023 August de Block and the last bit of hope of escape
The Netherlands puts away Belgian soldiers
It is Sunday 29 November 1914. It is the 23rd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
The Austrian army first occupies Belgrade, but already within days has to accept heavy losses during the Battle of the Ridges.
King George V visits the front in Flanders.
A German attempt to raft across the river Yser below Diksmuide fails.
A heavy battle for the Polish town of Łodz blazes away.
In South Africa the Boer general Christiaan de Wet and his rebels surrender.
After the Battle of Lowicz-Sanniki the Russians put up a line of defence behind the Polish rivers Rawka and Bzura.
In France the Yellow Book is published, a collection of diplomatic documents about the July crisis which preceded the declarations of war.
The Russians take the Armenian towns of Sarai and Bashkal.
In the German Reichstag Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg categorically puts the blame for the war on the British.
And Belgian soldiers revolt in a Dutch internment camp, where one of the prisoners is called August de Block.
Belgian soldiers are heard to call out ‘chocolate soldiers, chocolate soldiers’ to pester their Dutch guards. It is 3 December 1914 and the tension in internment camp Amersfoort-Zeist is so great that you could cut it with a knife. A day earlier three Belgian inmates were arrested. Female relatives had smuggled civilian clothing inside, which was sufficient proof for the Dutch authorities that the three Belgians were planning to escape.
Now the fat is in the fire. The frustration about the poor facilities in the camp comes to a release. This has been built up for weeks on end. The food is like reinforced concrete. Behind the barbed wire lice and rats flourish. The canteen, where the price of one glass of beer was equal to a day’s pay, has already been demolished. The Belgians now shift their attention to the exit of the camp. A threefold warning in Dutch and French has little effect. Then the camp commander decides it is time for his men to take aim. They open fire and kill five men on site. Later another three of the twenty-one Belgians that were hit will die.
How did these Belgians end up behind bars in neutral Holland? Well, this was a result of the declaration of neutrality of 4 August 1914 which the Dutch government strictly observed throughout the war. Soldiers who were with the warring parties and entered Dutch territory were mercilessly disarmed and robbed of their freedom. So it was stipulated at the Second Hague Convention of 1907.
A considerable group of Germans, among whom quite a few deserters, suffered the fate of internment. But also British soldiers who had not been able to prevent the fall of Antwerp found themselves again in a Dutch encampment. By far the biggest group of inmates, however, were the Belgians. Over 33,000 spent the war in a Dutch internment camp. Seven thousand succeeded in escaping, mostly with the aim to stand guard with the rest of the Belgian army at the river Yser.
Amersfoort-Zeist and Harderwijk were the biggest. But also Gaasterland, Oldebroek, Kampen, Assen, Loosduinen, Nunspeet and Zwolle, all of them far away from the border, had these camps of Belgians. In the four years of the war a camp like Harderwijk developed into a complete village, with its own school, church, hospital and washing and bathing facilities. With the support of King Albert in free Belgium the Central Administrative Commission introduced a system, which enabled learned Belgians to teach their illiterate fellow countrymen in the camps. Many inmates started to fill the places in the Dutch firms which mobilized workers had left vacant. Equal pay was not at all obvious.
In 1917 there were 43 sports clubs in the camp of Harderwijk. Lots of Dutchmen came to watch races on the biggest cycling track in the Netherlands, constructed in the camp of Belgians. In due time many women and children of the interned soldiers settled in the immediate surroundings. In the beginning of 1916 villages for women arose near the three biggest internment camps.
Most Belgian inmates fared like August de Block, a workman’s son from Sint-Niklaas, who experienced the bloodbath of december 1914 in Amersfoort-Zeist at first hand. ‘This ‘fusillade’ made a deep impression on De Block’, his biographer Joris De Coninck writes. ‘It deprived him of the last bit of hope of escape.’
At the outbreak of the war August de Block’s military service has not finished yet. As Private first class he has to help defend the fort of Sint-Katelijne-Waver. But the line of defences around Antwerp cannot withstand the German howitzers. ‘When the fort was shelled, our boys realized that they were wasting their gunpowder because their artillery only carried fifteen kilometers, whereas the Germans bombarded us from a distance of twenty kilometers’, De Block has recorded.
He is facing a dilemma. Should he let himself fall into the hands of the Germans or should he flee across the Dutch border? The big group who chooses the second option just like De Block, will have to defend themselves after the war against the reproach of desertion. ‘However, as he was directly involved, August de Block interpreted the escape to the Netherlands completely differently’, his biographer writes. ‘He admitted that the commander-in-chief of the Antwerp stronghold, general Deguise, wanted to defend this bastion to his dying day. Yet on their own initiative several other officers gave their troops the order to flee to the Netherlands. A third group of military commanders abandoned the troops that were subordinate to them just like that. Each soldier from these units had to choose for himself between captivity in Germany and internment in the Netherlands. De Block chose internment, hoping to flee the Netherlands and join the Belgian army.’
Locking up the Belgian soldiers was a small job compared to containing the enormous flood of civilians who were on the run from the violence in the first few months of the war. This exodus was a huge humanitarian disaster. The journalist of the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant noted down: ‘From Antwerp to our border it was one long and sad procession of people and animals. Herds of cattle were driven along by farmers from the surroundings who were running away in mortal fear. There were young people transporting an old grandmother on a wheelbarrow. One could see all sorts of vehicles. And all these people, fleeing, kept looking back at their town, that went up in smoke and flames.’
The Netherlands has to take in no fewer than a million Belgian civilians. The small towns of Bergen op Zoom and Roosendaal see most of them pass by. In the beginning there is considerable willingness among the Dutch population to take care of these poor Belgians. The Dutch Committee for Support of Belgian War Victims starts a collection which in November has already yielded 300,000 guilders. In his book ‘Buiten Schot’, which is about the Netherlands in 1914-1918, the author Paul Moeyes quotes a story of a Belgian who in gratitude wants to name his daughter, born in the Netherlands, Wilhelmina, after the Dutch queen.
But there will also have been scenes such as Jos Wijnant described in 2008. As a 12-year-old boy from Antwerp he arrived at the railway station of Den Bosch, Bois-le-Duc, in 1914. As a 106-year-old he still heard them chant: ‘Down with the Belgians, they eat up everything’. Wijnant was to become deputy town clerk and, still in the possession of a Belgian passport, he would eventually be declared the oldest man of the Netherlands.
For fear of contagious diseases and out of necessity to keep the roads clear for the Dutch army, the Belgian refugees are dispersed over the country as quickly as possible. The Belgians are split into two groups, the needy and the workers on one side and the affluent without possessions on the other. A private individual who provides shelter for an adult refugee from the category of the needy gets a compensation from the Dutch State of 35 cents. For a well-to-do refugee twice this rate is reimbursed.
The number of one million refugees will soon decrease. Now that the battle has abated, the Germans promise the Belgian exiles a safe return. Through burgomasters and local committees the Dutch government, too, gives the Belgians the urgent advice to go back to their own homes. The Dutch state will also pay for the single train journey. Many Belgians accept this. In December 1914 only 124,000 Belgian refugees are left, in January 1916 this number is reduced to 80,000.
The ‘Belgian villages’ that were built in Nunspeet, Epe and Uden have never fully used their capacity. The memory of the neighbouring guests would quickly fade after the war. However, especially in the past few years initiatives have been taken to revive the history of the camps of Belgians. Plans were made to rebuild barracks such as from the Refugee Camp Uden.
August de Block spent four years of his early life in Dutch captivity. His first weeks stuck in his memory as follows: ‘The barracks were not heated, were badly insulated and rain came in. Many inmates died of the consequences of pneumonia and tuberculosis. They also suffered from rheumatism and bronchitis. […] Only once every ten days a shower could be taken, open barrels were used as toilets and waste was dumped in pits.’
These miserable circumstances and the exorbitant prices in the canteens drove the defeated front soldiers to despair. Many took to drinking or gambling. Some committed suicide. Others revolted. Eight of them died in the process. The outrage in the Netherlands about 3 december 1914 was big, but an official committee of inquiry was to judge that the authorities were not to blame.
It was not until 2 December 1918, three weeks after the armistice, that De Block and the other Belgians are given back their freedom by the Dutch government. Apparently they wanted to make sure. The Dutch authorities will present ruined Belgium with a bill for the internment of their soldiers: 53 million guilders. This debt was not paid off by the Belgians until 1937. On the basis of international treaties the relief of Belgian civilians, which was a humanitarian feat, came at the expense of the Netherlands itself.
After the war De Block developed into an influential socialist politician. When in the camp he had already manifested himself as the local chairman of the Union of Belgian Workers in the Netherlands. In this capacity he had come into contact with Rachel Hamel, daughter of a jewish diamond merchant from Amsterdam. In the camp there was little opportunity to meet, but the relationship held out. They got married and in the Second World War took refuge to England in time.
August de Block died in 1979. According to his biographer he never showed any bitterness or resentment about the way he was treated in the Dutch camps. In his own country the government and army command have never granted August de Block the rehabilitation he so passionately longed for.
Next week: Christiaan de Wet
Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)