- from 'the War Illustrated, 12th May, 1917
- 'King Albert's Men as I Know Them'
- by Basil Clarke
Pen-Portraits of Our Fighting Friends
Pen-Portraits of Our Fighting Friends
You can find arm-chair critics in England, France, and elsewhere who will speak disparagingly of any of the allied armies fighting just now, be it the British, the French, the Italian, or any other. But the number of these quidnuncs who single out the Belgian Army for criticism is perhaps greater than where the other Armies are concerned.
It is all so grossly unfair and wrong that I get a little hot with these people. I had four months of closest touch with Belgian soldiers in the first six months of the war speaking with them, eating with them, sometimes living with them, and seeing them at work in all conditions, good and ill. People who could fight as they fought, in circumstances such as they encountered, and with a cheerfulness and resolution such as they exhibited, could be none but the best of soldiers. To realise how they fought and the stubbornness they showed, you have but to consider two facts which everyone knows namely, the number of weeks they held up the whole force of the treacherous German onslaught, and the number of the casualties they suffered. The Belgian Army did not flinch before the German horde until their resolute little Army had been reduced to a mere remnant. And even when that moment came, with naught but a mere strip of their country left to them, they set about the task of organising another Army, which Army is now in the field. In those terrible weeks of the first onslaught .some of their units were wiped out utterly.
Two Contrasting Types
Others, reduced to a mere handful, yet carried on guerilla warfare from the woods and forests of Flanders, thereby delaying the Germans till British and French were better able to meet and withstand them. It was splendid work, done only at awful cost. One Belgian friend of mine is one of two remaining men of his original company, more than one hundred strong. That is how the Belgian soldier fought.
You notice two very common types of Belgian soldier the one dark and rather short, and like a Frenchman ; the other thicker-set and fair and of a ruddy colour, not unlike some of the English soldiers from the Eastern Counties. Most Belgian soldiers speak French, but the fair ones have as a rule, the more Flemish blood in them, and the language they speak among themselves is Flemish. There are men, of course, who are a mixture of these two types, and a very fair mixture it is ; for these men have some of the solidarity and doggedness of the English type, coupled with some of the vivacity and quick-wittedness of the French. But on the whole the Belgian fighting temperament is more after the English type than after the French. It has been remarked more than once how well the British and the Belgian soldiery get along together, better than do the French and Belgian. There is, in fact, a tremendous regard for the British in the Belgian Army. When I was in Flanders, Belgian officers and British were as "thick as thieves," and always together in their spare time. British naval officers who were at work off the coast of Flanders were especial favourites, and many of them struck up Belgian friendships that have lasted right through the war. Personally, I have never met with more generous or more genuine hospitality than I did from the Belgians, soldiers and officers alike.
I remember one day at Furnes wanting to find a certain Belgian major friend of mine, and asking a soldier if he could tell me where his quarters were. The major, however, had left the little town and taken a billet at a spot four miles away on the Nieuport road. Nothing would suit the soldier but that he should show me the billet. He was off duty, he said, and he would take me himself.
More than Allies Friends
As there was no conveyance we had to walk both there and back, eight miles, and the soldier would not hear of taking any reward. Incidentally, we came .in for some spirited German shell fire on the way, but this did not deter the man from his purpose of guiding, me there and back.
This and much other help and kindness I owe to Belgian soldiers, and they acted in this friendly way not so much, I think, because of any personal qualities of my own, but because of the fact that I am an Englishman. This explanation was expressed to me in many different ways at different times, but never better, I thought, than by the plain Belgian soldier who said to me, when I acknowledged some kindness of this sort : "Don't speak of it, monsieur. You are English. The Belgians and the English are allies, that is true enough. But the Belgians and the English are more than allies, monsieur; they are friends."
The Belgians were doing some-wonderful fighting at this time. The Germans still cherished the fond delusion that they could cross the Yser, and night after night they returned to the attack with never-ceasing waves of infantry. The British had all they could do farther south, near Ypres, and could give no help.
The Belgians kept up the fight, and put the enemy to contusion in these parts by opening their dikes and flooding the low-lying land in which they were working. But if the floods caused the Germans some discomfort, they did not, on the other hand, add to the comfort of the Belgians, many of whose trenches and positions were water- logged. Such was the discomfort of the fighting here probably never equalled in this war save on the Somme that only the bravest and most resolute troops could have kept going. The Belgians kept going, bravely enough, and about the banks of the Yser they gave the Germans their first real taste up to that time of what unsuccessful war under winter conditions might be. But it was dreadful work. I remember sitting one night during these endless attacks in a little estaminet, or inn, at Furnes waiting for news from Pervyse some miles away, where a dreadful riverside battle was raging. The Germans were trying to get across the flooded flat lands with armed rafts. They had mounted machine-guns on these floating timbers and were wading through the floods, pushing the rafts before them,
As I sat .there a Belgian soldier wet through and covered' with mud, tottered into the room. He sat down at a table in a dazed manner, and the waitress, after trying for some minutes to get him to say what he wanted, went away and returned with hot coffee. The soldier, with difficulty, drank it. I noticed that his hands were covered with big, white water-blisters, due to long contact with cold water in the trenches. I spoke to. him, but he looked at me vacantly and did not reply. After he had been sitting by the stove for some twenty minutes, looking more dead than alive, his eyes began to move about the simple little room ; his consciousness, which had left him some time during the freezing hours and days he had gone through, had suddenly come back. He now recognised things. But he did not know how he got out of the trenches, nor when, nor whether he had come out by order or without. After another five minutes by the stove, and another coffee, he picked up his. rifle and went back to the trenches. "So long as I can walk, I'll go." he said simply. I learnt later that he had been ordered out of the trenches that night to "go sick."
Later he was wounded, and fell into the hands of the plucky British girls who during all those dreadful weeks,' ran a little hospital right near the firing-line at Pervyse.
Soldiers and their King
Similar instances of Belgian soldiers' undaunted resolution, both individual and collective, could be given without number, collected from those early, desperate days of war when the fate of Britain and France alike, let alone Belgium, hung by a thread. Here is .another instance of Belgian soldiers' sense of duty which is not generally known. It is, perhaps, not too early now to tell it. The Germans after plastering the Belgians with shells of all sizes, sweeping them with machine-guns and rifle bullets, had at last broken through. The Belgians, after weeks of hardship and suffering, could stand no more, and the tiny remnant that remained of many fine regiments got out of their trenches and retreated. It was near the coast, late in 1914.
The men retreating were recommended to turn. It is no use, they argued ; we have done all we can. Flesh and blood could not stand any more. The men were distraught with days of fighting, with days of ceaseless hardship, and with casualties such as few troops have suffered in this war. They could not do more, they said, and they would not confront the Germans again - outnumbered and outgunned as they were at this time. They swarmed along the road in the direction away from the Germans. And then a solitary man came along the road a tall, commanding figure in plain, dark-blue uniform and kepi.
It was Albert, King of the Belgians. He looked on at his retreating troops looked on, standing in the brick gateway of a big house, watching his men in retreat, and looking each one of them in the eyes without saying a word. They looked at him. They recognised their King. One of them on a bicycle, put his machine broadside across the road, held up his hand, and gave an order. They formed up in the road, saluted their King, and then marched away to meet the Germans once more. And this time they held them till reinforcements came up.
The Germans never passed the Belgians again on that coast position. They have been held there till this day.
see also : An American Journalist on the Yser Front 1917 / An American Female Reporter on the Yser Front
Back to Index