# Imagining the war in Belgium before 1914

"1914… On observation on the Waterloo Battlefield" 
French postcard from the start of the First World War. We see five Belgian cavalrymen posing in front of Lion Hill at Waterloo. In the memory of the 1914 belligerents, the Napoleonic campaigns constitute the last European "Great War". Most of them are largely inspired by this experience, despite how old it is, in their tactical and strategic reflections, a fact that will have terrible consequences for the combatants. Unknown Parisian editor.  - Private collection, Nicolas Mignon. ©

"1914… On observation on the Waterloo Battlefield" French postcard from the start of the First World War. We see five Belgian cavalrymen posing in front of Lion Hill at Waterloo. In the memory of the 1914 belligerents, the Napoleonic campaigns constitute the last European "Great War". Most of them are largely inspired by this experience, despite how old it is, in their tactical and strategic reflections, a fact that will have terrible consequences for the combatants. Unknown Parisian editor. - Private collection, Nicolas Mignon. ©

In 1914, the Delhaize department stores release a new chocolate tablet: "Souvenir of Waterloo"! In fact, the whole of Belgium is preparing for the centennial of the battle that will take place the following year… There is no question of missing such an important date, which should doubtlessly see English and French tourists descend upon Belgium.

For the Belgians in 1914, the events of June 1815 (Quatre-Bras, Ligny, Waterloo) represent the last "Great War" experience on the national territory. Since then, the Belgians have known a century of peace, in other words an eternity! Of course, the Belgian revolution resulted in several confrontations with Dutch troops, but they were nothing in comparison with the scale of events during the Napoleonic era. Other than the inhabitants of Antwerp, where the fortress was besieged in 1832, the Belgian population suffered little from the combat, that really only involved volunteers. The last of them, Philippe-Joseph Demoulin, died in 1912 at the age of 102 years. The last "veteran" of 1830 therefore never saw the invasion of 1914… In 1870, after that, warnings were rife: the Belgian army was mobilised to protect the country, threatened on its southern border by the confrontations between the French and Russians. But in the end, Belgium avoided any combat. 44 years later, only elderly people from the border regions could still remember the sound of cannons, carried on the wind.


In 1914, therefore, Belgians no longer have any direct experience of what it means to be at war. Any images that they may have result either from the family or collective memory of old events (1870) or very old events (1830-1832, even 1815), or from fiction (literary, cinematographic), or finally from the media and their reports on more recent conflicts. How can these men and women imagine what it is to be at war, they who, like us, have only ever known peace? The following will contribute to a response.

War as you remember it

For the Belgian population, not very literate and with limited access to book-based culture, a look at the war is firstly a question of popular memory. Tales of the Napoleonic wars remain very vivid in many families, that recall their ancestors enrolled in the French army (by force, if necessary), tales of the survivors from the Grande Armée or from the Allied occupation. In 1914, many Belgians have known direct witnesses from those days. Ephrem Danvoye, an inhabitant of Seloignes (Hainaut), remembers this and records it and in his war diary, in October 1918: "At the age of 6 or 8 years, I knew an old man of 97 whom everyone referred to as big Soris, who recalled having seen the Cossacks come through Seloignes with their cannons" . Since E. Danvoye was born in 1875, "big Soris" most have been born in around 1870, and would certainly have a very clear memories of start of the 19th century.


These souvenirs will sometimes be exploited by Belgian propaganda. The best known example is the re-release, during the war, of a Walloon song by Jacques-Joseph Velez : "Sav’bien çou qu’c’è qu’on prussien? (Do you know what a Prussian is?)" . This satire on the occupation of Liège by the Prussians in 1815-1816 presents them as poorly disciplined gluttons, drunken and crude. One hundred years later, it was obviously glaringly topical… Its usage in Belgian propaganda must not lead one to forget that it harkens back to a true memory of events, a memory that was reactivated in 1870 with the risk of a new Prussian invasion.

For the Belgians in 1914, the events of June 1815 (Quatre-Bras, Ligny, Waterloo) represent the last "Great War" experience on the national territory. Since then, the Belgians have known a century of peace, in other words an eternity!

The pen and the sword

War and literature often go well together, and the students in Belgian schools in 1814, fencing with Homer's verses, are all too familiar with this fact. Just like the Old Testament, the Iliad is full of violence: blood and guts are abundant in almost every one of its 24 books. It is therefore incorrect to say classical culture often idealized war and masked its horror. Nevertheless, it's true that the terrible descriptions of the horrors of war did not prevent the ancients from seeing it as opportunity to behave in a heroic manner… it's a view that will be shaken (but not destroyed) by the Great War.


However, literature has given many different views of war, notably after the 1870 war. Though Zola didn't publish La Débâcle until 1892, using the defeat of Sedan as a backdrop, the Belgian writer Camille Lemonnier wrote Sedan in 1871, republished in 1881 under the evocative name of Les Charniers (The Charnel Houses). In it, C. Lemonnier describes his voyage in 1870 from the Belgian border to the rear of the front. The work is totally devoid of beauty and even of heroism, except when he speaks of certain deaths. War is reduced through the spectacle of military or civilian bodies, wounded people at the hospital, complete with amputations, arrogance on the part of the winners and misery on the part of the vanquished. Any reader of Sedan would only have been moderately surprised in 1914… but how many Belgians have read Camille Lemonnier?


Other books, notably novels with a more "general public" orientation, probably had a broader impact on the image that readers had of war. In the years prior to 1914, the catalogues of publishers saw a growing number of titles that imagined what a future conflict might be like. In the most famous of them, The war in the air by Herbert George Wells (1907), the author of the War of the worlds, imagines that a worldwide war destroys civilisation. The dialogue on the last page of the book, between a survivor from the conflict and the young boy who didn't experience it, clearly anticipates the difficulty of stopping a war that has become total.

" – But why didn't they end the War?

– Obstinacy. Everybody was getting hurt, but everybody was hurting and everybody was high-spirited and patriotic, and so they smashed up things instead. They just went on smashing. And afterwards they just got desperate and savage.

– It ought to have ended, said the little boy.

It didn't ought to have begun, said old Tom […]

– You can say what you like, it didn't ought ever to have begun. ".

Belgian literature before 1914 has no novels of this type. But a pacifist theatre piece in 1912 indicates that there were ways, for an enlightened observer, to anticipate a certain number of characteristics of the coming conflict. This was La guerre (The War) by the Belgian writer Albert Bailly. In terms of its writing, the work is nothing memorable. The style is neither here nor there, the scenario is rather obvious, and the play is full of good sentiments. Two families from the imaginary kingdom of Alfanie (Germany) receive a young friend from the neighbouring empire of Romagne (France) for dinner at their home. War is suddenly declared between the two countries, under the pretext of some ridiculous territorial rivalry. It ends with an armistice and arbitration before the Arbitration tribunal at The Hague, but only after terrible losses and the death of the old friend from Romagne.

The author imagines paralysis at the front, apprehension of the civilians in the rear, and combat described as "butchery". In particular, it derives the lessons from the reports on the first Balkan war, as proven by the account given by Wilhelm, a young man returning from the front:

" Oh! I don't have much to tell… You see nothing… You know nothing… They lead you like cattle… and death comes from an unknown source. That's war. I had a completely different idea… […] the killing is from so far away that you can't even see the other person. The combatants hide as well as they can… […] bravery isn't good for anything anymore… […] Being visible in today's war means committing suicide ".


Three years later, Belgian combatants will write of nothing else, as was the case of young Louis de Lalieux de la Rocq, as he tries to make his family understand modern war in a letter from August 1915: " You kill and are killed without seeing each other. We live like moles, it's more boring and less interesting, perhaps ". Louis will be killed two years later. As far as Albert Bailly goes, his pacifist convictions will vanish with the spectacle of invaded Belgium.

Oh! I don't have much to tell… You see nothing… You know nothing… They lead you like cattle… and death comes from an unknown source. That's war. I had a completely different idea… […] the killing is from so far away that you can't even see the other person. The combatants hide as well as they can… […] bravery isn't good for anything anymore… […] Being visible in today's war means committing suicide.

Apocalypse Now

One cannot help but be struck by the similarity between Bailly's play and the scenario of a remarkable work, one of the first fiction films shot in Belgium: Maudite soit la guerre (War is Hell). It was shot in 1913 by Alfred Machin, a French producer (referred to as "artistic director" at the time), who sets up Belgium's first cinema studio in Molenbeek: the Karreveld. A native of Northern France, A. Machin started filming in Belgium in 1909 and has extensive experience as a photographer and producer of documentaries. But with Maudite soit la guerre (War is Hell), he triumphs while producing one of the first grand spectacle films in history.


Like with Bailly, the scenario is very conventional. Once again, a young man is visiting a host family in a neighbouring country. But Machin makes this young stranger (Grille in the Belgian version, Hardoff in the Dutch version) an aviator, just like the son of the family that is putting him up. We understand that the latter had been received the previous year for some work experience in his guest's country, to whom he is returning the favour this year. Grille/Hardoff and the daughter of the house fall in love (which was not the case in the Bailly play). After war is declared, the two friends do battle in the air, and both are killed. When she learns of this, the young fiancé withdraws to a convent.


While the storyline hardly deserves being part of posterity, Alfred Machin nevertheless produces the first high budget fictional war film. He is not without personal military experience, having served in the French army in North Africa. He is also fascinated by aviation, having first gone into the air as a passenger in 1910 and on this occasion filming from the aircraft! For "Maudite soit la guerre" (War is Hell), he obtains the help of the Belgian army, which lets him use its planes (two Farman biplanes in different models), observation balloons, vehicles and even infantrymen as extras. It's also true that, during the same year, Alfred Machin made two documentaries, i.e. Les grandes manœuvres de l’armée belge and La traction canine dans l’armée belge, which provided occasions to make contacts.


But great resources do not necessarily lead to great films. The difference is made by the talent of Alfred Machin: for the first time, spectators see airplanes on the screen bombing troops on the ground, destroying observation balloons and, finally, fighting it out in the air. Some poorly informed people claimed that the producer was a "visionary", creating "science fiction" in his representation of the conflict. In reality, the film primarily shows masses of men fighting in a not very modern manner, rather along the lines of battles from the early 19th century. As far as aerial bombardments goes, the first occurred in 1910 during the Italo-Turkish war, and at the time when the film is being shot, others were in progress in Morocco and in the Balkans. A. Machin is therefore not a visionary, but simply a fan of aviation who is keeping up-to-date with current events. It was in the staging, however, that he was truly innovative. Not only did Alfred Machin not hesitate to film outdoors, but, thanks to Maudite soit la guerre, it was on Belgian territory that the first close-up occurred in cinema history…

What can we learn from Maudite soit la guerre about how war could be represented in 1914? First of all, the circumstances of the film's distribution are interesting. Completed in the autumn of 1913, it is only shown for the first time in early May 1914. This is generally explained by discomfort on the part of its distributor, Pathé. Indeed, Maudite soit la guerre is out of place (even if only for its title) within the French cinematographic landscape. In 1913-1914, in fact, cinemas are filled with a series of war films and patriotic documentaries. In 1912, the Pathé company itself had produced La Patrie avant tout (The Homeland before all else), the title of which needs little commentary. It is therefore possible that the delay of the film's release was due to its content. In any case, if it was shown on 1 May 1914 under its actual name in Belgium and translated rather well as War is Hell in the United States, its Paris premiere was not until the end of the month, under the title… Mourir pour la Patrie (Dying for the Homeland), a much more consensual title.


Striking to today's spectator is the clearly limited character of the producer's (supposed) "pacifism". Other than its title and the final scene in which we see the heroine weeping for her lost love (in a close-up, don't forget!), the film is a succession of very aesthetic and fascinating scenes for the time. Unlike Albert Bailly, whose play sharply criticizes the reasons that justify going to war, Alfred Machin does nothing of the sort in his film. The conflict is a tragedy because it separates the young couple, but nothing transforms this "domestic" drama into a political crime, all the more so since the male characters behave heroically for their homeland. War is shown to be something of a natural catastrophe, for which men are in no way responsible. And like all natural catastrophes, it is both awful (if you think about it) and very impressive and even fascinating to watch (from the comfort of your armchair). Maudite soit la guerre doesn't avoid the pitfall that trips up many films claiming (rightly or wrongly) to denounce war: it glamorizes combat and captivates with its portrayal of military technology. It is therefore probable that the spectators in May and June 1914 applauded more for the wonderful war scenes shown to them, rather than seriously reflecting on what would happen to them in case of a conflict. This is so true that the film will once again be shown in cinemas in 1918, in the very patriotic atmosphere of the liberation: 9 december, the "Artistic-Pathé Palace" in the place Liedts in Schaerbeek therefore shows Son Sang pour la Patrie (his blood for the homeland) together with Maudite soit la Guerre, described as being in "Pathé-color sensational"! For his part, Alfred Machin did his patriotic duty and distinguished himself by producing several dozen war newsreels as well as a documentary film on the battle of Verdun.

War is shown to be something of a natural catastrophe, for which men are in no way responsible. And like all natural catastrophes, it is both awful (if you think about it) and very impressive and even fascinating to watch (from the comfort of your armchair).

Humanitarian aid and anticipation of the war

At the start of the 20th century, Belgium is famous for being one of the European drivers in scientific research and international cooperation. Its neutrality and small size are frightening to no one, and make it an ideal location for intellectuals from the major powers to meet and share their research.

This is the case with regard to surgery, for example, notably thanks to the efforts of physician Antoine Depage, who will subsequently become famous for his efforts during the war as part of the Army Health Service. In 1902 in Brussels, he founds the International Society of Surgery (ISS/SIC) and, in the Belgian capital, organises the first three conferences in 1905, 1908 and 1911, before chairing the fourth in New York in April 1914. The Society currently has several hundred surgeons as members, including some of the most illustrious, coming from 23 countries.

When the First Balkan War breaks out in 1912, physicians in several countries get organised in order to send surgeons and personnel into the field so as to set up "ambulances" (in other words aid stations, where the wounded can be provided with first aid) and to help in pre-existing hospitals. Belgium does its part: four teams leave in the autumn, with two going to Serbia, one to Bulgaria and the fourth with Antoine Depage himself and his son Antoine, to Turkey. These missions firstly have a humanitarian aim and are not entirely devoid of danger, if only for the epidemics which the physicians will have to face. There are nevertheless not totally disinterested, as they will allow the physicians to acquire experience.


Upon returning to the country, these physicians are naturally preferred witnesses of the reality of a modern war. They have acquired precious know-how and it is not surprising that several physicians from the Balkan "ambulances" will subsequently play an essential role on the Belgian front lines, alongside all Antoine Depage. But it is also important to note that these direct witnesses also sometimes have a tendency to excessively extrapolate on the basis of their experience, forgetting that this experience was acquired in a very particular context. As such, they paradoxically contribute to consolidating certain incorrect opinions regarding war, while providing them with a scientific basis.


Antoine Depage's "ambulance", for example, is so far from the Turkish front that it will only have to treat the lightly wounded, who alone are capable of travelling a distance of 50 km on foot over several days, without dying along the way. As such, the mortality rate of patients is heavily reduced. But if he is aware of this bias, A. Depage cannot prevent himself from adopting a totally incorrect viewpoint, but one that is widely shared at the time, on the question of the efficiency of the modern rifle. It appears to him to be very limited, as he explains to the audience during the New York conference in April 1914:

" One factor that, during recent wars, astonished all surgeons was the relative harmlessness of the modern rifle; it has been said that it's a humanitarian weapon, as though these two words could never be found together! In fact, I've seen, and others have seen as well, bullets going through an arm or leg, sometimes for their entire length, other times the abdomen or chest, or even the basal parts of the brain, without causing any infection or serious subsequent problems ".

More accurately, Antoine Depage estimates at the same time that "the effects of cannons have become more murderous than ever" while describing the effects of shrapnel as horrible", when referring to shrapnel shells that explode and send small metal balls flying in all directions.

Though Antoine Depage only remained in Turkey for two months, another Belgian physician served in Bulgarian hospitals for 11 months. The case of Octave Laurent, a surgeon at the Saint-Jean hospital (Brussels), is all the more interesting since this person has totally disappeared from Belgian medical history, probably after a conflict that pitted him against more influential colleagues and university authorities. His ambition, his desire to stand out and his touchy temperament probably played a role in the fact that he was pushed to the sidelines as of 1914. Nevertheless, he is the only Belgian physician from the Balkan "ambulances" to publish his notes, that come out in June 1914, in time to be read before the start of the conflict.


In them, Octave Laurent makes many shrewd observations. He mentions the benefits of uniforms in neutral colours and the danger of distinctive signs for officers and stretcher bearers, which make them easier targets. He very accurately describes the importance of trenches, their organisation, their zigzag layout in order to avoid enfilade fire, widespread networks of barbed wire, the camouflage of artillery pieces and, in short, everything that will become customary for soldiers during the Great War. Contrary to expectations, the doctor also points out the rarity of bayonet injuries, and also notes that the enemy is incorrectly accused of using dum-dum bullets. These bullets deform upon hitting the victim's body and cause much more serious injuries than standard bullets. In reality, as correctly described by Octave Laurent, the terrible wounds experienced by combatants are due to ordinary bullets ricocheting before hitting their victim, and therefore being deformed with the first impact. The same baseless accusations will be raised in Belgium in 1914, during the movement war. Finally, with regard to the health service, Octave Laurent recommends increasing the competence of nurses, rather than relying on the devotion of a large number of non-professional volunteers, who could potentially hinder more than they help. He would also like to see field hospitals be provided with x-ray facilities, as they are essential for delicate operations.


He also quotes many analyses by physician colleagues or journalists, some of which are interesting, such as the article in the Journal written by H. Barby, which uses the statistics of the second Balkan war in order to project the losses that would result from a European war:

" 150,000 men on the ground in one month, that was the balance sheet of the last Balkan war, in which more than half, i.e. 80,000, fell on the shores of the Bregalnitsa in six days, from 30 June to 5 July! If you add a zero to each of these numbers, you will have the numbers and presumed losses from a war that would involve pitting against one another the first shock troops of the armies of the two major powers on the European chessboard: one million five hundred thousand wounded or killed in one month! ". In reality, it was not until the five last months of 1914, August to December, that this result was reached; but of course, the author had no way of imagining that the war would then continue for four years…

Despite the quality of his work, and just like Antoine Depage, Octave Laurent sometimes mixes astute observations, hazardous interpretations and gross generalizations. He minimizes the dangers of shrapnel or the number of patients suffering facial mutilation (later known as the "broken faces"), without realising that artillery was simply too rare in the sectors close to his hospital. Similarly, like many physicians, he was captivated by extreme non-representative cases, such as that of bullets having passed clean through the brain or any other part of the body, from end to end without causing fatal damage, or that of men hit by several projectiles and who nevertheless survive. Another example, soldiers saved from a bullet by a piece of equipment: " soldiers were saved as a result of carrying, in the pocket over their heart, some metallic piece or another of some thickness ". Other physicians will make the same type of comments during the Great War, and in all camps, magazines will publish photographs of coins or watches that saved their owners. It is therefore unfair to accuse the soldiers during the First World War of naïveté for thinking themselves safe because of a pocket Bible reinforced with a metallic plate in front of their hearts. Their feeling that they would be safe was shared by eminent physicians…


Like all war-related texts published just before the conflict, the book by Octave Laurent is quite logically a combination of discernment and errors. It ends with a call for peace and a photograph of an anonymous Bulgarian, who had lost his eyes and both hands due to the explosion of a shell. But even the spectacle of the horrors of war will not dissuade men from fighting. In fact, war is not declared because it's thought to be beautiful, but rather that despite its ugliness, it's necessary. The Great War breaks out two months after the work is published.

Sources Click to view the sources

Works :

Cugnon Anne-Françoise, La vie culturelle bruxelloise au lendemain de la Première Guerre mondiale. Cinémas, concerts, théâtres (novembre 1918-décembre 1920), Louvain-la-Neuve, 1985.

de Kuyper Eric, Alfred Machin. Cinéaste/film-maker, Brussels, Belgian Royal Film Institute, 1995.

Detilleux Mélanie, Delhaize “Le Lion”, fabriquant et distributeur de chocolat 1890-1945, Bachelor's degree dissertation UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve, 2007.

"Discours de M. Depage, président du Congrès" in Mayer L. (éd.) Quatrième Congrès de la Société Internationale de Chirurgie, New York, 13-16 avril 1914. Rapports, procès-verbaux et discussions, Brussels, Hayez, 1914, pp. 484-490.

Engelen Leen, "Anticipatie of representatie? De representatie van de oorlog in Alfred Machins Maudite soit la guerre" in Tijdschrift voor mediageschiedenis, 2002, pp. 4-27.

Lindqvist Sven, Une histoire du bombardement, Paris, La Découverte, 2012 (1999).

Sojcher Frédéric , La kermesse héroïque du cinéma belge, volume I, 1896-1965. Des documentaires et des farces, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1999.

Véray Laurent, La Grande Guerre au cinéma. De la gloire à la mémoire, Paris, Ramsay, 2008.

Edited sources :

Bailly Albert, La guerre. Comédie en trois actes, Brussels-Paris, Lelong-Leclerc, 1912.

Constant C., "Journal de guerre à Seloignes : 1914-1918" in Entre Fagne et Thierache, Volume 103, 1994, pp. 11-28.

Depage Henri, La vie d’Antoine Depage 1862-1925, Brussels, La Renaissance du Livre, 1956.

Illustrierte Geschichte des Weltkrieges. Allgemeine Kriegszeitung, Berlin- Leipzig-Stuttgart-Wien, Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1914-1919.

Laurent Octave, La Guerre en Bulgarie et en Turquie. Onze mois de campagne, Paris, A. Maloine, 1914.

Lemonnier Camille, Sedan ou Les Charniers, Brussels, Labor, 2002.

Quoidbach Th., Le Chansonnier du Soldat Belge – Liederenboek van den Belgischen Soldaat. 1914-1916, Paris, Henry Wykes, s. d. (ca 1916).

Tonnet, Fernand, Un Belge de vingt ans. Louis de Lalieux de la Rocq, mort au champ d’honneur, Brussels, Vromant & Co, 1920.

Van Melle J., "La guerre des Balkans" in Touring-Club de Belgique. Bulletin officiel, n°13, 01/07/1914, pp. 321-325

Wells Herbert George, La Guerre dans les Airs (The war in the air), Paris, Mercure de France, 1910 (1907).

Archives :

Archives of the Brussels CPAS, City of Brussels Administration of Hospices and Aid, File on Octave Laurent.

Belgian Royal Film Institute, document resources relating to Alfred Machin and Maudite soit la guerre.


The Dutch version of the film Maudite soit la guerre (War is Hell) can be seen on the Internet. It can be found by searching with its name on the site http://www.europeanfilmgateway.eu/fr.