# After the war : the returns. Mixed emotions and bitterness

The return : mixed emotions and bitterness  - Private collection (RTBF collection) ©

The return : mixed emotions and bitterness - Private collection (RTBF collection) ©

After the signing of the first peace treaty and the announcement of the Allied victory over Germany, what happened next for the soldiers of the Great War? And more generally, what happened for certain categories of civilians affected by the war and displaced from their country? There is a tendency to forget, but there were several "returns". The return of which we think most often, of course, is that of the soldiers, who only just a few days before had still been fighting on the front and who can't take anymore, but there is also that of the interned people who waited for the end of the conflict in the Netherlands or Switzerland, that of prisoners held in Germany for the period of their captivity and, finally, that of the civilian refugees who had not yet returned home after spending the entire conflict in an Allied or neutral country.

And alongside that, there is yet another "return": that of the return to normal life in a liberated country, occupied for four years by foreign authorities. This is also a form of return that must not be forgotten. This "after-war" will be perceived and managed differently according to the different categories in which Belgian citizens belong. The relief of November 1918 gives way to periods and, especially, to complex personal situations that we will briefly consider in this article.

While many secrets remain within the families, modesty and trauma are not very free with their words in this early part of the 20th century, we can sometimes get an idea of what happened when the soldier returned home, through certain private archives, press archives or official documents, while recalling that in Belgium, only a minority of men went to war.

Part of the privacy of the returning soldier

The return of soldiers to their homes did not happen all at once. Not all soldiers returned home at the same time. Some had already gone home, as a result of injuries or illnesses suffered. Others will be finally demobilised in 1919 but will already be entitled to 10 days or so of leave in December 1918, in order to once again see their families whom they have not, in most cases, seen for four years.

A distinction must also be made between volunteer soldiers and career soldiers. Indeed, many will only initially have a brief period of leave for the year end holidays. While it is certain that the first moments back in the arms of loved ones were happy, with the happiness of the end of the war combining with that of finding a living relative, a feeling of sadness sometimes crept in if a sibling returned alone, or if the family had reason to be in mourning during the war. The biggest celebration is certainly for the long expected reunion of families in a land finally free of the German yoke.

One type of return was particularly moving: namely when a soldier discovers a child whom he had never known since he was at the front at the time of the child's birth. This is the case of Fernande Burniaux, born in March 1915, and three years old at the end of the war. She waits and has hopes and is all pleased to meet this father whom she does not know, but whose bravery and sacrifice everyone has praised as he spent so much time away from his loved ones. Relative to this subject of children born during the war, mostly in 1915, no quantified data exist, nor any in-depth study. But the simple mention of the example of a father returning from the front after years of war and discovering a child whom he has never known is enough to convey the emotions that must have filled the families even though, as one may well doubt, there were certainly families in this situation but with a father who never returned…

Witness of the sad aftermath of victory: Mr. Moreau, a soldier from the 6th of the Line hurried to his home in Ixelles immediately upon returning to the capital, all happy at seeing his wife, only to learn from a neighbour that she had died as the result of illness. Numb with sadness, an officer from the neighbourhood looked after him and put him in contact with the family that had looked after his children during his absence. Of course, the newspapers don't fail to relate the great grief of this brave young man, under the title " The sad return of a hero ". It's also naturally an opportunity for the press, now free, to keep on about German misdeeds, which not only destroyed the country, but separated people in love.

Other returns were synonymous with disappointments: discoveries of extramarital affairs and children born out of wedlock. Very quickly, voices began to be raised so that such an affront would not be compounded by the painful nature of a long separation. Veterans obtain special divorce provisions, but this will not prevent problems from occurring, sometimes even after a long period. Divorce was not an easy thing, nor a socially well-accepted act within society at the start of the 20th century. A soldier, wounded then taken to Germany as a prisoner, made the unpleasant discovery of his life's adulterous affair upon his return to his native Hainaut. He discovered not only that she had cheated on him during the war, but also that she had had two children from this union, respectively born in 1916 and 1918. The husband initially seemed to want to forgive and go back to "the old life", which he did for a good year before learning that the relationship had in fact never ended. This was too much, and in a fit of rage, he assaulted his wife's lover. He was arrested and convicted, but his status as a veteran and the circumstances of the drama were taken into account.

The change of legislation relative to divorce was perhaps necessary, but it couldn't prevent everything, after all. Once again, the press points out the "evil women" who dared not only to commit adultery, but even worse, to cheat on a soldier while the latter was defending the country against the invader. All of this left painful traces, and for the soldiers who had spent long months at the front, post-war daily life included nightmares, reminiscences and serious physical and moral consequences due to the war. There was also no support for the people around him. Each family was implicitly asked to look after its soldier, but to the best of our knowledge, nothing along these lines was communicated. Often, a veil of silence fell over everything that happened "over there". Sometimes out of modesty or a desire to protect loved ones. It's also not the type of topic that one can easily discuss with women. Also, many times, it's due to trauma and a fear of not knowing how to control emotions that swing from despair to fury. A leaden shroud falls over the former soldier's memories and recollections about the war. Veterans keep their thoughts about the war for places other than family: the associations for veterans and support groups. Perhaps they feel that only people who have experienced the same thing can even begin to understand…

The family of Louis Fabry indicates that he seldom spoke about "his" war, despite having recorded the slightest details in his precious diaries. The same can be said of Robert Descamps, a prisoner in Germany, who never speaks of his captivity other than through his diaries that he never showed to his family. As such, a kind of gulf opens up between what the entourage imagines happen to "its" soldier, what the soldier actually experienced, and what he keeps as memories. It's only later that the experiences of the war are sometimes shared, sometimes with grandchildren, and once again, questions can arise as to how the tail is told, as well as how the imagination may have reappropriated this story.

For widows and orphans of war, soldiers or civilians, there is obviously no direct story, and people live with the constant souvenir of the lost. The daughter of Mr. Clausse, a civilian victim from Ethe, spent her entire life asking people who may have known her father to tell her about his life. For some people, this becomes an obsession until their deaths.

The steps to obtain pensions and discounts occupy the days, but the deceased is always present. Of course, civilian victims will also be honoured, but in the hierarchy of heroes, they will occupy second place after the soldiers who fell in defence of their homeland.

Other returns were synonymous with disappointments: discoveries of extramarital affairs and children born out of wedlock. Very quickly, voices began to be raised so that such an affront would not be compounded by the painful nature of a long separation. Veterans obtain special divorce provisions, but this will not prevent problems from occurring, sometimes even after a long period. Divorce was not an easy thing, nor a socially well-accepted act within society at the start of the 20th century. A soldier, wounded then taken to Germany as a prisoner, made the unpleasant discovery of his life's adulterous affair upon his return to his native Hainaut. He discovered not only that she had cheated on him during the war, but also that she had had two children from this union, respectively born in 1916 and 1918. The husband initially seemed to want to forgive and go back to "the old life", which he did for a good year before learning that the relationship had in fact never ended. This was too much, and in a fit of rage, he assaulted his wife's lover. He was arrested and convicted, but his status as a veteran and the circumstances of the drama were taken into account.

The change of legislation relative to divorce was perhaps necessary, but it couldn't prevent everything, after all. Once again, the press points out the "evil women" who dared not only to commit adultery, but even worse, to cheat on a soldier while the latter was defending the country against the invader. All of this left painful traces, and for the soldiers who had spent long months at the front, post-war daily life included nightmares, reminiscences and serious physical and moral consequences due to the war. There was also no support for the people around him. Each family was implicitly asked to look after its soldier, but to the best of our knowledge, nothing along these lines was communicated. Often, a veil of silence fell over everything that happened "over there". Sometimes out of modesty or a desire to protect loved ones. It's also not the type of topic that one can easily discuss with women. Also, many times, it's due to trauma and a fear of not knowing how to control emotions that swing from despair to fury. A leaden shroud falls over the former soldier's memories and recollections about the war. Veterans keep their thoughts about the war for places other than family: the associations for veterans and support groups. Perhaps they feel that only people who have experienced the same thing can even begin to understand…

The family of Louis Fabry indicates that he seldom spoke about "his" war, despite having recorded the slightest details in his precious diaries. The same can be said of Robert Descamps, a prisoner in Germany, who never speaks of his captivity other than through his diaries that he never showed to his family. As such, a kind of gulf opens up between what the entourage imagines happen to "its" soldier, what the soldier actually experienced, and what he keeps as memories. It's only later that the experiences of the war are sometimes shared, sometimes with grandchildren, and once again, questions can arise as to how the tail is told, as well as how the imagination may have reappropriated this story.

For widows and orphans of war, soldiers or civilians, there is obviously no direct story, and people live with the constant souvenir of the lost. The daughter of Mr. Clausse, a civilian victim from Ethe, spent her entire life asking people who may have known her father to tell her about his life. For some people, this becomes an obsession until their deaths.

The steps to obtain pensions and discounts occupy the days, but the deceased is always present. Of course, civilian victims will also be honoured, but in the hierarchy of heroes, they will occupy second place after the soldiers who fell in defence of their homeland.

A "Guide for the invalid" as a kind of crutch: the wounded from the war and their families

For soldiers returning wounded from the front, a new life begins, filled with treatment, rehabilitation and revalidation. For many, this new life begins even before the end of the war. Invalids are also used for propaganda, as expressions of courage and sacrifice. For example, in the press, the story is told of a mutilated soldier in the Palais Royal aid station who had "expressed deep despair and despondency after the amputation of a leg, but who had been cared for and taught the profession of shoe repair, with the work re-instilling in him a desire for life and the hope of not living it alone". A committee is set up in order to find spouses for these brave men, who will love and support them despite their infirmity.

The Allied victory and the end of the occupation allow for more definitive organisation of the institutions providing aid to the war mutilated and invalids. In the various editions of the "Guide de l’invalide", published by the Belgian authorities, veterans can find all kinds of information that can help them to find treatment, as well as subsistence benefits and even a job. A table lists the reclassification possibilities according to the disabilities: for example, mute men can do office work and communicate in writing, if they have both of their hands, while amputees missing an arm or a leg can be assigned to the visitors' reception office in a government agency. This long list is indicative of the desire to reclassify as many as possible, in jobs that will be suitable for their physical and moral competencies. These official instructions will be disseminated in order to ensure the reclassification of the disabled, often in civil service positions created specially for them, thereby avoiding waves of discontent amongst the veterans who had given so much.

For other war invalids, professional retraining workshops are set up, with the intention of providing them with new skills that will then allow them to set out on their own. This reintegration into society will be experienced differently: some "make do", trying their best to find a place within a society that is happy to have been on the winning side but that is not at all certain of being able to accept the long-term consequences, while others will be unable to make a go of it "after", descending into madness or even irreparable harm.

For those approaching the end of their lives or invalids for whom reclassification will not apply, several establishment open their doors, supported by generous donors and by high society, primarily from Brussels: a home opened its doors in Uccle in 1937 and another home opened in Brussels, thereby allowing 10 or so couples to live out their final years together, but this institution remains an exception.

The administrative war

Once the country gets back underway, aid for the veterans is organised: to access it, the soldier or his heirs must fill out a file with considerable information such as the number of front line assignments, the time spent in the rear, injuries or illnesses contracted during wartime as well as any possible convictions received throughout the war. Soldiers do not always have all of this information, and this does not make things easier. A new "red tape" war then begins.

Mr. Minister,

I would respectfully request your kind assistance with regard to obtaining the battle certificate and the related battle cross. I believe that I am entitled to this honorary distinction. I earned eight chevrons while at the front. I spent almost the entire war at the front. For almost 30 months, I was assigned as an active stretcher bearer in a fighting unit."

These words were written by Jean de Groof, a teacher from the Brussels region, seeking the right to obtain a Battle cross, a decoration awarded to soldiers who spent long periods at the front. This is but one meagre example amongst thousands, asking for news of their unpaid pension, their decorations, etc. These letters follow on one another, and are all relatively similar: complaints about the slow treatment of their file by the administration, and a feeling of having given so much for the country while having to wait so long in order to obtain their rights.

In addition to these procedures, requests for decorations must also be followed up, accompanied by the soldier's often very succinct story and that of his activities during the war, especially if he was taken prisoner. He will then be asked for details of his capture, and for testimonials from other soldiers or superiors on-hand when it happened. These steps become tiring, and a burden on the daily lives of families: in the archives of the army personnel files, we find letters that sometimes sound very bitter. The recognition is national and patriotic, but individually, veterans can feel ignored or misunderstood. These former combatants gather in various associations and federations for veterans. Often by community or regiment, they organise different social or cultural activities that allow them to meet up with people who have had the same war experiences, but this only involves a minority: most of the veterans will not take part in this post-war "fraternization". There is also not a great deal of unity amongst these associations, with rivalries and interpersonal difficulties interfering, except when discussing the glory of the King of the Belgians Albert 1st, the Knight King, who dies in 1934. Everyone is then unanimous in their praise for their commander in chief, and the emotions are even stronger given the suddenness of his death, with the sovereign still enjoying a very positive image to this very day.

Remembering or forgetting?

The veterans of the Great War do not constitute a uniform social group, shared as they are between the ones who prefer to put some distance between the events of 1914-1918 and their lives thereafter, and the people who choose to get involved in associations for veterans and patriots. The former combatants who get involved in the veterans' associations take part in all of the post-war commemorations. For some of these ex-soldiers, their entire existence revolves around their status as a veteran. At least, this is the image that we have of them, and it's quite a burden, but they consider it a duty, all the more so for the ones who, in addition to their status, have infirmities that indelibly mark them as veterans throughout their social lives. It's a way for them to pay homage to their comrades and to the homeland, but it's also a moment of shared communion for soldiers – meeting up with their comrades from the regiment – and for the community (town, parish…) when they gather around the families of the lost in order to remember the occupation that is still so fresh in their memories. But gradually, the general interest during the post-war years begins to fade. Time does its work, and by the end of the 1920s, there is already a "declining interest" in the memories of the war. Over and above the question of the amnesty, that shocked certain veterans who came out in force to express their disapproval, certain others express a total rejection of "things military", and even a fervent anti-military sentiment.

In addition, the consequences of the war take their toll, and many die from the sequels of their disability or the diseases caught in the trenches. Later, another war will bring its fresh share of pain and victims, even as the victims of the Great War gradually fade into the background. Other than a handful of diehards, these moments of collective recollection will gradually begin to be forgotten, with no more of the great crowds seen immediately after the war.

The paths of the combatants, as varied as they were, will be punctuated by personal, administrative and ideological pitfalls, leaving some with a profound sense of resentment until the end of their days.

The paths of the combatants, as varied as they were, will be punctuated by personal, administrative and ideological pitfalls, leaving some with a profound sense of resentment until the end of their days.

The return of the prisoners

" My child didn't recognise me. That night, I cried all night "

These anonymous words by a father describing his first night back home in January 1915 after six months of captivity in Germany, are indicative of the feelings experienced by the men after their return home. They speak of a certain feeling of dispossession with regard to parental authority, and of a kind of decompensation after six long months of imprisonment. Earlier in the day, it was another child from the family who had welcomed him with screams of "Daddy, daddy", while hugging him so hard that "everyone who saw us cried as much as we did”. Between these two children, time leads the youngest children to forget. As can be imagined, this account is neither unique nor transposable to all of the personal experiences of these fathers who had gone off to war, but is nevertheless indicative of the emotions filling these men upon their return to their loved ones.

Things don't go so well for the soldier-prisoners returning to Belgium after the armistice: of course, they have their status as victims of the Germans, but no one is there to cheer for them. This effect is all the stronger since their return is piecemeal at best.

Even their arrival in Belgium is quite astonishing. One group arriving near the rue de Louvain is left on its own. It includes men who are ill, or very weak. One of them, a lawyer in better physical condition than the others, turns to a police station in order to obtain asylum for himself and his companions. This gloomy scene, related by the press at the time, nevertheless happens at the same time as the grand procession through the streets of Brussels! What a contrast with the triumphant welcome given to the troops next to whom these same prisoners had once fought!

The civilian population that provided aid to the army (conveying of correspondence or persons) will receive little or no recognition after the war. Only exception: the executed civilians who will join the soldiers in the pantheon of war heroes.

Not all soldiers returned home at the same time. A distinction must also be made between volunteers, demobilised in the early 1919, and career soldiers.

The return of the refugees

With the signing of the peace agreements, the foreign powers express their desire to see the Belgian nationals return to their country. A vast census campaign is then organised in the main countries in question (France, Great Britain, Netherlands) in order to organise the return as well as possible, without being confronted by significant and uncontrolled population movements. For these persons who had spent the four years of the war in a foreign country, the return will be synonymous with incomprehension. They will be criticized for not having experienced the same war as the others. In addition, quite often, their homes are no longer functional, and their property has been lost. The urgent construction of accommodations of any kind is then needed, but proves to be slow and inconvenient, so the barracks used to accommodate Belgian families are brought from the Netherlands.

Certain refugees will not return home, preferring to stay in their host country, primarily France, given the lack of a language barrier. After the war, there will also be significant immigration to the United States, the land of plenty, far from European turmoil.

For these persons who had spent the four years of the war in a foreign country, the return will be synonymous with incomprehension.

The reconstruction

For the reconstruction of buildings, the Albert 1st Fund is set up as of 1915. Its board of directors, comprising sponsors and elites from the country, reflects on the best way to rebuild the devastated regions and, especially, to provide the population with decent housing. A decision is made for temporary structures made of interchangeable wooden panels installed on a base of bricks, with two possibilities: a small house measuring 6 metres by 6, or one with an extra room, measuring 9 metres by 6. These small prefabricated homes will therefore be installed primarily in Western Flanders, providing 100,000 people with shelter after the war. Barracks will also be installed in the cities that experienced the greatest damage in Wallonia, notably in Visé.Some of these barracks were directly imported from the Belgian refugee villages built next to the internment camps in the Netherlands, and in the same spirit, some thought is given to creating nearby schools, common rooms and religious venues.

The Office of devastated regions will draft an inventory of the war damages, primarily damages caused to buildings due to destruction and fires, and prepare a very detailed classification by community of all of the properties. The Albert 1st Fund will be dissolved in the 1930s but, more generally, the reconstruction process will take years and will be the subject of strident polemics due, amongst other things, to the purposes for which funds are allocated, with each elected official wanting his or her electoral riding to take priority.

The material damages from four years of war, however enormous, cannot compare with the psychological traces left by the fact of having lost everything.

Emotional or difficult, the return of the men will bring to light logistical or moral problems but, at the time of the armistice, happiness predominates. The happiness of returning to loved ones, and of finally being free in one's own country. The problems will arise thereafter: they will be private or institutional, but will not prevent the homage of a nation to these years of war and to its fallen sons, even though this homage loses some of its glamour with the Second World War and the effects of time.

Sources Click to view the sources

Funds and Collections : 

  • Collections of the Army Museum (MRA) documentation centre
  • Collections of the Royal Library of Belgium
  • Collection of periodicals of the Royal Library of Belgium
  • Office of devastated regions, Collections of the General Archives of the Kingdom
  • Collections of Archives of the City of Brussels

Publications : 

  • Audoin-Rouzeau,S. et Prochasson C., Sortir de la grande guerre. Le monde et l'après 1918, Paris, Tallandier, 2008
  • Capdevila, L., "L'identité masculine et les fatigues de guerre 1914-1945" in Vingtième siècle, 2002, n° 75, Presses de Sciences Po. Consulted online in March, April and May 2014
  • Castiaux A. , Temmerman, Guide de l'Invalide. Encyclopédie des questions intéressants les mutilés,invalides de guerre,veuves,ayants droits et anciens combattants belges, 2 vol., Brussels, 1933 (republication)
  • Claisse, St., La mémoire de la guerre 1914-1918 à travers les monuments aux morts des communes d'Etalle, Habay, Léglise et Tintigny, Brussels, General Archives of the Kingdom, 2002
  • Colignon, A. Les anciens combattants en Belgique francophone, 1918-1940, Liège, 1984.
  • Joset, C., Le fonds du Roi Albert : Une grande oeuvre de guerre belge, Brussels, Ed. "Chez nous", 1925 (2nd edition)
  • Prost, A. , Les anciens combattants et la société française 1914-1939,  Presses Sciences Po, 1977
  • Van Ypersele L. (dir), Questions d'histoire contemporaine : conflits,mémoires et identités, PUF, 2006

Internet sites : 

  • Revenir de 14-18. Expériences intimes et transformations institutionnelles, Hervé Guillemain et Stéphane Tison consulted at http://www.laviedesidees.fr, consulted in April 2014. 

On the King Albert 1st Fund:

  • http://users.skynet.be/bk376056/04-MEMOIRE/07-fonds-albert.htm

consulted in April 2014

 

 

 

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