# The Belgian population in 14-18 : demographics of the little country

In 14-18, the Belgian population experienced different consequences than the other allied countries  - Private collection Mrs. Van Herck (RTBF Collection) ©

In 14-18, the Belgian population experienced different consequences than the other allied countries - Private collection Mrs. Van Herck (RTBF Collection) ©

The German army invades Belgian territory on 4 August 1914, violating its integrity. The shocked population witnesses these events. It does not yet know that it will live at war for four long years. When there are populations, there are studies on the movements of this population. An interesting subject, but difficult in view of missing data. Indeed, it must be recalled that Belgium was a zone occupied by the enemy, and that the government in exile did not always have the means at its disposal to perform complete statistical studies, in view of the destruction of many archives stored in communal sites, some of which are destroyed by fire, and as a result of poor information communication.

One must therefore be cautious when considering the data from the regions that were especially affected by the battles or the 1914 invasion. Also, a demographic study of such a short period is always a delicate matter. Nevertheless, recent studies on the subject serve to provide an idea of how the overall Belgian population managed during the four years of the war.

How did the Belgian population change during the First World War? Did this war influence Belgian demographics in some manner? Was there, as in other countries, a "lost generation"? Let's take a closer look!

Births at half-mast

The number of births declined from 156,389 in 1914 (for the entire year), to 85,056 in 1918. Several reasons for this decline: the absence of men of procreating age, while much less pronounced than in France or England, the declining number of marriages that very logically results in fewer pregnancies, difficult social and economic conditions, shortages that lead to amenorrhoea (i.e. missed menstrual cycles), and deficiencies. All of these contribute to lowering the number of births.The number of marriages also declines in 1915 (falling from 41,095 to… 24,654 marriages). And fewer marriages necessarily mean fewer births.

Men of procreating age are at the front, or later on forced labour in Germany, or even in occupied Belgium, but everyone agrees that this isn't the moment to start a family. This decline will continue throughout the period of the war: 99,360 births in 1916, then 86,675 in 1917 and 85,056 in 1918.When we look at the ratio between births and deaths during these years, the decline is even more striking: the rate falls drastically from 47,669 to 23,617 between 1914 in 1915, and then becomes negative: -1,684 in 1916, and especially -38,149 in 1917 and -72,284 in 1918.

The birth rate begins to pick back up in 1919. From 8,013 births in January across the territory, there is an increase to 10,098 children in August and 14,690 in October; this resumption due to the end of the conflict is significant, though not really a baby boom related to the end of the war. The lack of births in Belgium after the war remains a source of concern and will be the subject of pro-baby campaigns in order to bring women back into the home.

The discussions on the need to kickstart the population growth begin at the end of the war, with bitter debates between the proponents of a high birth rate policy, and those in favour of a relative control of births.The former put forward the need to bring children into the world, preferably males, in order to swell the ranks and defend the homeland should it be attacked again, while the latter are in favour of a policy of controlled births while leaving couples to decide on the number of children that they want, which they believe would avoid misery and abandoned children…

 

Men of procreating age are at the front, or later on forced labour in Germany, or even in occupied Belgium, but everyone agrees that this isn't the moment to start a family.

Fewer marriages, but lasting!

In 1914, there were 41,095 marriages over the course of the year. It should be noted that, generally, most marriages occur before the autumn. 1915 sees a sharp decline in the number of marriages: 24,654, which is just over half the 1914 figure. The establishment of a long and geographically delimited war as well as the specific measures implemented by the government in Le Havre in order to make it easier for soldiers to marry will help the number of marriages to slowly increase: 30,458 in 1916 10 32,974 in 1917, and thereafter a small push to 43,558 in 1918, but much more than the administrative measures intended to facilitate marriage, the real reason for the relative resumption of marriages is the end of the war.

In 1919, marriages resume especially in the bracket of people 25-30 years of age, with an explosion of the latter in 1920 with 106,514 marriages celebrated that year, i.e. the highest rate recorded since the creation of Belgium, though it should be noted that the general curve of marriages was already in an upward phase before the war.Divorces in Belgium were not or seldom counted during the conflict, but there were 1,207 divorces in 1913, versus 623 in 1919. This is explained by the fact that the returns were spread over all of 1919, that some time was needed in order for the decision to divorce to be made and, especially, that the legal provisions facilitating divorce for certain categories of persons had not yet been implemented. In this regard, one can truly speak of a delaying effect that continued well beyond the turning point of the 1920s, without counting the households that were officiously separated or "extinct", that were obviously also not counted.

One cannot say that the Belgian population experienced a lost generation

Deaths? Yes, but fewer than anticipated...

Contrary to what one may think, the number of deaths in Belgium during the period from 1914 to 1918 is not extraordinarily higher as a result of the war.

There were 108,720 deaths in 1914, and 157,340 in 1918. This figure increased between 1916 in 1918, while remaining not extremely worrisome for the overall population even though the most fragile people who fell victim to epidemics have to be added to the military deaths (42,987) and civilian deaths due to war (+/- 64,000). Elderly people are affected, but the popular population groups seem to have resisted better than populations that are normally better protected against misery and illnesses.

It is worth remembering that spectacular efforts are made by charities in order to avoid having the childhood death rate adversely affect the overall number of deaths. Thanks to the benevolence actions targeting infants (Drops of milk…), many deaths amongst very young children were avoided. It is therefore not the number of deaths that is so striking for Belgian demographics during the Great War, but rather the lack of births.

There is a slight increase in the number of deaths, probably due to the circumstances of the war but without the impact of military and civilian losses being decisive, but there was especially a decline of births.

Immigration: an important factor

While the lower birthrate and unexpected deaths are significant factors for explaining Belgian demographics during the war, one must also consider the immigration, whether forced or voluntary, that we see during and after the war. From the British authorities, the Belgian Minister for the interior obtained the numbers of civil status documents involving Belgian refugees in England. Thanks to these documents, we learn that 265 Belgian births occurred between October and December 1914 i.e. pregnancies already in progress at the time of the invasion of Belgian territory, and that this birth figure would climb to 1,111 for the period from July to December 1915. This figure then drops to 942 in 1917. Also, 4,093 Belgians marry in England, with 2,523 losing their lives there, especially in 1915.

A census of Belgian refugees indicates, for its part, that 325,928 Belgian residents are still in France at the end of 1918, in the Seine and Pas-de-Calais regions where the Belgian government in exile is located, but also in Calvados and in Ille-et-Vilaine.

It is nevertheless important to note that this does not take into account the people who left after the events of August 1914 but who returned immediately thereafter, nor persons who, for their own reasons, did not respond to the census request.After the war, the bitter souvenir that the war will have left like a nasty scar as well as the economic problems may have been enough to drive a significant number of Belgians away.Families emigrate primarily to the United States, where the image of “Poor Little Belgium” is still very present, and where they find work and land, often with the help of Belgian immigré descendents.

So what of the "lost generation" then?

Unlike in Germany, France or the United Kingdom, all of which suffered heavy losses, one cannot say that the Belgian population experienced a lost generation. The explanation lies in the fact that the number of men who went off to fight is modest when compared with the total population numbers, unlike our neighbours and allies during the war, who saw many more men go off to the front lines. But this does not mean that the generations that experienced the war years came through them unscathed: the country was occupied for four years, the memory of the German atrocities, deprivations and humiliations by the occupier remained and continue to remain in the memories, even though time and a second war with the same enemy played a role. In terms of Belgium, it is therefore more logical to speak of a traumatized generation, rather than a skipped generation.

As a kind of conclusion

With a decline from 7,684,492 inhabitants to 7,555,027, Belgium's demographic landscape was not radically altered. There is a slight increase in the number of deaths, probably due to the circumstances of the war but without the impact of military and civilian losses being decisive, but there was especially a decline of births.And while the First World War had profound repercussions on the Belgian population on social, economic and cultural levels, one cannot say that the low demographic impact was so much directly caused by the war as by the circumstances surrounding it, the most significant of which would be the weakness of the population which then becomes more sensitive to illnesses, especially if they propagate quickly.

Statistics

  • Population number:
    • Change of the number of births:
      • 1914 : 156,389
      • 1916 : 99,360
      • 1918 : 85,056
    • Change of the number of marriages:
      • 1914 : 41,095
      • 1916 : 30,458
      • 1918 : 43,558
    • Change of the number of deaths:
      • 1914 : 108,720
      • 1916 : 101,044
      • 1918 : 157,340
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