Post War

"Country of scrap metal and bone": how the Belgian population participated in the remediation of soil

In his book "Land van schroot in knoken" (Ed. Davidsfond, 2011), John Desreumaux describes how the population back on the devastated lands of Belgium, will participate in the soil remediation. Here are some highlights,  identified for you, in this book in Dutch.

"Both on the front and rear of the front, the residents believed that the war material laying on the ground for months could be picked up and carried away. They found to their cost that they were considered as thieves by the police and punished for these pickups. In Belgium, ownerless property belonged to the state: when the Armistice, indeed, the allies had agreed that each would keep everything the enemy had left on his fighting area. They tried to inform the public that they had to leave war material where it was."

"An exception was made for farmers. All the collected material, except for railway rails and unexploded shells and grenades, remained the property of the one who did the restoration work, or the one who was doing the work on its area or field he rented. This rule was valid for the municipalities of Elverdinghe, Vlamertighe, Boesinghe Dickebusch, Kemmel, Dranouter, Nieuwkerke, Ploegsteert Wytschaete, Meessen, Waesten (but not Poperinge or other non-listed municipalities). However, these instructions have been followed shortly by the people who continued to collect metal objects that could sell at good prices. The front workers were the first affected: they took the materials. In June 1920, a check on the train from Ypres to Kortrijk uncovered an arsenal. The farmers did not pay these workers: the metal away gave them a good salary. (...) In the spring of 1922, many families lived on waste of war, in a real game of cat and mouse with the police ..."


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The fate of battlefields in the aftermath of war

Many documents describe the changes undergone by landscapes and nature on the front. Compared to maimed soldiers, stories often centre on trees. However, in most written material dealing with the reconstruction of the country, the damages suffered by the forests are hardly ever mentioned.

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Poppy and cornflower, flowers of remembrance  

Poppies and cornflowers have become the symbols of the 1914-1918 war. In the Commonwealth, poppies stand for soldiers who died at war. This association goes back a long time. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the link between poppies and battlefields had already been made…But how do the fields destroyed by the fighting get carpeted by those blood red flowers?

The poppy seed is not very demanding, it only needs a calcareous and ploughed soil. Long lasting, it can remain buried for years with no water and keep its germinating power, sprouting as soon as it is brought to the bare surface by tilling of the soil. No surprise it bloomed on the devastated battlefields of WW1…

Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian soldier and surgeon, first noticed the relationship between poppies and battlefields. When a friend of his was killed by a German shell in Ypres and buried in a rudimentary grave topped with a simple wood cross, he was struck by the wild poppies sprouting between the rows of graves. This phenomenon was immortalized in his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, published on December 8, 1915.

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Figures of the Great War’s landscape in Belgium

In his book « Restored Belgium » (Ed. M. Lamartin, 1926), Ernest Mahaim draws up the report for Belgium in the aftermath of World War 1.

  • 100.000 destroyed or severely damaged buildings

  • 1.300 public buildings to be rebuilt

  • 40.367 soldiers killed or deadly wounded from complications or diseases

  • Between 36.000 and 50.000 soldiers maimed or disabled

  • About 250.000 acres of land (100.000 hectares) devastated by shelling, cluttered with barbed wire or flooded

  • Cattle and horses livestock reduced to the half and two thirds of the pigs wiped out.

  • 26 of the land’s 57 blast furnaces wrecked

  • 685 miles (1.100 kilometres) of railroad destroyed

  • 1.419 bridges and roads destroyed


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