In hindsight, the summer of 1914 is recalled in memories as having been a wonderful season. In reality, of course, the weather gets bad at times, but overall, the weather is nice and, especially, the climate seems to be always good in the European chancelleries. The intermittent tensions in 1911 or 1913 seem, this time, to have spared European decision-makers who take a holiday, with their minds… at peace. The assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo on 28 June does not prevent anyone from sleeping, or going on vacation. General Radomir Putnik, chief of the general staff of the Serbian army, for example, is taking the waters at Bad Gleichenberg, in Austria-Hungary, without imagining that he will soon be arrested there. In Germany, commanding general Helmut von Moltke is also on holiday, as is the War minister, Erich von Falkenhayn. In neutral little Belgium, as elsewhere, life goes on: country people are active with their harvests, labourers and middle-class people are working hard. The wealthier classes, for their part, are taking advantage of the fine season. No great concern arises until the very end of the month of July. Amongst the many postcards exchanged during this summer period, here is one sent on 29 July from Brussels to Middelkerke :
"Is the weather as bad on the seaside as here in Brussels, it has been cold for over a week and raining every day. Have you also heard any word of war? Here, every conversation touches on it. Thank you for your cards, you must have found Nieuwpoort different, especially the corner by the chalet. Have you gone swimming? Please thank Loulou for her card, we give her a kiss. Sincerely, Louise & Anatole".
Louise and Anatole obviously think that the noise heard about war isn't enough that one should forget to ask about the weather or bathing in the sea… Though they live in Brussels, they are clearly unaware that Prime Minister Charles de Broqueville has that very day ordered a partial mobilisation of the army. In under a week, Belgium will be at war.
The intermittent tensions in 1911 or 1913 seem, this time, to have spared European decision-makers who take a holiday, with their minds… at peace.
Vacations at the edge of the chasm
The curse of the Great War was that for too long, it had been considered as inevitable, and taught as such. After having studied the apparently fatal sequence of the conflict's near and remote causes, how many students must have said to themselves that the Europeans of 1914 showed themselves to be totally stupid.
Nonetheless, our ancestors from the start of the 20th century were not more blind than we are today. It's up to us to train our own view, to avoid any anachronism. Can we predict the future? They couldn't either. For them, just like for people in the West today, war is something that happens "elsewhere", in countries that are far away and/or considered to be savage, or at least not sufficiently civilized for the taste of the European elites, such as the Balkans. At the end of July 1914, the early signs of the first worldwide conflict therefore take everyone by surprise, in the beautiful summery atmosphere.
Indeed, even in the days following the postcard from Louise and Anatole, the growing threat did not dissuade certain Belgians from maintaining their vacation plans. At the time, it should be recalled that such vacations were often true expeditions. As such, Adolphe Hambye, a solicitor in Mons, leaves on vacation to Westend with his whole family – children, stepchildren, grandchildren – servants and 42 cases of baggage, on 31 July 1914. It is too late to turn around, at the end of the afternoon, when the Belgian government orders the general mobilisation. The family only returns to Mons after August 4th, and the start of the invasion. In Westend, holidaymakers soon give way to refugees, who flood into town like elsewhere on the coast, in the hopes of finding a boat to cross the Channel. Many of them have never before seen the sea… just like the majority of Belgian soldiers who fall back to the coast in October. Later occupied by German marines (the Marinekorps Flandern), Westend is fortified like the rest of the coast, and heavily bombarded. When the Armistice comes, it is a field of ruins. The lovely days are far, far away, out of reach.
The end of a "belle époque"
Nowhere is the contrast between the horrors of war and the joys of peace more obvious that in the resort locations that accommodate the wealthy classes during the summer months. It is therefore not surprising that literary works expressing nostalgia for the "belle époque" often use these idyllic locations as their settings. This is the case of the poem "Jeune fille la Paix" (Young girl, Peace), written after the Second World War by poet Marcel Thiry, from Liège. When speaking of the final moments of genuine peace known by Belgium, it's the Belgian coast of 1914 and its tram that he brings back to life (loose translation below):
"I rode that fine white tram, at the Zoute au Coq, / Through the hollows of the dunes soft as a bosom, / The evening wind of July evening of nineteen fourteen. / I knew it: it was on this beach tram / That travelled the aimless valleys of sand, / From beach to beach, plying its gentle pleasures".
Mr. Thiry then identifies the long peace that preceded the Great War in the figure of a person whom he remembers, sitting in the tram. A young girl who will never return, like the peace that she symbolizes:
"She's no longer there, the happy passenger. / We think that we have found her again, we give her a name, / We say: "On this day, peace returned to man", / But it's another, a gloomy and foreign Peace.
I don't dare touch, in my old age, even in my thoughts, / Your image, young girl, Peace, sitting / In this tram, and turning your face to the breeze / On this last night along the sloping dune; […] Unto you they brought Happiness with their weapons, Happiness / And their world is a statue of salt, the salt of tears".
An unthinkable invasion
The memory of the last vacations is by definition THE memory of the "belle époque", a time of peace, of course, but also of beauty and intelligence: that of the shining and cosmopolitan world of the intellectuals and artists of the Old Continent. Capable of speaking several languages and feeling at home almost everywhere in Europe, for them, the Europe of the early 20th century is a crucible of ideas and creations that still fascinate today. The two world wars and the subsequent Cold war killed off this idea of cosmopolitanism, by sharpening the hatred and fortifying the borders. The end of the Soviet Union didn't really bring it back to life, and that's why, today, we can only look back with nostalgia at these people who created knowledge and beauty while inhabiting the whole of Europe… though we recognise that once again, the myth of the "belle époque" leads us to idealize the past somewhat too much. Was it by chance that the author of the most emblematic book of this idealized pre-war period, Stefan Zweig from Vienna, just happened to be on vacation on the Belgian coast in July 1914?
In fact, the Austrian writer had planned to spend two weeks at Coq before meeting up with his friend, the Belgian writer Emile Verhaeren, at his country home in Roisin. He is certainly not the only foreigner on the Belgian coast at that time: as he himself wrote in The World of Yesterday, "all imaginable nations were gathered there in peace, a great deal of German was spoken – in particular, since just like every year, the nearby Rhineland was more than happy to send its summer vacationers to the Belgian coast ". These Rhinelanders included the future German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. Somewhat further south, at Westend, we find the Deutsche Villen-Colonie, a guesthouse comprising a series of villas intended specially for German tourists.
S. Zweig relaxes in the company of Belgian artist friends, and notably visits the painter James Ensor. Initially, articles in the press about the international situation are only briefly troubling to the vacationers: " we had seen diplomatic conflicts of this type for years; happily, they had always been resolved in time, before things got serious. Why not this time as well? Half an hour later, we already saw the same people splashing about and happily wading in the water, the kites headed up into the sky, the seagulls flapped their wings, and the warm sun shone down brightly on the peaceful land ".
Stefan Zweig doesn't leave Belgium for Austria until the very end of the month. He still thinks that his Belgian friends will be able to avoid the conflict. At least, that's what he claims to have assured them before leaving: ""It's nonsense! You can hang me from this light post if the Germans enter Belgium". I'm still grateful to my friends that they didn't take me at my word". At that time, the Belgian population is sad for the unfortunate Germans and Austrians who have to urgently return home, "probably heading off to war" as written in Le Peuple on 27 July. The Belgians are far from imagining that this war will come to them, and that some former tourists will return armed. This is the case of the German reserve officer Walter Bloem, who left a book of souvenirs about his 1914 campaign. This Captain in the 12th regiment of Prussian Grenadiers has only good memories of Belgium and his vacations in Blankenberghe, but once on campaign, this doesn't prevent him from believing all of the unfounded rumours about the supposed ferocity of Belgian civilians…
Arriving in Austria, Stefan Zweig finds himself swept up in the same patriotic fever as his compatriots. He will later regret it bitterly: he will notably never have an opportunity to reconcile with his friend Emile Verhaeren, who dies in an accident in 1916.
We had seen diplomatic conflicts of this type for years; happily, they had always been resolved in time, before things got serious. Why not this time as well? Half an hour later, we already saw the same people splashing about and happily wading in the water, the kites headed up into the sky, the seagulls flapped their wings, and the warm sun shone down brightly on the peaceful land.
Last trains, first massacres
Stephan Zweig and his fellow vacationers didn't take the last train to leave Belgium in this summer of 1914. This sad privilege will go to the Germans and Austro-Hungarians living in Belgium.
There are approximately 60,000 Germans in Belgium at the start of the war, which is numerically significant at a time when foreigners represented less than 5% of the country's population. The German community is concentrated in a few large cities and therefore relatively unified, all the more so as it has developed many associations and institutions of its own (private schools, newspapers, etc.). The importance of German nationals, or people of German origin, anyway, within Belgian economic life is considerable, especially in Antwerp. For example, the grandfather of the 1974 Nobel Laureate in medicine, Belgian Christian de Duve, was the Antwerp representative for the powerful Kohlensyndicat, the Ruhr Basin coal marketing board, that provided more than half of the German coal before the war. The war will oblige him to leave the country and to return to Germany.
In effect, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians become enemy nationals as of the German ultimatum to Belgium. Still on the evening before the final departures of mobilised Germans, from the North train station in Brussels, the Belgian press expressed its respect for these men who were fulfilling their duty. But as of the afternoon of 3 August, the Germans in the kingdom are perceived as a potential threat, when not considered en masse as spies. Belgian anger at the ultimatum is sometimes directed against them, and German businesses are even sacked, especially between 3 and 8 August, in an almost carnival atmosphere. Happily, the attacks on people are far fewer than the attacks on property. Despite the tense and disorderly situation, the gendarmerie, the police and the civil guard provide the German nationals with rather efficient protection. Given the context, these people want to leave the country as quickly as possible. As their embassy has already bolted, it is the United States legation that looks after their repatriation. In Brussels, several thousand of them are accommodated at the Cirque royal, where they are fed and spend the night before taking a train the next morning from the North station.
Amongst them is a young girl of 13, Magda Behrend. Placed in boarding school in a convent near Vilvorde by her mother since 1906, she has no memories other than of her existence in Belgium. The German invasion puts a stop to that. This sudden departure is free of any violence: the civil guards escorting the convoy even provide the expelled Germans with coffee, chocolate and cigarettes. But this atmosphere from the start of the war, this enforced uprooting is no less dramatic and then deeply humiliating when the expelled Germans, deposited by the Belgians at the Dutch border, are transferred to Berlin by the German government… in six days, in cattle cars. At this time, in fact, military convoys obviously have priority. Magda must fit in as a refugee in Germany, though up to that point, she had primarily been raised in French. During the Second World War, she will not surprisingly express little interest in the suffering of the Belgians. It's true that, in the meantime, she had married Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels…
Just like the future Magda Goebbels, many Germans in Belgium are distraught to learn that their presence has become undesirable. Many of them consider the country to be their second – and even first – homeland, and are yet forced to abandon friends, work and property for an uncertain future. Some of them take the leap and join the Belgian army, which does not fail to cause serious tension within certain families. This is the case within the Graeffe family, active within the Brussels sugar industry (who in Belgium is not still familiar with Graeffe brown sugar even today?). Several sons and nephews join the Belgian army, and two of them, Bruno and Jacques Graeffe, give their lives in 1914 and 1915. Thereafter, the older generation that remained in Belgium will refuse to cut its ties with its German acquaintances, including in the military. An attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable fails, the family is divided for the long term and the firm sequestered at the time of the liberation, before being entrusted to the "good" side of the Graeffe family, i.e. that had openly chosen Belgium…
Just like the future Magda Goebbels, many Germans in Belgium are distraught to learn that their presence has become undesirable.
But let's not jump ahead: in these early days of August 1914, the concern of the German community is its immediate future. It is truly terrorized. First of all, uncertainty reigns in the Belgian government's policy: while it has not ordered the expulsion of all enemy nationals from the country (only their departure from the strongholds, i.e. Liège, Namur and Antwerp), the press sometimes claims otherwise. The Germans and Austrians therefore don't know which way to turn, especially since they don't dare to step out the door in search of information. When the criteria are definitively set on 10 August, many have already left. Thereafter, the local administrations often show themselves to be more hasty. In Liège, for example, enemy citizens are only given two hours to prepare their departure: a terribly short time… But it's true that the city fears an imminent attack. Finally, despite the efforts of the police and civil guard, and in the absence of widespread attacks, nationals of the central powers truly fear for their lives. Since the announcement of the ultimatum, their fear has only been heightened by the broken windows, insults and taunts from passersby. A few suicides, or attempts, are even recorded. Though these are extreme cases, the causes of which are not always clear, they contribute to the overall tension.
Popular anti-German demonstrations or a fear of spies are not seen only in Belgium: in the early days of the war, comparable events take place in French and English cities. But the arrival in Germany of refugees from Belgium will quickly gives rise to particularly terrifying stories regarding the treatment that had been inflicted upon them. As of the second week of August, the press in the Rhineland publishes many tales attributed to refugees. These articles provide a litany of all kinds of crimes committed by the Belgians against German civilians: women abused and children beaten to death, men shot (possibly after mutilation), even disemboweled. The imagined "Belgian atrocities" combine with the tales of German soldiers, who accuse Belgian civilians of waging a guerrilla war by attacking them treacherously and mutilating their wounded. This imagined fear will provoke "German atrocities", but much more real ones: 6500 Belgian and French civilians massacred between August and October 1914, in the midst of the burning of their cities or villages. Some German refugees courageously attempt to counter the terrible tales circulating about their exodus. As such, on 10 September, the daily Kölnische Volkszeitung publishes the story of a man who had had to leave Belgium on 7 August, with his family, after a night at the Cirque royal. He describes the care that had been offered to them, the kindness of the civil guards, and the pity of the Belgian population.
But by mid-September, it's too late to put out the fire. It has already been burning for too long, too many civilians and soldiers are dead. Despite having started so well, the summer ends in blood.