. The Netherlands will be the territory for the passage, most often illegal, of men toward the front, and of merchandise or letters going to occupied Belgium. The Dutch army will remain very indulgent towards such traffic and towards all of the belligerents, with many German deserters also taking refuge there.

The resistance will therefore assume a variety of different shapes.

On the one hand, civilians organise themselves in order to deal with the restrictions by means of a domestic and then international black market, with channels for importing prohibited or rare products. The long border with the Netherlands will serve as the playing field for smugglers of all types. They don't limit themselves to food, some soon specialise in the transportation of letters or people towards the front or Allied countries. Patriotism also means refusing to work for the occupier, which means a good number of men being imprisoned in Germany.

One must obviously not forget the "standardbearers" who set the example by their resistance to the directives of the occupiers, such as Adolphe Max, burgomaster of Brussels, or Cardinal Mercier, the primate of the Belgian church, to mention only two.

Finally, major organisations with significant numbers of activists deserve special note, such as the underground press (for example the Libre Belgique), and organisations devoted to spying on the German rear lines for the benefit of the Allies.

The beginning

The set-up of the General Government in Belgium, i.e. the occupier's governing body, is carried out within the initial weeks of September 1914. It will include a central government in Brussels, and decentralised governors in the provinces, i.e. the various Kommandantur. At the same time, the Germans organise posts and patrols along the Dutch border. The men assigned to do them have very precise orders and must follow them rigorously, under pain of severe punishment. A "Halt" from the guards will be followed by a warning shot into the air if the order is not obeyed, with continued non-compliance resulting in a more targeted shot.

At the start of the war, it is primarily English or French soldiers who find themselves separated from their units by the rapid advance of the Germans, whom smugglers will help to avoid watchtowers and spotlights. The smugglers are primarily from amongst the people living near the border, and who are familiar with the terrain. Coming from all popular classes, they're motivated by a patriotic aspect but also by finances, with indeed very few of the passages across the board not requiring some financial participation (notably to buy off the guards). As the war progresses, some smugglers specialise, with women focusing more on the smuggling of letters, and others becoming masters in the art of smuggling foodstuffs or people. With their help, nearly 200 soldiers will be saved from prisoner of war camps. The Belgians don't try to get across the border (except for people living on the border, such as some of the inhabitants of Visé who flee the fighting and the city's destruction). Passages across the border only start in December 1914 with the call from King Albert 1st for Belgians of military age to cross the border and join the army on the Yser. A kind of society gradually takes shape between smugglers, in other to help these young people to get across the border. These smugglers also handle contraband. The border is their living, and they transport letters, foodstuffs and prohibited newspapers in both directions. Some of them are arrested, judged by field tribunals and sentenced to forced labour in Germany. Others will lose their lives, killed at the border.

While certain acts of resistance in 1914-1918 were repeated some 30 years later, a large number of these were of very different kinds.

The German response

To stymie the plans of increasingly inventive smugglers, the Germans incessantly improve the obstacles blocking their way. Starting in October 1914, civilians are required to always carry an identification card when moving around. Patrols on horseback are ordered to shoot anyone attempting to force their way through, and they represent a significant obstacle to any departure. Crossing points are set up, but the guards search the travellers and conscientiously verify the identity papers. Despite these precautions, crossing the border fraudulently continues to be easy, a situation that forces the Germans to strengthen their measures. The emigration of families does not represent a threat in the eyes of the occupier, unlike the 30,000 men still present on Belgian soil. Indeed, they are capable of carrying weapons in the trenches alongside the King of the Belgians, and to provide the Allies with military information on German movements and positions. After many attempts to block this phenomenon, and having suffered as many setbacks, the Germans resolve to install an electrified fence in the spring of 1915.

Construction is no simple matter, as the border zone is subject to bad weather and damp soil. Installing a very high voltage line over a distance of more than 200 km represents a highly innovative project at a time when few people have recourse to electricity. The installation takes time, and the final phase is begun in mid-1917. The prohibited zone starts 300 m from the border, marked by large panels that warn of the danger of death, in three different languages. The area is dotted with watchtowers and spotlights, every 1 to 4 km. The next obstacle is several rows of barbed wire before reaching the fence itself, that consists of three electrified wires, installed at a height ranging from 1.5 m to 2 m. In certain locations, this no man's land is also mined. The patrols are ordered to fire on anyone found within 100 m of the fence, in the intermediate zone.

Despite this seemingly impenetrable barrier, there are still many candidates and the smugglers who find a way make a lot of money. As such, some people don't hesitate to use insulated tools to cut the electrified wires. This method is also not without risks: certain smugglers or customers are killed by electrocution. Also, any break in a wire triggers alarms that alert the guards.

Certain smugglers prefer to watch the habits of the guards and their relief, in order to take advantage of moments of weakness. Until the end of the war, however, the best method for getting across the border is simply to bribe the guards. Smugglers using this method can demand much higher rates, up to 1000 marks, versus 20 or so for an "ordinary" smuggler. The use of brute force was another possibility: falling on the guard stations preferably by night, and forcing them to open a passage. This solution is also not easy and, when on 13 September 1918, 350 lightly armed men attempted to force a passage through the border, 200 soldiers responded and managed to shoot a few of the attackers, causing the rest to flee.

By November 1918, 25,000 Belgians had crossed the border. 500 people were killed doing so, civilians and Germans, whether deserters or soldiers.

Indeed, they are capable of carrying weapons in the trenches alongside the King of the Belgians, and to provide the Allies with military information on German movements and positions.

A major operation

Despite all of these dangers, a major attempt is made on 4 January 1917, surely the most spectacular of all. The Germans describe it in these terms: "Despite the rain, the frost and snow, and thanks to the flooding […], a boat started away from the Liège railway bridge at 1:30 AM. The patrol on the bridge sees it and opens fire, which alerts the other patrols on the banks of the Meuse. All of the patrols leading to the border group themselves around the river and fire in the same direction. The boat collides with the German boat monitoring the Meuse, it is damaged on the right side but does not stop. In turn, the machine guns placed in front of the border open fire. Finally, the last patrols at Lixhe and Nivelles attempt to stop it before it enters Dutch territory. Shots were apparently also fired from the boat.".

After discussions with the Dutch, the Germans report that 91 Belgians had crossed the border that night, with only one being wounded. Belgian sources offer an appreciably different version. They place the departure time at midnight and relate an initial encounter with the German boat before the patrol on the bridge. Also, this same German boat doesn't collide with the tugboat used by the fugitives, but rather with an island, at which point it capsizes. One historic fact is not reported by the Germans, but indeed by the Belgians: the tugboat Atlas V, target of the machine guns and patrols, forced its way through by charging directly at the pontoon bridge on which the Germans were located, thereby destroying lights, machine guns and machine gunners. The Belgian sources also indicate that the Atlas V sounded its siren as a sign of victory after this combat. Finally, they mention 107 passengers who got off at Eysden, at the end of this trip. A third version gives the "certain" number of 103. In this version, the German boat, described as a small boat, is literally cut in half by the tugboat that then destroys the wooden pontoon bridge where the Germans had been posted.

Both would be discovered and shot by the Germans.

The great men

Alongside these activities, an "interior" resistance also begins. Many men and women courageously adopt a position, openly or not, against the occupation regime. Some will therefore directly oppose the Germans. Among them are two important figures for the patriotic resistance: the burgomaster of Brussels Adolphe Max and Cardinal Mercier.

By writing the "Patriotism and endurance" letter for Christmas 1914, a letter that will be read in a great number of churches on 1 January 1915, Cardinal Mercier adopts a clear opposition to the occupation regime. This letter, that calls on the Belgian people to support its army, to not give into defeatism and to maintain the honour of the homeland, is a direct attack on Germany: "The other powers had committed to respecting and protecting Belgian neutrality: Germany violated its oath, England has remained true. These are the facts". His position as Cardinal means that he will not be taken off to Germany and will remain in position, defying the occupying authority throughout the war, notably by opposing the deportation of unemployed Belgian people.

Burgomaster A. Max, for his part, is remembered as the very image of political resistance. In 1914, he refused to apply certain German decisions, and to allow his administration to fall under their total control. He had less "luck" than Cardinal Mercier, and is imprisoned in Germany from 1914 until November 1918.

Finally, there are all the people who resisted in secret. With omnipresent censorship in Belgium, the population doesn't know where to look for honest news of the national and international situation. It is against this backdrop that an extensive series of underground newspapers are published, the most popular of which is certainly Libre Belgique. Founded by a small group of men in 1915, the newspaper's aim is to provide the Belgian population with information from "outside" and major patriotic articles. Delivered directly from hand-to-hand, nearly 600 people will participate in its distribution from February 1915 until November 1918. Some people are arrested and shot, or imprisoned in perpetuity by the occupier.

The other component of the clandestine resistance will be the set-up of information "services". These services, generally consisting of some 20 people, include more than 200 small entities, independent or not. At the start of the war, most work for the Belgian and French information services, but will be increasingly "recruited" by the English SIS, the former name of the English Secret Service, i.e. MI6. The best known of these information services, and certainly one of the most important, is the Dame Blanche network. With more than 1500 agents covering Belgium and Northern France, this service collected information on German troop movements for the last two years of the war, for the benefit of the English.

In conclusion, one must not forget two of the best-known women who participated in this active resistance in our country: Edith Cavell, a British citizen and member of the Secret Intelligence Service, a nurse in Belgium who, with the help of her "Yorc" network, will organise the escape of hundreds of allied soldiers to the Netherlands, or Gabrielle Petit, who became famous by collecting information on German movements. Both would be discovered and shot by the Germans.