In a slothful peace both courage will effeminate and manners corrupt. — Francis Bacon

Story of the Great War - Roland Usher


Throughout the war, although crushed beneath the German heel and helpless beyond all question, the spirit of Belgium never for a moment wavered. The loyalty of the people to their king and to the ideal of independence never faltered. Money, physical abuse, threats, torture, were absolutely unavailing to draw from them any admission of the right of the German cause or any cooperation with it. If they must go to prison rather than aid the Germans by working, to prison they went, and in prison they stayed. If they had the alternative of betraying their fellow countrymen or of being shot, they placidly and cheerfully put their backs against the wall and were shot.

The Germans could not understand it. It was the sort of logic which never appealed to the German mind. But the silent, continued, scornful defiance of an entire nation of truly helpless people did make its impression. There came to be lengths to which even Germans would not go. There was an extent to which an unresisting people could not be abused for loyalty to their country.

The very children in the streets carried on the war for Belgium. They mimicked the German soldiers' march to their faces. Nothing delighted the public or the children more than to see some German dignitary proceed down the street, followed at a safe distance by three or four ragged urchins, imitating his stride, and probably whistling the Belgian national air. The children made faces at the Germans, made to each other exceedingly uncomplimentary remarks about Germans, which the soldiers could not help hearing, and kept it up month after month, year after year, despite the thrashings they at first received and the kicks and cuffs they always got when within range.

At first the whole population determined to show that it was not conquered, by wearing a little button or badge containing the picture of the king. Every man, woman, and child had one; every dog wore one on his collar; every horse had one on his bridle. They were stuck on the street cars and on the doors of all the German officers' houses; when possible, the little boys attached a button to the tail of the officers' coats. The movement was so absolutely universal that the German governor felt himself helpless; he could not send a whole people to jail. But after a while the buttons were forbidden.

Princess Marie of Belgium

All the newspapers, of course, were prohibited at the very beginning of the German occupation. All public meetings, speeches, songs, or any demonstrations in favor of Belgium were prohibited. Then one morning in February, 1915, there appeared on the streets of Brussels, a newspaper, La Libre Belgique—Free Belgium. The paper announced that it was to be "published regularly, irregularly"; it would be brought out whenever possible and would be distributed but not sold. Certain prominent Belgians had contributed the money and proposed to issue this secret, flaming, patriotic paper under the very noses of the Germans. The editorials declared that the Germans were assassins, traitors, pigs, dogs, and other names which their high mightinesses did not appreciate. It printed pictures of the German military governor which made him ridiculous; there was even a cartoon showing the Kaiser in hell.

From the first the Germans were determined to put a stop to the paper and they did their best to discover how and where upside down, but the paper still appeared. The military governor himself found a copy on his own desk or breakfast table on the morning of its publication. Who put it there, he could never find out, but it always arrived. Presently it began to contain exceedingly humorous articles about the attempts to suppress it. It showed its own printing plant installed in an automobile, touring around the country, with the Germans running after it. Finally it printed a picture of the German military governor reading the paper itself. His rage when he found that on his desk fairly shook the foundations of Belgium.

War propaganda

The search was redoubled. Every house that they could think of was ransacked,—any house was subject to search at any time,—and many people spent weeks and months in prison for possessing a copy, but not one of them ever told how he got it. Some "confidences" were made to the authorities which resulted in making them more ridiculous than ever. In one case the plan of a house was sent and the location of the press was marked. With infinite care, the Germans surrounded the house, the soldiers, on tiptoe with expectancy and anxiety not to alarm the prey, went inside and proceeded to the spot marked—and found a small, dark closet. The hated newspaper knew about it and soon all Belgium was laughing over the ease with which the Germans had been gulled.

On another occasion directions were given of such an explicit character that the authorities felt sure they were at last going to catch the publisher of the forbidden sheet. They followed the directions to the letter and presently found they were to arrest an old statue in one of the public squares!

The greatest public demonstrations were naturally those on the Belgian national holiday, the twenty-first of July. Fearful of riots and demonstrations in 1915, on the first holiday after the war had begun, the German authorities forbade the people to celebrate it in any way. But word was quietly passed of a method to demonstrate to the Germans without breaking their rules the unity and determination of the Belgians. The entire population of the cities, particularly in Brussels, put on their Sunday clothes, closed the shops and houses, and walked up and down the streets quietly, slowly, peacefully, irreproachably from early morning until late at night. The German officials raged and fumed but not a single individual broke any of the rules posted for the day, and apparently not a soul in Brussels failed to turn out to demonstrate to the Germans that he despised them utterly and always would.

Defiant Belgium

So complete was the lesson that when the next national holiday appeared in the following year, the German governor attempted to forestall this particular sort of demonstration, and required that no stores or shops should be closed, and, of course, that there should be no celebration or demonstration. He threatened any who disobeyed him with prison and a fine of five thousand dollars. As La Libre Belgique  said, the fine did not matter, for the only people in Belgium who had five thousand dollars were the Germans, who had stolen it from the Belgians.

The twenty-first of July, 1916, dawned a wonderful, sunny day. The entire city was green. Every one had a green ribbon, signifying hope, in his buttonhole; every dog had a green ribbon round his neck; every horse had one on his bridle; every house and every store had green paper pasted in the windows. Every shop and store was open, but everywhere green was in sight. The Germans understood, but were helpless. One particular place in the city where the Belgian martyrs were buried gave the Germans especial concern. There a guard of soldiers with fixed bayonets had been placed to prevent any demonstration. The Belgians found the matter simple. The entire city of Brussels walked through that street sometime during the day, and, as they passed the spot where the martyrs had fallen, they simply bowed their heads. The rules did not cover this point, and all day the officers and soldiers stood there, witnessing this tremendous demonstration made in their very faces, without being able in the least to do anything.

At the churches, service was held and the crowds were so great that not an additional person could have entered one of the buildings. That was the point. The churches were so full that the police could not get in. At least twelve thousand people were supposed to have been in the largest church. The Germans raged but were helpless. At the Cathedral the ordinary service was held and then the Dean announced that at eleven o'clock a funeral service would be held for the Belgian soldiers who had fallen in the war. It was sung by Cardinal Le Mercier with great pomp and dignity. The Cardinal sang the service in a voice shaken by emotion and then delivered a patriotic address which stirred the very souls of the thousands present.

On the national holiday, despite the German prohibition, they were celebrating their resistance and the Germans could not interfere! They sang the national song, and suddenly there rang through the building a shout—"Long live the King!" And despite requests that no demonstration be made, a tremendous shouting and cheering rose, swelled, broke, and reechoed through the vast spaces of the Cathedral. "Long live the King! Long live Belgium! Long live the Queen! Long live the Cardinal! Long live the Army!" Hats were thrown in the air, handkerchiefs were wildly shaken, people wept, laughed, fell on each others' necks. The soul of Belgium, repressed for two years, suddenly burst the bonds placed upon it by the German government and gave voice to its true feeling.

War propaganda

The end of the war made known the fact that the principal author and publisher of La Libre Belgique  was M. Eugene van Doren, aided by several Belgian journalists, the chief of whom were M. Victor Jourdain and M. van de Kercheve. At the beginning the printing offered no great difficulty because the Germans did not know what was going on. The delivery of the papers was the great problem. M. van Doren and his wife put them in envelopes without names on them and delivered them personally to a number of people who distributed them personally to friends. No name was put on the paper and only a very few people knew from whom it came. They merely knew that their own copy came from a friend.

When the third number was printed, a new press had to be found. The police had already discovered the identity of the first. M. van Doren bought the necessary material with great caution and installed the plant in an abandoned house in a little town outside Brussels. Two professional printers, the Allaer brothers, did the work. Phillipe Baucq delivered alone between four and five thousand copies of the paper each time, making the trips at night on a bicycle. When the Germans forbade the use of the bicycle, he had to walk and at one time walked two days without a rest. Presently M. van Doren decided to set up the type in his first plant but to print the paper in a second plant at another village at some distance. Here was the automobile feature. He was, however, very soon compelled to carry the matrix on a trolley car. One day, when he himself was carrying some four thousand copies of the paper, some German soldiers obligingly lifted the bundle for him and set it on his shoulder.

The paper was so popular and so many copies were demanded that it became necessary to have a larger printing press, and the problem to get that press set up and enough blank paper on which to print was difficult to solve. The printing was being done in a house fairly surrounded by Germans and there was a reward of twenty thousand dollars for the discovery of the office of the paper. To deaden the noise of the press M. van Doren built a brick room around it. He left for a door a little hole in one corner through which he crawled on hands and knees. This opened into what seemed to be quite an ordinary shop and was hidden there by a pile of boxes and old iron.

After the great celebration of the national holiday in 1916, the German spies ferreted him out. The plant had to be broken up in great haste and transferred. Some few more copies were issued, but then M. van Doren had to flee and take refuge with relatives and friends, lying in hiding for several months. But the paper did not stop. One man after another took it up, each for a short time. Baucq, who had so faithfully distributed it for so long, was captured by the Germans and shot, and many other men, who at one time or another had aided in the printing or the circulation, spent long terms in prison. But despite the extraordinary rewards offered and the terrible penalties dealt out, not one individual in the whole of Belgium, who had anything to do with the paper or who received a copy, ever in any way by word or look betrayed what he knew. Belgium might be crushed but she could not be conquered.