Three brothers at war. Certainly an idea that would terrify any family mother. And yet, this is what happened to the Fabry family during the Great War. The Fabry family is a unified family, believing and devout. The family farm is in Avins-en-Condroz, in the region of Liége, not far from Huy. From this large family, three brothers, Paul, Jean and Louis will face the fire of war. The oldest, Louis, born in Harsin in 1884, joins a religious order in 1907 and keeps precise diaries throughout the war. In 1910, the brothers lose their mother. This is an event that will mark them profoundly, including during their war years.
Louis is ordained as a priest of the Premonstratensian Canons in 1913 at the Abbey de Parc d'Heverlée, just before the start of the conflict. When war erupts, Paul and Jean join as volunteers to defend their country. Louis joins them in the early 1915. The three brothers miraculously survive the conflict, with "just" a wound for Louis. Louis, who likes to write, describes his war years in his diaries. These diaries, astonishingly found by chance by his family at the start of our century, tell us about life under fire, day-to-day life during the war, and the horror of the trenches. The organisation of the Belgian army is also described, with its victories and setbacks. These diaries, from which 1916 is unfortunately missing, provide a unique and extraordinary testimonial that we wished to highlight.
Finding his brothers at any cost
Paul and Jean are already at war, having volunteered in 1914. Their youngest brother, Louis, can't hold back. Out of patriotism and not wanting to leave his brothers on their own, he decides, with the benediction of his religious hierarchy and of his father, to make his way to the Netherlands by a torturous route, with the aim of joining the Belgian army. Conscious of the risks that such an attempt and such a commitment would include, he considers that going to the front is more important than anything. After an aborted attempt to cross the border, and willing to face the danger that capture would mean, Louis finally manages to make his way to Dutch territory.
Out of patriotism and not wanting to leave his brothers on their own, he decides, with the benediction of his religious hierarchy and of his father, to make his way to the Netherlands by a torturous route, with the aim of joining the Belgian army. Conscious of the risks that such an attempt and such a commitment would include, he considers that going to the front is more important than anything.
Duty and service
After some time in training, Louis is also thrown into the thick of it. His diaries tell us about his life in the trenches, his assignments, the bombs falling all around him, and the daily lives of the soldiers. No subject is spared, not even when, having joined the 13th regiment of the line in early July 1915, he is briefly arrested on suspicion of espionage. He is quickly exonerated as a result of knowing people from his region, who can confirm his identity. Throughout his commitment, the condition of the trenches, the fatigue of the soldiers, the material and moral difficulties that the troops must face, the mud and the cold are very accurately described by Louis Fabry, even as far as the cold "that makes your feet freeze".
His writing style is fluid, very pleasant to read and quite thrilling. He also describes the surrounding landscapes, destroyed farms and the owners in tears. About the Ramskappelle Church, nicknamed “Ramschrapnel”, he writes: "You would have to be as surefooted as a goat to enter the church, that must've been very beautiful, though only the walls remain. Ah! If you could see the horrible things done by war!"
Louis draws building plans, sketches of the surroundings and attaches photographs with glue, though somewhat concerned what the enemy could do with such information: "I hope that this won't fall into their hands", he writes in July 1915. He describes trench construction very accurately, but while qualifying somewhat: "Of course, I'm talking to you about trenches as though you know what they are, and I bet that you couldn't even imagine what ours are like" . He was quite aware that his war experiences could only ever be truly understood by another soldier.
Alongside his service to the nation and the care provided to the wounded, Louis never forgot his calling: he replaces colleagues, regularly says mass, often under difficult conditions. “Sunday 1 August (1915), I celebrated the holy mass out in the windy open for the company" . On 17 May 1917, he celebrates the feast of the Ascension folded in half, in a shelter. His faith never leaves him. He replaces chaplains, and helps many soldiers in their final moments. He does so without fear of danger, earning the recognition of his superiors. In October 1916, Louis is mentioned in army dispatches for “having twice, in broad daylight and under enemy fire, gone to the forward trenches in order to comfort the injured ”
Throughout his commitment, the condition of the trenches, the fatigue of the soldiers, the material and moral difficulties that the troops must face, the mud and the cold are very accurately described by Louis Fabry, even as far as the cold "that makes your feet freeze"
Brothers despite the war
The Fabry brothers remain unified despite their different postings. They try to see each other as often as possible. Upon arriving at the front, Louis seeks out his brothers. In July 1915, he finds Paul at the coast, and jumps into his arms. On 26 December 1915, Louis receives a letter from Paul, proving that he's still alive. He later often finds Jean with the “vies matantes”, old ladies who look after the brothers as though they were their own sons. But his own family, still in the occupied zone, is most important of all, both in terms of form, the narratives in his diaries are addressed directly to his dear father, his beloved brothers and sisters, and his dear uncle and aunts, and of content, with Louis incessantly expressing his deep love for them. He so loves his brothers that he takes steps to have Paul join him in his regiment. This will be accepted, but not always easily experienced. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, the deep love between them, the two brothers sometimes disagree.
In 1917, Paul complains of the rampant favouritism within the troupe and asks if it would not have been better for him to stay with his previous assignment. To that, Louis, ever pragmatic and benevolent, answers that he will find benefits and disadvantages in every assignment… “Let's hope that these modest clouds dissipate!” Louis writes on 16 January 1917. Four days later, the brothers share a delicious and runny Camembert cheese sheltered in the trenches…
Constantly in danger, except during his rare days of leave in Adinkerke, he is well aware that he may never again see them alive, and writes in late 1915: “The Fabry brothers are considered to be valiant, and should we find ourselves with you again, you will have reason to be proud, or at least to know that we have done our duty well. It will be a small consolation for our loss." He also helps his brothers materially, often "resupplying" them with a 20 franc bill that, for example, he gives to his brother Jean in Wulpen in January 1917. Louis also has legitimate concerns for his brothers, and on 3 February 1917, he writes: “I haven't seen Paul or Jean today. Tonight, Jean is off to the trenches for eight days” and even though the anguish isn't written, the reader understands that Louis fears for his brothers, but also for his family left behind: “My dear father, I embrace you again along with my sisters and my brother, and I entrust you all to divine protection along with everyone whom I love and who is still at home, my uncle, my aunts, etc.. ", he often writes.
But for Louis, that sense of brotherhood goes further than bloodlines. In his diaries, he often mentions the people that he meets on his assignments and in going back and forth to the trenches, and in his words, there is always an innate affection for the boys. “The company is a family with the captain as father. He is loved and respected as such", and this is how Louis feels about his adopted family, the army. In his diaries, he records the names of people whom he wishes to look up, or more sadly, to visit their graves. Despite his love for his fellow man and the difficult circumstances of the war, Louis also does not hesitate to display some phlegmatic humour and a good-natured look at stories of the war: " We're in khaki now. When the occasion arises, I'll have myself photographed in this English suit that comes from New York".
In late May 1917, Louis is wounded during an attack, attempting to lend support to the soldiers, as it was his role. In his words, he receives "a big lump of Hun iron in the left shoulder". We learn from his words that it's like "receiving a big punch", even though the blood soon starts to flow. Evacuated initially to the rear lines for first aid, and then to the Ocean Hospital in La Panne, he firstly receives x-rays, cutting-edge technology at the time, then an operation under “a chloroform mask that I thought would be the end of me”, he writes. At the Ocean Hospital, he is treated by nurses whom he believes “to be angels”, such is their devotion.
Louis is full of praise for the quality of the care provided in the establishment directed by Dr. Antoine Depage. His brothers and friends come to visit him and tell him about what's happening at the front, but Louis, recovering well from his injuries, begins to grow bored. At the end of June 1917, he finally leaves the hospital and, after some leave for convalescence, he finally returns to the men and joins Paul in his company (at that time, the 8th). Louis will always suffer sequels from this injury, but without talking about them.
The final offensive and the ultimate goal: returning to his own people
In 1918, having decided to finish with the exhausted German troops and revitalized by the arrival of American troops, the allies intensify their attacks. Louis does not lose hope, and forcefully describes the details of the progress of the troops. His analysis remains positive: “This area around Diksmuide, soon we'll be walking across it victoriously, since it's going well.” The "it" here is naturally the final offensive launched by the Allies. Louis praises the “leading role played by the Americans” and sets out towards the “glorious or final unknown”, but not without mentioning the “famished, chilled and fatigued” men for whom he has such affection. However long and detailed the texts from September 1918, Louis is quiet in October. Barely one line per page. He doubtlessly has little time to write? Certain pages have only a place name, or a word. On 8 and 9 November, he has some time to rest. On 10 November, he writes “Abdication of the Kaiser?” and the next day “Armistice! Victory! Our company has been harshly tested” and with his characteristic sense of duty, he declares that he will be heading off to Bruges to visit the wounded. He thinks of them always, even on this victorious day.
Other than the wound suffered by Louis, the three brothers survive the war unharmed. Physically unharmed, in any event, since years of war are not so easily forgotten. Louis and his brothers return to the "enslaved little homeland", now finally free. Like his brothers, he initially receives eight days of leave in order to travel to the family home (that still exists today) in Avins to visit with his family. Wishing to serve his fellow man from the popular classes, which was the big lesson that he had learned during his time at the front, he is later assigned as parish priest in Villerot, in the Saint-Ghislain community, where he will be appreciated by all and where his memory lives on today, notably thanks to a street bearing his name.
As a kind of conclusion
Jean-Baptiste Fabry, the father of the boys, closes his eyes in 1933, happy to have seen his three sons return safely from the war. "True courage can only combine with prudence", Louis writes in his diary. Perhaps it was due to this maxim that the three Fabry brothers, more united than before the war, managed to survive. The diaries of Louis Fabry, as well as other family archives, now serve as testimonials – and one might almost say "living" testimonials, so strong is the impression of seeing Louis Fabry talk about "his" war – of how the three brothers lived their daily lives at the front. They provide a fine example of the duty to remember, notably in schools.
The 5th and 6th primary school classes of Mrs. Aurore Charles from the Community School of Tertre will be presenting, on 21 November 2014 at Saint-Ghislain, the extraordinary story of Louis Fabry in a performance that pays tribute to him. It is quite appropriate and moving to see children in 2014 pay homage, 100 years later, to the ordinary hero embodied by Louis Fabry, whose hope and devotion helped to save countless lives and to bring his brothers home, safe and sound, to Belgium.
On 10 November, he writes “Abdication of the Kaiser?” and the next day “Armistice! Victory! Our company has been harshly tested” and with his characteristic sense of duty, he declares that he will be heading off to Bruges to visit the wounded. He thinks of them always, even on this victorious day.
For more information
Private archives of the Fabry family
Collections of the Army Museum (MRA) documentation centre, files on Louis and Paul Fabry
Civil status archives, General Archives of the Kingdom
All of my thanks to Betty Fabry and Etienne Haerten