# The Debruyne family: life in the unoccupied zone

Michel and Maurits Debruyne during their stay at a school colony in France  - Private collection Ignace Debruyne ( http://www.ignacedebruyne.eu ) - All rights reserved ©

Michel and Maurits Debruyne during their stay at a school colony in France - Private collection Ignace Debruyne ( http://www.ignacedebruyne.eu ) - All rights reserved ©

In the autumn of 1914, Belgium is torn apart: invaded since 4 August 1914, most of the territory is under German domination and only a small part of the territory, on the other side of the front line, is said to be the "unoccupied zone". This is where troops circulate, resting or coming to and going from the trenches, and this is where the war is truly organised. While the population living here will not suffer the greater or lesser "inconveniences" of life in the occupied territory, it is nevertheless an unwilling witness and front row spectator of the conflict. This is the zone that feels the greatest effects of the war, it is also one of the closest zones to the fighting, and the population is a witness to the destruction of buildings and to the sometimes dramatic consequences of bombardments. Those who have the means to do so, flee. The others remain, powerless, protecting themselves as well as possible, sometimes going off to join family members living in more isolated corners.

This zone is home to the men, women and children who see the war closest up: troop movements, continuous presence of soldiers, field hospitals. Such suffering, equally material (some houses are inhabitable or requisitioned by the Allies), physical and moral (war trauma, psychological consequences…) is part of the events experienced by the population of this small part of Western Flanders. We will now consider the history of the Debruyne family, for a better understanding of the lives of all families.

In Western Flanders

Ignace Debruyne is the grandson of Henricus Debruyne and of Marie-Thérèse Vandendriessche. It is thanks to him and to his passion – the history of his family and of his region – that we can share with you the story of Henricus, Marie-Thérèse and their children.

Henricus is born in Furnes in 1878, the son of Marcellus Debruyne and his wife, Rosalia. A labourer, Henricus gets married in 1903 in Furnes to Marie-Thérèse, daughter of Carolus-Ludovicus (Charles-Louis) Vandendriessche and of his wife Sophia. They come from Wulpen, only a few kilometres away. After marrying, Henricus becomes a mason and notably finds work on the project for the roof of the Sainte-Walburge de Furnes church, that undergoes significant renovation works in 1910. His wife, like most Belgian women at the start of the last century, looks after the home and children. The family is large, as was common at the time, with a total of 15 children, some of whom die very young.

When war breaks out and the Germans invade the territory, the inhabitants feel consternation as in the rest of the country, but do not yet know that their city will be in the so-called "unoccupied" zone, on the other side of the front line. They know only that the country is at war, but for how long?

Furnes : a key city for the war

When war breaks out and the Germans invade the territory, the inhabitants feel consternation as in the rest of the country, but do not yet know that their city will be in the so-called "unoccupied" zone, on the other side of the front line. They know only that the country is at war, but for how long?

This war initially brings them columns of refugees, fleeing the advancing German army and its atrocities. Shocked and haggard refugees, who wonder where they should stop and who must be looked after with the available means. The more well-off inhabitants already decide to leave the country. The city then sees the soldiers arrive, Belgian and foreign, who cross through the city and turn its habits upside down. Furnes is gradually transformed into a giant camp, a place for the various regiments to meet with one another, to live, to be treated for their wounds, and to rest. A military hospital is set up in order to accommodate the unceasing stream of wounded coming from the front. The more fortunate habitants who have not already left then flee the city, by train or car, leaving the more unfortunate to their sad fate, even though a large number of them will take shelter with family members inhabiting the outer periphery.

In October 1914, the King of the Belgians Albert 1st, at the head of his army, installs his general headquarters at Furnes prior to the first battle of the Yser. On 18 October 1914, he reviews the troops in the city. The city must, in fact, come to terms with the war and with the fact that it is now such a part of the city's day-to-day life. All of this military life is organised, of course, but there remains a degree of effervescence, if not relative confusion in what will become the capital of free Belgium. Special measures are also taken given the strong presence of soldiers in the city. For example, cafés must have special business hours just for soldiers. Henceforth, the city and the war will blend into one, and Henricus and Marie-Thérèse, who is expecting a new child, will be some of the immediate witnesses.

Unoccupied, but at war…

For four long years, the City of Furnes will live to the rhythm of war, bombardments and gas attacks. Fearing that offices could be burned out, the most precious and most important documents are carefully stored away. Civilians relocate as attacks occur and buildings are destroyed. Living in a city at war also means dealing with logistical problems in order to obtain food and clothing, even though supplies can be obtained from the surrounding farms. Not surprisingly, the members of the Debruyne family also witness the fires and destruction, the insistent stream of wounded pouring into the military hospital, and the experiences of the soldiers and the city's other inhabitants, from the vantage point of their home where they remain for the entire war.

During attacks on the city, an adjacent part of the Sainte-Walburge church, a worksite that Henricus knows well, is badly damaged. With his knowledge of construction, Henricus doubtlessly helped with the clearing of destroyed homes, but this remains an assumption. Despite bombardments and limited access to the centre of Furnes, life goes on for the Debruyne family as well, and in April 1915, the family welcomes little Bertha.

That's the great paradox of life in the unoccupied zone: life continues, but the war is omnipresent across the countryside, and certainly much more significant than in certain corners of occupied Belgium, where Germans are virtually unseen for the duration of the war. It's a dirty, long and painful war, even for civilians in the unoccupied zone. Being a civilian in a city so affected by the consequences of war does not provide shelter from the difficult moments of life and, as though witnessing the horrors of war, at least from the edges, were not enough, the Debruyne family sees little Bertha die at the age of four months, in August 1915. Another child, George, will be born in 1916.

Cognizant of the strategic importance of the City of Furnes for the Allies, on 21 and 22 August 1917, the Germans launch a gas attack on the city, forcing the authorities to distribute gas masks to the inhabitants. It is against this backdrop that the Debruyne family lives, or rather survives, with the children from which it has not been separated since the start of the war. The family's daily life is punctuated by troop movements and alarms after attacks on the city by the Germans.

That's the great paradox of life in the unoccupied zone: life continues, but the war is omnipresent across the countryside, and certainly much more significant than in certain corners of occupied Belgium, where Germans are virtually unseen for the duration of the war. It's a dirty, long and painful war, even for civilians in the unoccupied zone.

Imminent final offensive, generalized evacuation of the children

For children residing in the unoccupied zone, religious or lay charitable organisations very quickly begin to think about their well-being and safety, and organise evacuations either to France, as far away from the front lines as possible, or to Switzerland. The fact of being separated from the children does not reassure the families who, in general, have always lived in the region and are very attached to it.

At the start of 1918, with the imminent final offensive, the children remaining in the area are evacuated in turn to school colonies. These evacuations intensify, and in April 1918, it's the turn of two Debruyne brothers. Within the Debruyne family, Michel, then 11 years old and his brother Maurits (Maurice in France), 7 at the time, are both evacuated to the school colony in Pourville. This Norman colony will be housed in the city's casino, given the great demand for buildings. Their experience will be similar to that of hundreds of other children from the unoccupied zone, sent to school colonies: lessons, chores, strict discipline, regularly interspersed with mandatory activities. The colonies, run by teachers and strict educators, are not holiday camps and, though the children are cared for correctly, this is no replacement for the family home. The children can correspond with their parents but, even from unoccupied zone to unoccupied zone, the mail service is poor, and the authorities in charge of the children are stingy with news.

For the duration of the war, Henricus and Marie-Thérèse remain in Furnes with the youngest children that are still babies and with Irma, one of their daughters then around 10 years of age, who probably remained in order to provide her help in case of problems. On 16 October 1918, the last bomb falls on Furnes and, a month later, the weapons go quiet, leaving behind them a partially destroyed city and inhabitants feeling lost. But life goes on.

The colonies, run by teachers and strict educators, are not holiday camps and, though the children are cared for correctly, this is no replacement for the family home. The children can correspond with their parents but, even from unoccupied zone to unoccupied zone, the mail service is poor, and the authorities in charge of the children are stingy with news.

Peace returns

On 11 November 1918, the cannons finally go quiet in Belgium. It's the Armistice. Everyone is happy to hear about the peace, though considered provisional, within the region, and Henricus and Marie-Thérèse are eager for the return of their boys after so many months of absence. On 9 January 1919 , Michel and Maurits finally board the train to leave the Pourville colony, their home for just under a year, to return to their parents at Furnes. One can imagine that the return trip must have warmed their little hearts more than the anguishing outbound journey to an unknown location and language. In early February 1919, the little sister of Michel and Maurits, Zoé, is born in Furnes, as something of a symbol of renewal and of the peace that has finally returned.

Reconstruction work then begins in Belgium, which is once again free, however ravaged. The City of Furnes will then be the theatre of scenes of joy when Belgian and foreign authorities visit it in 1919 and 1920. For the region and its inhabitants, a long and difficult period of reconstruction then begins. This period is often neglected when talking about the Great War. Civilians whose homes have been destroyed will be accommodated in prefabricated shacks, while the traces of the war will never be totally wiped away from the countryside. Proof of this can be found in the shells that are still regularly unearthed in the region and that, even 100 years after the war, cause new damage and new victims.

The study of the story of the Debruyne family is indicative of the importance of studying the daily lives of civilians in an unoccupied zone. Indeed, though we often think about the Belgian population during the war, the men and women who stayed in occupied Belgium and, more rarely, the many refugees who went to France, Great Britain and the Netherlands, we must also not forget the people who remained on the unoccupied side of the lines. These women and men saw the war from their doorsteps, and suffered the material and moral consequences. Mr. Ignace Debruyne has very kindly agreed to tell us this story, so that no one will forget the experiences of civilians during the war, especially of those children who lived through the war, and so that everyone will remember the populations within the unoccupied zone during the Great War.

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