Birth, marriages and deaths are daily life events that punctuate the lives of our families, but that also shape them. But how were these events, such intrinsic parts of our daily lives, experienced by our grandparents and great-grandparents during the first worldwide conflict? How were people born, how did they get married? With its great presence in wartime, how was death managed, and how was it represented? This article is intended to introduce you to this important aspect.
In the early 20th century, a birth was a private event that happened at home. Hospitals were reserved for single women, who were very poor and often on the margins of society. Of course, it was out of the question for a man to be present during childbirth. A midwife would assist the future mother and child, and provide initial care.
As part of the rising tide of the professionalization of healthcare, an association of obstetricians was created in Brabant province in 1913, but these were very initial steps. There was still no mention of pediatrics in hospitals, and even less of neonatalogy. In good families, a birth announcement was considered to be appropriate. This tradition lasted into the war, even though it could happen that, in the absence of means or capacity, the birth would be announced by sending a letter or postcard, often with some delay. At the front, Fernand Bruniaux would learn that he is the happy father of young Fernande well after her birth…
Though births naturally continue to occur, with the modern and widespread use of contraception still being in the distant future, people don't have children during wartime. It isn't the right moment. Every effort must be devoted to the homeland, and it isn't during a time of shortages that an extra mouth to feed would be welcome, especially in the most disadvantaged households. Nevertheless, when the child arrives, he or she is often considered as a sign of hope, a symbol of coming peace, one to be protected at any cost.
A statistical study would take this analysis further, but it would seem that the first name given to the newborn also reflects this patriotism: Albert and Elisabeth (and variants) are the most popular choices, along with allegories that refer to the conflict: Victoire or the first name of a lost loved one. On the contrary, there is also a decline of first names with a Germanic sound.
After the war, voices are heard in favour of repopulating the country. The press proclaims: "The birthrate must be increased".
In the ranks of the Belgian parliament, debates rage between people who consider that a high birth rate policy must be encouraged at any price, and others who feel that fewer children would be better so as to provide them with the best possible care. The former will accuse the latter of being weak, and even of leaving the door open to a return by the enemy. However, even though the number of births declined from 156,389 in 1914, considering the entire year though the war only began in August, to 99,360 two years later, one cannot really speak of a demographic "hole" in the number of people living in Belgium.
In the early 20th century, a birth was a private event that happened at home.
For certain circles, marriage was primarily a way of uniting two families, more than two individuals. The future bride had to obtain authorisation to marry, and the future husband had to ask the father of his intended for her hand. When war breaks out, the Belgian population has no idea that it will last for four years, so there is no great need to hurry into marriages, all the more since most men remain in Belgium.
Despite this, certain marriages are postponed with the sometimes dramatic consequence of the fiancé never returning, but the proportions of this are much less significant than in France. However, once the war is truly underway for the long term, the number of marriages declines, though the war does not completely prevent them. For soldiers, the Belgian government in exile takes the necessary measures in order to allow the betrothed couple to wed.
A decision from the War ministry, located in Le Havre, authorises soldiers to marry while on leave by visiting Belgian consulates or foreign city halls, but recalls that it is imperative to be in possession of all documents that will serve to authenticate one's identity, as well as authorisation from one's superior officer. However, even when leave is granted, it's never for long enough. The implementation of these measures is quite difficult.
A law passed by the government in May 1916 authorises Belgians to marry by proxy, which leads to comical scenes of brides showing up accompanied and with the husband's authorisation to wed. No honeymoon, little or no reception. The ceremonies in some ways are more reminiscent of burials…
Certain "war couples" are created and almost become a caricature: that of the wounded soldier or of the officer and the pretty nurse. As such, in April 1917 at the hospital of Beveren-Sur-Yzer, Miss Criquillion married a medical officer. These spouses coming from good society, taken on as assistant nurses, will continue with their mission, but remain the exception. Indeed, young women must devote themselves to their home and its upkeep, a mission complicated by the circumstances of war. Of course, not all households are the same. More comfortable families will not have the same day-to-day life in wartime as the spouse of a more modest household, who will have to queue up for a bit of flour or some bread. Even the marriage celebration must adapt to circumstances: normally, people do not marry during periods of mourning, and demonstrations of rejoicing are avoided. For brides who can't marry in a lovely dress, generally white since the mid-19th century and especially in the early 20th century, since their means will not allow it or because they're in mourning, a flower in their hair or a brooch on their outfit will have to do.
As part of raising the morale of the population, that enjoys nice stories in these dark times, and in order to hail the values of bravery and honour, engagements to marry are popular in fiction. As such, "La fiancée du soldat : épisode Idyllique et romantique" written by a certain Jean de Marselaer (pseudonym) relates the story of a beautiful fiancée and of her beloved, caught up in a traitor's game, but things can only finish well. The author goes so far as to have the heroes marry on the very date of the return of Albert 1st, King of the Belgians, to Brussels! The after-war period will also have less rosy sides, with the economic crisis for households, the soldier's return or his non-return and the widowhood of his spouse.
The press is filled with announcements:
“Young soldier's widow, 28 years of age, 100 francs of savings, wishes to meet a serious man for marriage, write to 627, newspaper office”
Does she know, poor thing, that by remarrying, she will not be entitled to any pension for her late husband?
Another, a crafty retailer, promotes his "marriage and mourning" cars, while yet another offers to discreetly investigate the past and entourage of a third person.
The return of soldiers to their homes sometimes includes bad surprises and disappointments. While sociologically frowned upon, divorce is sometimes the only available escape for couples. Soldiers demand that Parliament should make it easier for them to divorce. This right is obtained, but not without considerable debate. Indeed, it's hard not to agree to this easier divorce when in certain cases, the wife took up with the occupier…
A law passed by the government in May 1916 authorises Belgians to marry by proxy, which leads to comical scenes of brides showing up accompanied and with the husband's authorisation to wed.
At the start of the 20th century, it's customary for the family to gather around the deceased, to rally around and to go through a fairly codified mourning process: burial preparation, mourning clothes, sending of condolences… When the war arrives, these habits are still in place, but must be adapted to life in the occupied zone. For example, it is sometimes not possible to attend a burial or a wake, as the result of not having received a pass in order to do so, or simply of not having been informed in time.
In August 1914, in the areas through which the armies passed, people had a chance to see death close by, and even first hand: in Tamines, Andenne and many other regions, people witness the physical elimination of civilians. These accounts, especially involving women and children, will be widely disseminated in order to denounce the violent acts, and to obtain international support.
"In my incredible sadness, one great consolation is left to me. For seventeen years, I had to pull my son through every type of illness. My constant care would even had kept death at bay.
I'm very proud to have been able to keep him until such a time as he could die for his homeland. That is a great consolation."
(Courrier des armées - 17 November 14)
With regard to the number of Belgian soldiers killed at the front, while Belgium deplores the loss of a total of 42,000 soldiers due to wounds or illness, this is still much less than the losses suffered by France and England (respectively 1,397,800 and 885,138 soldiers); soldiers at the front don't die, it's almost obvious, surrounded by their families, but rather it's their comrades, and sometimes the medical personnel, who will be there for their final moments, sometimes quick, sometimes after prolonged agony. A certain "habit" regarding death takes hold amongst the troops. The soldiers end up challenging it or, at the very least, convincing themselves of this. In a letter to his brother, Firmin Bonhomme, a volunteer soldier at the front, writes:
“You see, my good Louis, that death respects nothing, whoever we may be, it watches us, it mocks our youth, our strength and our hopes! And yet, quite often, however poor we may all be, we can only convince ourselves of this terrible truth and, in our lack of concern, we can laugh at danger and thumb our noses at death”.
These terrible and crude words make it past the censorship that is supposed to protect the soldier against depression and any flagging courage. In the Journal des Armées, the official newspaper that any soldier can obtain, the victims of war are incessantly glorified. As such, the young officer Wielemans, bled white, is described as pronouncing these “sublime words” at the time of his death at the Yser on 2 February 1917: “I think that I shall die. Say goodbye for me to all my soldiers whom I have loved so”.
To counter the sadness and possible anger of relatives, parents are also given a chance to speak, primarily the mothers, and they are said to be happy to have sacrificed a son for the Homeland. This is the official version, of course, with these words being the opposite of the despair of some mothers: “Of course we will have won the war! But my son? Who will give me back my son?” When death occurs at the front, some thought must also be given to its management, and to the practical side of things. Thinking mechanically is perhaps the only way of not going mad when faced with the folly of man. Masses for the dead are said by the chaplains, often in the open field, and the deceased are buried nearby.
The truly absent are the ones whose remains could not be found or identified.
The organisation of funerals is an ideal moment for patriotic scenes: the higher the rank of the deceased, the more this staging will be important, and the more its official character will be asserted. The King's attendance provides supreme recognition of the merits of the deceased. Officer Wielemans will be buried with full honours, in the presence of the King of the Belgians, Albert 1st, and the ceremony in his honour is officially presented with all required emphasis:
“On the doorsteps, the women wait
for the moment when the tolling of the bell will call them to prayer and contemplation. Old country people in their Sunday best stand alongside them, serious, humble and silent.
Perhaps they know that the King, by his presence, will be paying supreme homage to Death
and they want to see passing the one who so incarnates the common courage, and who so faithfully
sums up the traditions of freedom and independence that are so dear to the Belgian heart”
For the most well-off, the funeral will be announced in the press, a notice is expensive; for the even more fortunate, a death announcement will be used, as an opportunity to display feelings for the homeland. Quotations from King Albert 1st or from Cardinal Mercier are favourites for the announcements. Sometimes a quotation from the deceased himself, together with a small photo and a prayer “It's with pleasure and without regret that I would give my life for my homeland”
The occupier, sometimes so quick to insist on the application of sometimes absurd rules, says nothing. When circumstances do not allow the family and the deceased to be brought together, we read “In view of the circumstances, the funeral will be held at a later time” or “due to circumstances, there will be no funeral”.
Provisions must also be made to exhume certain victims. Whether quickly buried at the time of the invasion of the territory or later killed in action, the general idea was to give them a dignified burial place, in a location other than the one used by the enemy to take their lives. It's also a kind of reappropriation of the mourning process. During the first year of the war, Jeanne Orianne, an officer's daughter, creates the “Oeuvre pour l’exhumation et l’identification du soldat belge” (Charity for the exhumation and identification of Belgian soldiers) and strives to provide the men with a decent burial place while also informing the families, but she is arrested in 1916, and her burden only resumed after the war.
In March 1919, a newspaper indicates the exhumation of the Van Droogenbroeck brothers, shot by the occupier on 12 April 1918, i.e. almost a year after their deaths. After the war, there are strong arguments between the people who wish to let the soldiers rest as close as possible to the place where they breathed their last, and the people wishing to move them, for example, to a family vault. There is no uniformity in this matter, and each family has its own opinion in this regard.
At the wish of the family, the remains of Nicolas Motz, the youngest captain in the Belgian army, killed by enemy gunfire on 18 October 1918 at the Château d'Hetsberghe, will be transferred to Belgium a few months later.
The truly absent are the ones whose remains could not be found or identified. Relatives are then left with a great void, with no burial place around which to pray. This role will have to be played by the war memorials and especially the tomb of the unknown soldier, inaugurated in Brussels on 11 November 1922, with great pomp. The Belgian population will therefore have a place to reflect, while thinking of all those who died for its freedom. It's a heavy symbolic heritage for the relatives, the widows, for the children and grandchildren, even though some had barely known their ancestor. This "community of mourning" will mark the hearts and souls. Society's leaden shroud does not really give widows any space for new happiness.
From life to death and back
The steps of life have signed a strange deal with war. However present they may be, they must adapt to the circumstances of war. Even more so than births and marriages, deaths – especially deaths due to war violence – marked the spirits, whether the family was plunged into a sense of deep silence, or always talked about the life of the disappeared person in question. It is up to us to perpetuate their memory.
For more information
- Funds and Collections :
- Army Museum documentation centre
- Collection of Archives of the City of Brussels
- Courrier des Armées, 1914 to 1919
- Monographs :
- Ariés, Philippe (dir) Histoire de la vie privée t. 5
- Bonhomme, Firmin, Mes souvenirs de la guerre 14-18...j’avais 17 ans , F. Bonhomme
- Private archives :
- Private archives of the Minet family (RTBF Collection)