Amongst the soldiers trying to hold off the German army during the invasion of Belgian territory in August 1914, some managed a fighting retreat, others were killed defending their own country, and still others were captured, most of the time during the battles that raged in the initial weeks of the war on Belgian territory. The latter included Robert Descamps, originally from Western Flanders, who uses his Flemish dialect to write diaries of the small and major events of his captivity, undoubtedly after the fact, with regard to his last days as a free soldier.
The question of prisoners of war is a delicate one: they fought the enemy and then, after their capture, were detained for long months in Germany. Nevertheless, with the return of peace, they do not benefit from the same recognition and aura as their brothers in arms who held out for four years of war.
The life of Robert Descamps and his family will be considered here for the purposes of describing the story of the prisoners of the 1914-1918 war, and of recalling their suffering and that of their families.
A soldier's life in a neutral country
Robert Jules Corneille Descamps was born in Voormezele, in Western Flanders, a few kilometres from Ypres, on 26 March 1882. Son of Isidore Descamps, labourer, and of Louise Stamper. He's a good man, from an honest and hard-working family. A bakery labourer, he enjoys spending time with his friends. He's a fine looking man of average size, brown hair and eyes. Looking for stability and as suggested by his parents, he joins the army in 1902. He views it as an opportunity for a fine career. In 1903, he is promoted to the rank of corporal, and on 1 October 1906, he receives his first seniority chevron. He is therefore already in the army when he marries Emerence Willems in 1907. The couple has a son, Fernand on 27 August 1908.
On 1 October 1912, he receives the military medal second class for seniority and services rendered, and on 16 December 1913, he is promoted to the rank of sergeant.
On the eve of the Great War, he is therefore a professionally trained soldier with a certain degree of experience already behind him, even though Belgium did not participate in any conflict in the early 20th century. Robert likes his trade and, especially, he likes being in the service of his country.
On the eve of the Great War, he is therefore a professionally trained soldier with a certain degree of experience already behind him, even though Belgium did not participate in any conflict in the early 20th century.
Defending the Fort until the end!
At the time of the general mobilisation at the end of July 1914, Robert is assigned to the fortified positions in Antwerp province, more specifically in Breendonck. This fort, one of the forts comprising the fortified position of Antwerp, is relatively new and has just been put into service under the authority of Commandant Weyns. Located on the Brussels-Antwerp axis, it's therefore an important strategic position to be defended. But the enemy progresses and arrives at the gates of Breendonck in September. Robert writes: “On Friday 4 September, the German, in other words our enemy, tried to overrun our fort without success. As of that moment, the Germans stayed hidden and dug trenches in order to be sheltered from our casemate-located cannons. At various locations, they placed large and heavy cannons in order to oblige us to leave our protection, which they managed to do after 35 days. “...” Their works must probably have finished on Tuesday 29 September, when at 6:30 in the morning, heavy shells began to fall on the fort”.
The German troops laying siege to the fort were in fact sufficiently far away to avoid the bulk of the return fire. 104 German shells fell on the fort that day. But the worst is yet to come. On 6 October, while some men were on "potato" duty, a large calibre shell exploded near them. No deaths fortunately at the time, but the rain of shells doubled, and more than 200 would rain down that same day!
Later that day, the men holding the Breendonck fort see men approaching while waving a white flag. They initially think that these are English troops coming as reinforcements, with little knowledge of the general situation of the Belgian troops in the region. In fact, it's a group of Germans who have come to take possession of the fortified position, incorrectly thinking the fort to be deserted. The fort's Commandant refuses. The parliamentarians immediately leave, and the rain of shells resumes even worse. Robert's superior gives the order for maximum fire in all directions. Despite the violence of the firing, it isn't enough.
The fort is caught in a barrage of gunfire: “In the galleries, men crouch down. Head between their knees, hands on their head. Looking completely discouraged", "they were men waiting to die.” With the fort's lines of defence destroyed and the troops supposed to defend it totally out of action, the fort and its occupants are now completely at the mercy of the German troops. The building will suffer major damage and men will be killed or wounded, which leaves a strong impression on Robert as he speaks of the chaplain "with his shoulder torn away" and while mentioning "the sub-lieutenant bleeding from his nose and mouth, with swelling below his hairline.”
The many wounded include the fort's commander, Weyns, who is seriously injured and who dies a few days later in a German field hospital at Malines. The entire surviving battery is therefore captured.
Later that day, the men holding the Breendonck fort see men approaching while waving a white flag. They initially think that these are English troops coming as reinforcements, with little knowledge of the general situation of the Belgian troops in the region. In fact, it's a group of Germans who have come to take possession of the fortified position, incorrectly thinking the fort to be deserted.
“ You can't imagine what kind of sorry state we were in”. It's with these words that Robert describes becoming a prisoner of war.
In line, watched on both sides by German guards, the prisoners remain long enough to watch the German commander take possession of the fort, at which point they are given the order to march in silence while looking straight ahead. It's difficult to imagine how these men must have felt at that moment.
The column of prisoners walks through the suburbs of Willebroek. Robert passes near his home. The idea comes that he should look back one last time, towards his house, his wife and his child… he changes his mind. What would be the point? If his family sees him captured, it would just mean even more pain, and who knows what lies ahead for him? At least he sees the building, it's still standing and hasn't been damaged. Robert remains in his column.
During their difficult march towards Brussels, the prisoners, still heavily guarded, are barely given anything to drink, and even less to eat. Some inhabitants give them vegetables, and a few are able to gather some turnips under the watchful eye of a sympathetic German officer. News travels fast, and some relatives of the prisoner-soldiers draw close to them for a final goodbye. Though suffering from being separated from Emerence and Fernand for an indefinite period, maybe forever, Robert is happy that they aren't there: “I'm already suffering too much”. At night, the prisoners are taken to Schaerbeek where a train is waiting for them.
Destination : Germany
After a long train ride punctuated by one stop to relieve themselves and eat a kind of disgusting pea soup, Robert and his comrades in misfortune arrive at the Parchim camp, a few kilometres from the Baltic. There they remain for 6 months. From several Allied nationalities, the prisoners are organised into sections in charge of daily life under the tents and tarpaulins. Camp life is hard: exhaustion, hunger, illness, poorly treated injuries, all of these things mark the soldiers, and some succumb to these difficult living conditions. Robert estimates the number of prisoners at 9000, and imagines quite logically that deaths will be inevitable in the camp.
In the funeral eulogies that are read, the prisoners promise to go console the surviving spouse and children, but soon the prisoners understand that it's too hard on their morale to attend all of the funerals. Especially since they wonder whether or not they might be next…
For his wife remaining in Flemish Brabant, there then begins a long period of waiting, filled with doubts and despair. But life goes on as well. As such, Emerence takes care of Fernand, of the household, looking for food and obtaining aid. Little Fernand certainly has to go to school, if it hasn't been closed or requisitioned. Undoubtedly, she receives support from her family and the assistance provided to the wives of soldiers by the different charities.
On 3 March 1915, Robert and his comrades in misfortune learn that they must gather their meagre effects and prepare to leave – the Walloons on one side, the Flemish on the other – that next day. Some hope that they will finally be liberated. Their hopes will be disappointed: this is just a transfer to the Lugumkloster labour camp near Denmark, some three hours by train from Parchim.
To reach it, the prisoners must reboard the train under appalling meteorological conditions, and with their only sustenance being a bit of kohlrabi and a soup spoon of rice per person. In this new camp, Robert continues to write. It's his way of holding out. In his diaries, he records important information about the life of the camp, describes its organisation into sections of some 50 prisoners, the various nationalities present (British, French…), the assigned tasks…
He describes his environment, and also draws: the barracks, the surrounding landscape. He does so in order to remember, but also for proof of what he has seen, as had been suggested during his military instruction. In this camp as well, the lack of food and care carry off a number of his comrades. He describes the burial of his friend Sauwens, praising his memory and devotion, and promising once again to tell his widow and children about his bravery.
Robert writes to Emerence. The correspondence is irregular and monitored, but it's the only way available to him to let his wife know that he's still alive, and thinking of her and their son. He also sends her drawings, dated April 1918. The censor fails to notice that the messages are encoded… When inclined in a certain way, a message between the lines can be read, i.e. "souvenir 1914-1918". Danielle, Robert's granddaughter, believes that he made them during his detention, though it's also possible, according to the dedication on one of the cards, that they were the work of another prisoner, that naturally takes away nothing from the intention and meaning of the message.
During this time, in Belgium…
In Belgium, time is passing slowly. From what little Emerence said after the war – little was expected from the women who keep things to themselves – it was especially the lack of news and the waiting for Robert's return that marked her the most. We know that one moment, she was living in the Peperstraat in Willebroek. Perhaps it was already the family home in 1914? Maybe Emerence and Fernand had to move because of excessively high rent. Life isn't easy for the wife and son of soldier Descamps.
Unfortunately, Robert's diaries as a prisoner are only partial. Little is known of his other years in detention. Were they seized or lost? No one knows, but it is certain that he remained in Germany until the end of the war, probably suffering even more from the length of his detention.
Repatriated to Belgium on 12 January 1919, he goes home the next day, and one can easily imagine his emotions when he can finally hold his wife and child in his arms once again. Robert will only have one short month of leave in order to recover from the harsh conditions of captivity and to visit with his family, including his son Fernand whom he has not seen for four and a half years.
In terms of his pay, the army considers two months and 15 days of the front, and the rest of the duration of the war at the rear. This pay difference is explained by his time in captivity, which has a different financial value from the viewpoint of the military administration. Also, to obtain this pension, the new commander of the 14th company of the regiment of foot to which Robert belonged will have to confirm the events experienced by him during those difficult days in October 1914. After his brief leave, Robert returns to the army, but we don't know if he maintains contact with his co-prisoners. Wars have something particular, in that they leave both visible and invisible traces over the long term, and the consequences will be dramatic for Robert.
In the autumn of 1919, Robert is supervising the Gontrode depot near Melle, looking after the collection and neutralization of unexploded ordinance. On 23 October, his superior Perret asks him to take care of the explosives located in the field that they're in the process of clearing of mines. Robert is accustomed to this task, it's routine for him, but the fatality of accidents strikes even the most experienced mine clearers, and the device explodes.
Robert is seriously injured. Immediately looked after by the emergency services, Robert is urgently brought back to the medical post, and placed in a dentist's chair. He is suffering so that he bends the bars of the chair in pain… He is seriously wounded. Pieces of the explosive have embedded themselves in his body, including in his face. Robert loses his sight in one eye, which is replaced by a glass prosthesis. But the traces of this terrible accident will also be less visible. His granddaughter Danielle recalls the pain that he would feel from time to time when the shell fragments stuck in his arm, and that they had never been able to remove, reminded him of their presence. He would grimace in pain, but never mention the worst hours of his life. Awarded the Medal of Victory, the Order of Leopold II and the 1914-1918 commemorative medal, he relates none of this to his family, probably in order to protect them, and he was apparently never a member of any veterans' association. His diaries will be discovered long after his death.
Robert also says little to his family about his captivity, preferring like so many other soldiers to keep to himself all of his memories of the prisoner of war camps in Germany. Once back together, the family resumes its life – as though it had "almost" never been interrupted – but in his heart, Robert will always hold the memory of his comrades in misfortune and his years of war. After the weeks of hospitalisation after the accident, Robert resumes his service in the army, assigned to tasks suited to his handicap. On 25 April 1922, he is promoted to the rank of master sergeant. He dies on 17 February 1954, the anniversary of the birthdate of King of the Belgians Albert 1st, for whom he had so much admiration.
On 23 October, his superior Perret asks him to take care of the explosives located in the field that they're in the process of clearing of mines. Robert is accustomed to this task, it's routine for him, but the fatality of accidents strikes even the most experienced mine clearers, and the device explodes.
Souvenirs that are kept quiet, but memories to be preserved.
Not surprisingly, Robert Descamps does not emerge unharmed from "his" war of 1914. A prisoner for four years, he will bear the visible and visible traces that his relatives will seldom see. Did he want to protect them while keeping the horrors of war to himself? Did he want to definitively turn the page on the war? He takes his memories and his pain to the grave with him. The men, such as Robert Descamps and so many of his comrades in misfortune, will suffer consequences from the war, but the locations will also not be left unharmed.
His own region will also be heavily damaged by the fighting. Thousands of civilians will be affected by the battles in the region. As to the sadly remembered Breendonck fort, the Nazi authorities will use it in the Second World War when deporting hundreds of Jewish people towards the death camps, and to imprison members of the resistance waiting to be sent to Germany as prisoners, while the history of the fort during the First World War will be somewhat forgotten, along with that of the men who defended it in September 1914.
The drawings and diaries of Robert Descamps have been carefully preserved by his granddaughter Danielle, who kindly agreed to share the story of her grandparents with us, and to explain, with simple words filled with infinite tenderness for grandfather and his family, how Robert must have felt during his imprisonment in Germany, as well as the impact that Robert's stay in the German camps must have had on Emerence and Fernand.