# The Vanden Brugge family: War refugees

Henri Vanden Brugge  - Private collection, Henri Vanden Brugge (Nantes) ©

Henri Vanden Brugge - Private collection, Henri Vanden Brugge (Nantes) ©

With the arrival of German troops in Belgium in August 1914, thousands of Belgians start out on the road to exile. Some flee to England, with the Channel representing a relatively safe physical obstacle, while others take temporary exile in the Netherlands, and a great many people set out on the road to France, a country with close ties in view of its cultural familiarity and language. The Vanden Brugge family was included amongst these men and women. The father, Henri, and his wife Jeanne will spend the four years of the war in the city of Nantes, accompanied by their daughter Eva, 21 years of age at the time. The Vanden Brugge family is an interesting example because, without necessarily being representative of all families of Belgian war refugees, a sufficient quantity of interesting elements – assembled here for the first time – allows us to look at its story. It's also an interesting example in view of the choice that they decided to make at the end of the war. Rather than a complete study on refugees, it's the family history that we wish to examine and to present to you in this article.

An ordinary Belgian family

Henri Constant Vanden Brugge is a real Brussels native. Born in 1857 in Brussels, rue aux Choux, to Pierre Vanden Brugge whose profession is unknown, and to his wife Jeanne Visseau.

Jeanne Diricq, his future wife, is born one month after him in the rue des Commerçants in Brussels, near what is now the "Yser" subway station. She's the daughter of Jules Diricq, retailer, and of Marie Redemans, his legitimate wife. Jules is originally from Givet in the Ardenne, and Marie is from Brussels. They marry in 1853, 4 years before Jeanne is born. Little is known about the young years of Henri and Jeanne, but we later find Jeanne in Paris at 19 years of age. She doubtlessly went to the French capital for economic reasons, since she apparently stayed there without her parents. On 6 December 1876, also in Paris, Louis Diricq is born as the natural son of Jeanne, who is registered as a florist in the second district. Virtually nothing is known of Jeanne's life in Paris, other than the fact that she will also give birth to a second child, Louise, in 1885 when Louis is already 9 years old.

The presence of the first names "Constant" (like Henri Constant) and "Henriette" as part of first names of these children leads one to believe that they are actually the children of Henri and Jeanne born out of wedlock, though this is still unproven. Henriette is born in Saint-Gilles on 14 September 1889, while the young family is living at 56, rue de la Victoire.

Henri and Jeanne marry in Jette on 10 December 1891 and Henri legitimately acknowledges the children. At the time of this union, we learn that Henri is a wine merchant. For her part, Jeanne had arrived sometime before from Anderlecht, where she is declared as having established her home, even though it's possible that her stay in this community, after coming from Paris, was quite brief.

At that time, both of their parents are deceased. Indeed, these deaths may well be the reason why the marriage could not take place beforehand. At this stage, all hypotheses are still possible.

They remain in Jette for only a short time before moving to Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, where Eva, their youngest daughter, is born on 26 October 1894. Perhaps in search of a larger apartment, the 6-person family moves to Brussels-City in late 1894. They very soon leave again, for Schaerbeek in 1895. In fact, in 1898, Henri is registered as a wine wholesaler established in the rue Verte, in the Schaerbeek part of this street. In 1902, Henri still resides in the rue Verte. In 1909, we find him associated with a certain Wolters but still in the wine trade.

In 1910, he is registered in the rue du Progrès as a merchant for the Dujardin & fils firm that owns several vineyards in France, with distribution in Belgium. Business seems to be going rather well. The family moves to 147, rue Masui, still in Schaerbeek, where its trace is suddenly lost. What happened?

Leaving : the big jump

With the Germans approaching Brussels, Henri decides to leave the country with Jeanne and Eva. They arrive in France in the coming days, and in Nantes on 22 August 1914, i.e. two days after the arrival of the occupying troops in the Belgian capital. It's probable that Henri, Jeanne and Eva arrived in Nantes with the convoys of thousands of Belgian refugees that had taken the same road into exile as they, but that family, emotional and commercial links with France had an impact on their decision to seek exile in that particular city. Indeed, Louis is already married and living there, with a son born in 1912. Henriette is also in Nantes, married to a tailor, with a child born in 1910. It's therefore very likely that the family had previously visited Nantes, though it's impossible to say exactly when and for what reason.


Several thousand Belgians take refuge in the city of Nantes. The city takes in 30,000 to 40,000 war refugees in all, with the vast majority being Belgians. But for all of these people, it's necessary to organise a new life, to manage the distribution of clothing and food, and to ensure that all have decent accommodations at a reasonable price.

Life in Nantes : far from the eyes, close to the heart

Several thousand Belgians take refuge in the city of Nantes. The city takes in 30,000 to 40,000 war refugees in all, with the vast majority being Belgians. But for all of these people, it's necessary to organise a new life, to manage the distribution of clothing and food, and to ensure that all have decent accommodations at a reasonable price. With the arrival of the first Belgian refugees, the Consul sets up a support committee in order to provide orientation and assistance for the unfortunates. It will serve as the relay for Belgian civilians, and as the bridge between the population and the authorities, both Belgian and French. Similar committees will be set up throughout France: the French wish to help the unfortunate refugees, and at the start of the war, the solidarity and expressions of support are strong and unanimous. These committees also provide an opportunity for the Belgian community to meet, to exchange news and to remain firm in the face of the war.

An entrepreneur at heart, Henri can't remain inactive for long. After the organisation of an immensely successful patriotic event on the occasion of the King's Feast on 15 Novembre 1914, he and other refugees decide to create, following on the efforts of the Belgian Consul in Nantes, a support committee organised by the refugees themselves, primarily persons with a very good social status in Belgium. This committee is therefore completely organised by the Belgian refugees, within three months of the arrival of most of them, and they direct it under the honorary chairmanship of the Consul.

Henri decides to get involved with this support committee, and to become chairman. This committee's aim is to "awaken in all Belgians their love for the native soil and the idea of the homeland, to raise awareness that all of the Allies are fighting to return the independence of the occupied countries, to smooth out the adaptation difficulties in the host countries and, finally, to serve as a relay between the Belgian authority and its subjects". It's on the basis of this vast programme, while taking care to leave nothing aside, that the work of the committee chaired by Henri is organised. Alongside tedious and burdensome administrative procedures, activities are also organised that could be described as "propaganda", a term that often has a negative connotation, however much they are intended to rally the population of Nantes to the Belgian cause, and therefore to the necessary support of the Allied armies. The committee will organise several conferences for this purpose: in October 1915, Jules Destrée holds a well-received conference on Belgium, and in February 1918, Emile Vandervelde gives a presentation on the political situation in the occupied territories since the start of the conflict. But alongside these rather intellectual gatherings, the committee also has an important charitable role and organises material aid in support of the Belgian assistance committee for refugees, an organisation created by the Belgian authorities. The committee distributes foodstuffs and clothing, and attempts to resolve, insofar as possible, the many problems created by the influx of a large number of Belgian citizens into the city known as the "Venice of the West".

Like many of his compatriots with a certain educational level now in foreign exile, Henry decides to take matters in hand and to devote himself to supporting the refugees from his country. He gets involved in the committee and gives it all of his time. Henri Vanden Brugge devotes himself to this support for his refugee compatriots and swears that, until such time as Belgium is liberated, he will put all of his energy into the service of this committee.


Like many of his compatriots with a certain educational level now in foreign exile, Henry decides to take matters in hand and to devote himself to supporting the refugees from his country.

A new life

The Vanden Brugge family initially lives at 34, rue des Hauts pavés, and at some unknown point moves to 15, quai Dugay-Trouin, still in the heart of Nantes. Henri continues to work in wine sales, as he had done in Belgium, but it's also possible that he was working at the Nantes city hall, if we believe the indications in the documents relating to him. His son Louis makes a career in printing, as one of his grandsons will also do.

Henry's professional activities and his unceasing investment in the committee's activities take all of this time. His time and his health. He falls ill in 1917. His illness is such that he can no longer participate, or only sporadically, in the committee's activities as of the winter of 1917. With his condition deteriorating sharply over the course of 1918, he dies on 7 October 1918 in his host city. The Belgian community in Nantes is in mourning. The committee mourns its founding member and, even more so, the patriot who will never again see his country. Henri's memory is praised in Nantes during large funeral services. Just over a month later, it's the Armistice, the end of the fighting and the start of the after-war period, the refugees can finally go home.

The question for refugees is whether to stay in this community that had welcomed them, or to return to the Belgium that is so alive in their memories. It's a dilemma that can sometimes be difficult to resolve, given the links woven over the course of the years of exile and possible economic positions. Some had only one desire: to return to the country, to find the family and friends, and attempt to rebuild a "normal" life; for others, the idea of leaving the host country was more wrenching: indeed, a good number had married and had children with French men and women, upon whom it would not be easy to impose a new start in Belgium, especially a Belgium extremely weakened by four years of war.

For Jeanne and her children, some of whom (Louis and Henriette) had already been living in Nantes before the war, the choice is easy: it will be Nantes and the new prospects that await them there, as opposed to Brussels that is mending its wounds after four years of painful occupation. Was Jeanne perhaps feeling too old? Did she want to remain close to her children, and to her late husband who had given so much for his compatriots? In any event, the choice is made to stay, and in some ways the family moves from a kind of status as "refugee" to the status of "resident of Belgian origin". Jeanne dies in 1920, the same year as Louise. Henriette marries in Nantes, with a retail tailor with whom she has children. She dies there in 1972. Eva marries a colonial and heads to the Congo, still Belgian at the time. She dies in 1967, but Louis makes a fine career as a printer – Nantes is known for its printing – and starts a family there as well.

But the Vanden Brugge never forgets its Belgian roots, and it was with a profound sense of affection for our country that Henri, the grandson of Louis, provided us with the family archives and so much precious information.

Henri Constant Vanden Brugge therefore never got to see Belgium liberated, after having given his heart and soul in support for his country under attack.

The Belgian Consul in Nantes and the “Union Belge” committee, working with the authorities, will organise the field logistics for the return of thousands of Belgian refugees. Like everywhere else in France, there is firstly a questionnaire to be filled out, in which the Belgians can give precise information on their situation and the number of people who will be returning. In April 1919, a train leaves from Nantes, carrying more than 1000 Belgians who are returning to a ravaged country. They don't yet know that, for many people in Belgium, the refugees will be considered as "dodgers", and that they may well be the subject of suspicious looks. By definitively remaining in Nantes, the Vanden Brugge family will avoid this opprobrium.

Henri Constant Vanden Brugge therefore never got to see Belgium liberated, after having given his heart and soul in support for his country under attack.

100 years later…

100 years later…

The history and journey of our families, classical or surprising, is often due to chance. The place of our births, where we grow up, the addresses where we live, the cities that we inhabit. The Vanden Brugge family is no exception to this rule, but the discovery of its history was entirely by chance. An academic article mentioning the Comité belge in Nantes and Henri's extraordinary work at its head prompted us to learn more about this family, where it came from and why. We then began to look for its descendents. It was painstaking work, with only this article as the starting point. Good fortune allowed us to receive a response from Mr. Henri Vanden Brugge, the grandson of Louis, whom we thank most sincerely for having agreed to tell us the story of his great-grandfather and of his family. This story could have been completely different if the latter had not decided, somewhat pushed by fate, it's true, to move to Nantes. Hopefully, the 100 year anniversary of the first global conflict will also instill in persons descendent from Belgian citizens a desire to learn more about their family and the country of origin of their ancestors.