Some families are more than just families They represent a class and a milieu, and by their involvement in the highest intellectual and political spheres that shape the destinies of their country, they ultimately become an integral part of the history of the country itself. They become symbolic, if not symptomatic of an era. This was the case of the Rolin family. The Rolin "clan". From the birth of Belgium in 1830, this family is in the spotlight. The story naturally traces back to Hippolyte Rolin, a lawyer educated in Ghent at the end of the 1820s, who supported the Orange tendency during the initial years of independence, pushing for a return to power of the Dutch. This support would be short-lived. The Rolins create an extended social network, while making matrimonial alliances with Belgium's most important families. There is some Balzac in this endeavour. From the union with Miss Hellebaut, daughter of the rector of the University of Ghent, Hippolyte would have no fewer than 18 children (!), several of whom die in early childhood. Amongst his prolific progeny, Gustave (1835-1902) stands out while attaching his wife's name to his own – very rare at the time –, Jaequemyns, the daughter of a rich Catholic industrialist, thereby giving birth to the Rolin-Jaequemyns family that is still known to this day. With his brother Albéric, Gustave will be one of the founders of the young discipline of International law, around 1870. Their renown in this field quickly becomes international. Minister of the Interior and Public Works in the liberal doctrinaire government of Walthère Frère-Orban (1878-1884), Gustave soon experiences financial ruin and "starts over" in a second life, back at square one, becoming an advisor to the King of Siam (current Thailand), on the other side of the world. For his part, Albéric marries the daughter of a merchant from Alost, Sylvie Borreman, resulting in three daughters and five sons: amongst these five boys, three will lose their lives in this first worldwide conflict…
A class proud of itself
Albéric Rolin and Sylvie Borreman are therefore at the head of a large household. The mistress of the house runs the place as a "Roman mother", adored by her children. This family is a very representative of what is more commonly referred to as the "fransquillons", namely the French-speaking inhabitants of Flanders, the cultural and intellectual elite of the country's north at the time. Though sometimes taken to extremes, this attachment to French culture is an openly espoused mark of pride. Amongst the siblings, the political tendency is liberal, progressive, and sometimes has a taste for more pronounced liberalism, even anti-clerical, in other words doctrinaire. The children of Albéric and Sylvie include the youngest, Henri Rolin (1891-1973). Throughout his life, in more than one way, he will derive a certain pleasure from being on the fringes of his original milieu. He has a flair for originality. Rather germanophobic before 1914, as the conflict is about to begin, he attends the Sociology Institute of the Université Libre de Bruxelles, directed by Émile Waxweiler, an influential character and close advisor to King Albert 1st, who consider him as no less than his "only friend". Waxweiler's Institute is an extremely lively intellectual breeding ground, that quickly gains international renown through its works and the strength of the personalities comprising it. During the 1914-1915 years, Waxweiler will be the promoter, at the discreet (and even secret) request of the sovereign, of the pro-Belgium propaganda within another neutral country that he knows very well, Switzerland.
As for Henri, who does not finish his legal studies, the declaration of war and the Belgian refusal to comply with the German ultimatum in August 1914 are behind his firm decision to sign up as an army volunteer. For this purpose, he originally travels to Ghent. There he meets the internationalist lawyer, a professor and former Justice minister – and most notably a friend of his parents – Jules Van den Heuvel. In only a few months, i.e. March 1915, the latter will be sent as Belgium's representative to the Vatican. For now, his presence within the national territory continues. In these uncertain times, Van den Heuvel confides his belief that Belgium's neutrality will protect her. Shortly thereafter, however, he will be part of the King's Council that formally refuses to comply with the German ultimatum! At the age of 23, on 3 August 1914, Henri Rolin joins the 7th Regiment of the Line, and then the hived off unit of the 27th of the Line. He is not the only Rolin to be part of the Belgian army. His two brothers Hippolyte and Gustave are also in uniform. His brother Louis interrupts his legal studies in order to sign up, while the fifth brother Albéric returns from Constantinople and crosses, in this late part of 1914, the still poorly defined and quite porous Eastern front, before joining up with the Belgian artillery and then being transferred to the aviation, which was still in its infancy. In the autumn of 1914, all five sons of Albéric Rolin are fighting on the Belgian front.
From the birth of Belgium in 1830, this family is in the spotlight.
Like the five fingers of a hand
In short order, on 26 August 1914, Hippolyte is killed at Hofstade. The first loss amongst the siblings, it will not be the last. Henri develops a poor image of his leaders, viewing them as "panic-stricken cowards". In combat, however, he discovers unexpected aspects of human personality despite, during the 23 first years of his life, having existed in an ivory tower from which he would doubtlessly have never descended without the eruption of the conflict. Indeed, the war brings with it a need to exist alongside other soldiers from the popular masses. But this young man, whom historian Jacques Pirenne describes as "precious", has trouble carrying his haversack, and 10 kg of cartridges. Crushed by fatigue, his companions carry his rifle. He discovers the meaning of solidarity. He is overwhelmed by the generosity, openness and heart of the inhabitants of the villages that he crosses. He writes to one of his brothers: "how proud I am of the blood given to us by father and mother. Not even the slightest wavering across the whole line". Despite these good intentions, Henri is wounded on 9 September 1914, during the second day of the battle of the Yser, at Mannekensvere. Both of his legs are broken. He remains on the battlefield where the local inhabitants don't dare to help him, fearing a stray bullet. He is finally retrieved and, after a three-day trip, is sent to Calais and then to England, where he will be treated until May 1915.
Henri develops a poor image of his leaders, viewing them as "panic-stricken cowards".
Until the last drop
In October 1915, the second Rolin brother loses his life while Henri, back on his feet but with a limp, now unsuitable for the infantry, joins the 6th Artillery Regiment, where he encounters the future liberal Minister of war (in the 1930s), Albert Devèze, and encourages Jacques, son of the great national historian Henri Pirenne, to fight at his side. Henri is once again injured in July 1916 as a result of three shell fragments, before his younger brother Gustave is killed on the front on 22 May 1918, as the result of a fragment lodged in his spinal column. He is the third son of the Rolin family to give his life for Belgium, living up to the patriotism that the siblings had devoted to their military commitment. It is the commitment of soldiers, drawn from the elite, seeing themselves as the guarantors of national independence, an example of the syncretism of Belgium (French-speaking inhabitants of Flanders) and unshakable religious sentiment, though without any clericalism. They had faith in their country. After the hard blow of the death of Gustave, whose funeral is attended by several colonels and generals (which is exceptional), the Primate of Belgium, i.e. Cardinal Mercier, is informed of this loss, while King Albert, the Sovereign himself, says to the young corporal Henri Rolin : "the Rolin name is now one of the greatest of our history. Rest assured that future generations will know that your family is an example for all Belgian families". These words are then unaccompanied by a most unusual proposal: feeling that the Rolin family has sacrificed enough of its sons, the King suggests that the two last surviving brothers, both at the front, should be demobilised immediately. Henri refuses without hesitation, and is allowed to return to duty in his artillery battery.
The King suggests that the two last surviving brothers should be demobilised. Henri refuses.
Honour is saved?
Henri Rolin therefore refuses to be demobilised, though the name of his father Albéric is well known to the King, who could therefore have obtained favour for his son. There would be none of it. He will finish the war, alive. Henri admires the events taking place in Russia in recent months, namely the October Revolution, and will never hold the pacifists up to public ridicule, along the lines of French writer Romain Rolland. The patriotism of the Rolin family is neither exclusive, nor intransigent. It is simply the outcome of duty, that asks no one to give accounts. On 27 September 1918, the final offensive against the invader is in place. Everything is all set. Henri decides to write to his parents:
This day that we have awaited for four years has arrived. Tomorrow, we'll be climbing the Passchendaele ridge. My battery is more than ready and humming with enthusiasm on the very front line, 900 m from the Huns… A great silence falls at that moment, a sublime waiting for the most formidable storm to have ever been unleashed on those wretches. Tomorrow, I will climb the little ridge that hides me from the enemy and I will see victory for all of you who have deserved it, and for all who believed in it unto death.
On November 10th, Rolin's superior officer asks him to prepare to fire toxic shells the next day. Feeling somewhat indignant at the use of such "un-chivalrous" weapons, legend says that Rolin asks for a signed order from the general. The next morning, at 11 AM, the order becomes moot. No more such orders will come, the war is over.
A great silence falls at that moment, a sublime waiting for the most formidable storm to have ever been unleashed on those wretches.