# Religion and leisure in occupied Belgium

A statue of the Virgin in the midst of the rubble  - Private collection, Mr. Boone ©

A statue of the Virgin in the midst of the rubble - Private collection, Mr. Boone ©

Over the four years of the occupation, the battalions of German soldiers construct a whole world around themselves. While their missions are generally carried out by day, or at night depending on their schedule, the men still have time to relax and to take part in certain leisure activities. Officers don't really get days off other than periods of leave, while non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers, for their parts, are regularly granted days of rest. As such, two days off are granted every four weeks to non-commissioned officers, and every eight days to ordinary soldiers.

Religion: "Gott mit Uns!"

Religion obviously remains present despite the war. Religious services, both Catholic and Protestant, are celebrated each week in the cities. On feast days, it's also possible to organise a service for soldiers of the Jewish faith. In addition to these weekly services in the cities, that are sometimes too far for the battalions located on the periphery, specific masses are held during Christian holidays. Christmas Eve is prepared a week beforehand, and most of the time, there are two celebrations in order to allow the men on duty at midnight to also attend mass. The major moments in the Christian calendar, such as Easter or Pentecost, are also celebrated. For each of these events, except All Saints' Day, the men receive a small bonus, usually around 5 marks per man, 7.5 per non-commissioned officer, and 15 per officer. This bonus is sometimes distributed over several days before the feast day itself. The men celebrate Christmas or Easter in their quarters, while the officers from all battalions gather in specific locations, such as requisitioned homes or celebration halls.

Catholic and Protestant services are also held on the anniversaries of events, or the birthdays of the Emperor and the King of Bavaria: January 7th for Ludwig III of Bavaria, January 27th for the Emperor, August 25th for the King's Feast and, more rarely, the birthday of the Grand Duke of Baden. Finally, the taking of Belgian cities such as Liège or Brussels is celebrated with religious services in honour of the soldiers killed during the battle.

Sources indicate, without giving the reason or conclusions thereof, that a study on religious affiliation in the battalions was carried out in September 1916. This study is immediately reminiscent of the Judenzählung (counting of the Jews), a study ordered by decree by the Prussian minister of War, Adolf Wild von Hohenborn. This study was intended to assess the number of soldiers of the Jewish faith present within the German army, in response to the growing numbers of rumours according to which Jewish soldiers employed 1001 strategies and their countless connections to avoid finding themselves in the trenches. Nevertheless, this decree is only signed on 11 October 1916, and the study is carried out within the battalions in September. No further mention is made of any other study of this type.

Very soon after their arrival in Belgium, certain battalions assign several of their men in order to create musical companies that will regularly perform before the troops.

Leisure activities

Alongside religious services, the men have access to a range of activities. Concerts, theatres, periodicals, activities at each garrison city's Soldatenheim (kind of recreation centre for soldiers), lectures, the choice is extensive. All performances are held in the city; men stationed on the periphery must therefore travel in order to attend them, notably on their days of leave. The aforesaid activities are intended for the soldiers and non-commissioned officers. The offices rarely mix with the enlisted men. They hold their celebrations together, and quite regularly meet in the evenings.

Reading and writing are quickly encouraged. Starting in April 1915, the companies – even remote from the city centres – each receive 30 marks in order to set up a reading and writing room within their quarters. Less than a month later, they receive periodicals in order to stock it. Starting in January, the government sets up a local press centre and calls on the soldiers for them to participate in its drafting. Books on very pronounced patriotic ideological orientations can be borrowed from the Kommandantur, in exchange for payment.

Concerts are organised on a regular basis. Very soon after their arrival in Belgium, certain battalions assign several of their men in order to create musical companies that will regularly perform before the troops. Orchestras perform often, for celebrations, to welcome battalions coming from Germany, for special celebrations, for the birthdays of the Emperor and of the King of Bavaria, as well as for the taking of Belgian cities, when wreaths are laid at German cemeteries. They also perform for the men quite assiduously, most of the time according to fixed schedules, once or twice each week, in predetermined locations. The most talented musicians from all of the battalions are exceptionally gathered for major presentations in Brussels, such as in April 1916 in order to perform Wagner's "Ring" for a week.

Theatre performances, requiring more organisation, are more rare but nevertheless not absent from the leisure activities available to soldiers. Troupes are put together in order to perform at the front and in the occupied cities, such as the "Rhein-Main. Verband für Volksbildung in Frankfurt" that will perform throughout Belgium to capacity houses made up primarily of Germans, but also a few Belgians who will often have to answer for this attendance at the end of the war. Journalists comment on the good atmosphere and happiness of the soldiers.

To encourage improvement amongst the men, small contests are organised in the cities, offering significant prizes ranging from 4 to 25 marks. At the start of the war, shooting competitions are the most common. Each company's 10 best shooters compete in front of their supporters. Later, grenade-throwing contests are organised between the battalions.

Certain special activities are offered at the Soldatheim in the event of the presence of a special guest such as, for example, a missionary relating his experiences in Palestine before offering an exhibition of photos from the Samoan Islands, a German possession at the time. Other activities are organised in the quarters of the battalions, such as a slideshow evening in the Fourons placer for the men guarding the border.

Finally, the men can attend lectures, a means used throughout the war, in order to learn about aviation or to encourage their religious sentiments with a conference on "ethical life and the Catholic soldier", particularly starting in October 1917, at which point the army high command decides to order patriotism courses in order to boost the morale of the troops. The aim is to give brief presentations within the companies that would then be followed by a discussion, organised by the company commanders on subjects having to do with the military and economic situation in Germany. Literature on these subjects is made available to the men in order to prepare for these sessions. These sessions require the use of various media, meaning that a few men from each battalion are trained in cinematographic projection. From the first month during which such lectures are organised, i.e. December 1917, a variety of topics are tackled, allowing the men to learn about the local and international stakes. As such, the first topics for these lecture-debates include "England, our great enemy", "Borrowing in wartime and the pressure from Germany's creditors", "German agriculture in wartime", "The importance of the people staying behind in Germany", "Supply difficulties, particularly involving potatoes", "The importance of conserving coal" or "The importance and reasons behind the limitation of leave". While the topics are primarily patriotic, the men can nevertheless ask questions and lead the debate. A study of the titles of these lectures points to a certain ideological evolution: in January-February 1918, alongside economic topics, discussions focus on "Success of the German offensive in Cambrai" or the "Influence of the strike by German and Austrian workers on the desire for victory amongst our adversaries", while in August, the "Rights of peoples to self-determination" are discussed.

While the Germans are sent to Belgium in order to occupy the country and ensure compliance with the authority of the Governor General, the commanders quickly realise that every aspect in the daily lives of the soldiers must be considered. The static trench war will last for 4 years, and the morale of the troops is particularly important. While intellectual leisure activities are organised in all cities, soldiers still nevertheless sometimes find ways to get around the prohibition on going to the cafés and drinking alcohol. Boredom and homesickness are the ills that must be combated amongst the troops at the start of the war but, over time, the military hierarchy has to devote more time to soothing the growing disquiet with regard to Germany's situation.