Do you have an appointment at the Place du Monument in Spa? Or are you supposed to meet in the Place du XX août in Liège? Maybe you're supposed to go to the Place du Roi Vainqueur in Etterbeek?... Without even thinking about it, the Belgians pass by, inhabit and live every day in the locations rebaptized after the war, after the Allied victory. If we had to explain this in two words, we could say that the changes of the names of streets, squares and symbolic locations can be grouped into two separate categories: the "debaptizing" of sites referring to the German enemy, and the highlighting of national symbols, persons and references to the Allied victory. This "re-baptizing" will occur throughout Belgian territory, as of the start of the conflict in a sporadic and informal manner with regard to streets bearing names that are reminiscent of the enemy or its place of origin, but will especially occur after the war with, this time, very official name changes.
Abroad: supporting Belgium
With the German forces having occupied Belgium for four years, it is therefore initially abroad that names are changed, and first of all in the country that is culturally closest to French-speaking Belgium: France. In support of the Belgian people and of their actual and symbolic suffering, it baptizes many place names with the words "Belges" (Belgians) or "Belgique" (Belgium). The Quais des Belges à Rouen, Marseille and Y, the rue de l’Armée belge in Valence or the rue des Belges in Colmar are but a few examples of what can be found as indications of support in the four corners of France. In England, throughout the Commonwealth and in the United States, this trend is much less present and, when it is, it is much more difficult to point out, meaning that this is a typically French initiative. Many places in France will adopt the names of heroes from the First World War after the conflict and, in Alsace/Lorraine, the place names will resume their pre-1870 names.
In support of the Belgian people and of their actual and symbolic suffering, it baptizes many place names with the words "Belges" (Belgians) or "Belgique" (Belgium). The Quais des Belges à Rouen, Marseille and Y, the rue de l’Armée belge in Valence or the rue des Belges in Colmar are but a few examples of what can be found as indications of support in the four corners of France.
Name changes in Belgium
From the start of the war, there is an informal desire to debaptize locations that are reminiscent of Germany and the occupiers. This is primarily carried out by the inhabitants themselves, unofficially, sporadically and spontaneously, as a kind of act of passive resistance and a demonstration of hostility towards the enemy, but it will not be until the end of the war that there will be an official momentum to change names in Belgium.
To bring some order to this profusion of name changes and to avoid confusion, the Belgian authorities decide to set up a Royal commission on place names and dialectology. Still existing today, the national commission is a a direct consequence of the "debaptizing – rebaptizing" process linked to the first worldwide conflict. Its task is to ensure a certain degree of uniformity in the manner in which proper or common names are distributed, and also to set certain rules regarding place name usage rights.
Dishonouring the enemy
Removing the names of avenues is considered as a public and symbolic act of demonizing the enemy. Much more than distancing, this is truly a rejection. This is part of the great anti-German propaganda, and in order to clearly indicate that it's because of the damages caused by Germany that these streets are debaptized, the decision was made not so much to give them a name, but truly to indicate the disapproval relative to Germany. The changes of street names can be divided into several categories: place names, names of persons, whether famous or not, and names of military units that illustrated themselves during the conflict. With regard to place names, the names of German locations are replaced with the names of locations that suffered during the war. In Ixelles, the rue de Berlin will be changed to the rue de Liège. In Haren, now an integral part of Brussels-City, the rue de Cologne is rebaptized as the rue des Alliés before having been changed once again to the rue de Verdun, as an homage to the men who died in this region. Some names will not be changed despite a German connotation as is the case, for example, of the rue d’Arenberg, but it's possible that the links between the family and Belgium justified this non-change. Names reminiscent of Germany and that are removed can also be replaced by names of places that were heavily affected by the German invasion. In Watermael-Boitsfort, for example, the rue du Tram, previously the rue d'Ixelles, will become the avenue de Visé and in Saint-Gilles, the rue de Turquie will become the rue de Tamines. Important place names during the conflict will also be honoured: place de l’Yser in Brussels-City and in Liège in particular, or rue de l’Yser in – amongst other places – Uccle, Ans and Tournai, but also boulevard de Dixmude, rue de Ramskapelle or rue du Mont Kemmel in memory of the battle of the same name that occurred in April 1918.
This practice of baptizing locations with a symbolic place name within the Allied imagination serves to pay overall homage to the thousands of men killed, wounded or who simply fought in these same locations. Indeed, it would not be possible to give a street name to each soldier, and this also makes it possible to lastingly integrate these locations into the collective memories of the citizens, with a desire to perpetuate the memory of brilliant actions by the Allied armies, while even masking, voluntarily or otherwise, more delicate moments. Along the same lines, important dates are locked in the memories of the population as the names of squares or streets: the place du XX août in Liège is perhaps the best-known, but there is also the rue du 24 août in Houdemont and the rue du 23 août in Mons, along with many others. Not a single city directly affected by the conflict has not retained a place name trace of these difficult moments.
In Ixelles, the rue de Berlin will be changed to the rue de Liège. In Haren, now an integral part of Brussels-City, the rue de Cologne is rebaptized as the rue des Alliés before having been changed once again to the rue de Verdun, as an homage to the men who died in this region.
The great men: paying homage, but not in any old way, and not to just anyone…
After the war, Belgium set about paying homage to the men who had distinguished themselves during the conflict. This category includes sub-categories, namely: statesmen, politicians, military personnel and heroes of the resistance. The more important the person being honoured, the more important the roadway. The development level of the city or village also plays a significant role in the allocation, or not, of names, and of the choice made regarding this allocation. Not surprisingly, the champion across all categories is indisputably the King of the Belgians, Albert 1st. Such homage is part of the Belgian people's recognition for their sovereign, but is especially part of the efforts to promote King Albert as the "Knight King". Listing all of the locations would be tedious, but if only a few places are to be mentioned, we find references to King Albert in Oupeye, Ottiginies, Ciney, Dinant but also in Flanders, and very obviously in Western Flanders (Furnes, La Panne, Nieuwport) .
Such homage to King Albert is also found in place names that are full of praise, such as place du Roi Vainqueur or Roi Chevalier. Of course, his spouse, Queen Elisabeth is also honoured in Andenne, Liège, Bever, Tamines, Namur and Mettet, to mention but a few of these communities. The qualities of the sovereigns are therefore promoted while, obviously, playing down their common origins with Emperor Wilhelm II. Military offices are also honoured: Général Jacques - a street well-known to drivers in the capital – Général Leman as well as Commandant Naessens, who held the fort of Loncin, are but a few examples. Amongst politicians, the best-known is unquestionably the burgomaster of Brussels, imprisoned as of August 1914, Adolphe Max, who was also honoured after the war by having a Brussels artery named after him. Though more rare, "ordinary citizens", who were often shot for resistance or were simply being in the path of the Germans, are also commemorated by means of a street, or of a location that is renamed in their memory. This is the case of the rue Charles Simon in Bouge in the suburbs of Namur, and of the rue des frères Louis et Anthony Collard in Tintigny. In Cortil-Noirmont, as in a great number of the places of origin of the civilian victims of the Germans, a street has been given the name of François Massart, a civilian victims shot down by the Germans in 1914.
Women have not been forgotten, though they are in the minority when compared with men: Edith Cavell and Gabrielle Petit will be chosen to represent the heroines of the war, but on the other hand, there is no trace of the dozens of high society women who gave their time and their energy to charitable works organised in order to support the Belgian population at war. "Ordinary" soldiers are also honoured, but usually in their home village or city: the best-known example is probably soldier Fonck, the first military victim of the German troops on Belgian soil during the invasion, but the soldiers who fell for their homeland, according to the common vocabulary, are also honoured by the regiment or army division to which they belonged. Certain arteries of Belgian streets will receive the name of a regiment or battalion that distinguished itself during known battles: Boulevard de la Deuxième armée britannique in Forest or avenue du Deuxième régiment de Lanciers in Etterbeek. The fact of using a name of this type pays overall homage to the Belgian and Allied troops, and to their actions.
The more important the person being honoured, the more important the roadway. The development level of the city or village also plays a significant role in the allocation, or not, of names, and of the choice made regarding this allocation.
After the frenetic efforts to "debaptize" places bearing names with a German connotation and to allocate names reminiscent of glories or events to old or new streets in response to a need to ensure the lasting memory of the war, and especially that of the memorable victory, the set-up of the Royal commission on place names and dialectology is intended to conclusively organise these choices and the manner in which they have been made.
The Second World War will also turn the trend upside down and somewhat reverse it: other names will often be added and sometimes create a degree of confusion in the minds of the general public, but in general terms and certainly for Brussels, the First World War will have the greatest impact in terms of place names. Without even thinking about it, every day we pass through sites for which the names result from what happened 100 years ago, and it is up to us to remember the persons, places and facts hidden behind the famous metal plaques that we come across on a daily basis.