In August 1914, the first waves of German soldiers would make a sad mark on history by ravaging Belgium and massacring hundreds of civilians in several cities and villages. Irritated by the resistance from little Belgium, the enraged soldiers take their vengeance on the civilian population by organising hostagetakings, executions, fires and the pillaging of entire villages.
From one day to the next, Belgium comes to be deservedly recognised as a martyr in the eyes of the world, resulting in a growing number of actions in support. A claim of snipers would serve as an alibi throughout the war for the German generals in order to justify the unforgivable, and for a time, the whole of Germany would rally behind its generals and troops in the greater interests of the fatherland. These "barbarians" continued on their way and buried themselves in the trenches, making way for the other soldiers who had come to occupy the conquered country for a period that everyone hoped would be a short as possible.
But in the end, these men would stay for four long years. They establish themselves in the Belgian towns and villages, requisitioning schools, barracks, hospitals and every other public structure in order to organise their occupation. They quickly set up the regime that would replace the Belgian government in exile for the duration of the war. Men are distributed along the railways, along the Dutch border and in the cities. While these aren't the same soldiers who had befallen the civilian population during the attack, they nevertheless arrive with a firm belief in the legend of civilians armed to the teeth, and in the rebellious nature of the population. Their hierarchy decides to bring the civilians to heel and to ensure respect of the laws, now German, so as not to hinder the war effort.
Like the German occupiers, Belgian civilians believe that this won't last, that the war will be settled in a few months, with everyone hoping to once again soon see the son got off to the front, or the family left on the other side of the Rhine. Indeed, the soldiers arriving to occupy Belgium are not the battle-hardened young men facing off at the Yser, most are family fathers and already have a well-established jobs. Almost all of them, in fact, are more than 35 years old, with their military service dating back more than 20 years; they've been obliged to leave wife and children in order to do their duty in Belgium.
This will have quite an effect on the relations that develop after four years of daily side-by-side life with the Belgian population. While the language barrier continues to prevent communication to some degree, and while the commanders remain often very firm towards the civilians, nothing can prevent a whole series of exchanges between the occupiers and the occupied. The stagnation of the hostilities, the distance from loved ones and, especially, hunger will lead to some degree of connection, often not without interested interests, but without any true fraternization.
Let's try to know them better, to learn about these men who – for four years – shared the daily lives and sometimes the concerns of the Belgians at the time.