The family unit is an essential element of social life at the start of the 20th century: living to the tempo of rituals, both daily and individual. A war cannot go on for four long years without births, marriages and deaths, meaning that the rituals surrounding these events had to continue but while adapting to the circumstances. Births may not take place in the home, the normal place for births during this period, marriages will see their organisation turned upside down, and as for deaths, while there are extraordinary deaths because of the war (soldiers, illnesses that are hard to get over…) with unusual treatments, even "ordinary" deaths will sometimes take on a completely different aspect than in times of peace, due to the territory's occupation and the distance of certain family members in exile. Where you have families, you have children. Family education is also important, and to a large extent in the hands of the head of the family.
To communicate regarding family events, exchanging mail was the most common means at the time, along with telegrams depending on the urgency and budget. But once again, this way of behaving is turned upside down. The start of the war will completely change such practices, but without completely doing away with them. Indeed, "the war" is rarely mentioned in correspondence, with expressions such as the "events" or "circumstances" being preferred.
The destiny of these families will depend enormously on how they get through the conflict: families will spend the war separated or together, depending on the cases. How they live through the war will also have an impact on their after-war life. Homecomings can be difficult, resulting in a higher number of divorces. One can therefore say that the war had a strong impact on families.
The families of soldiers will spend the war waiting for news, with the news received not always being of the happiest. They learn of the death of a loved one without the option of praying over their mortal remains. Mourning practices are upset, and traditions are not always followed.
Refugee families are confronted with the fact of leaving everything behind them, and rebuilding some kind of normal life in a foreign country.
The majority of families remaining in the occupied zone will spend the entire war having to deal with hardships and the orders imposed by the occupier, however daft at times.
In terms of family histories, generalities are best avoided. Each family is unique and, of course, they were also families who felt some degree of rapport with the German occupier, or who took advantage of the war to raise the prices of their products.
Some families spend the four years of the occupation with three generations in tiny accommodations. Others have to billet German soldiers, while others, especially in the more remote villages, while hardly see a single German for the entire war! But even these "major categories" have differences, each family is unique and its experiences equally so!
If little has been said about the experiences of Belgian families during the First World War, how they survived, how they got through it, it's because the long and painful military experience is always the first thing that comes to mind. The day-to-day lives of the civilians provide only a backdrop. However, these soldiers had families, families that experienced many difficult moments during this war, but sometimes also happy ones. Despite their historical value, these poignant testimonials and singular stories are too often kept as secrets.
100 years later, we have decided to tell you the stories of these families.