Battlefields of Belgium
Hello, I am Robert, a licensed tourist guide who studied many years at home and at school, with the aim to share his passion for history with you, dear visitor!
I am living at Bossut-Gottechain, a picturesque village situated in Wallonia, the French speaking part of Belgium, although my origins are Flemish.
In the following chapter, I will give you the history of Belgium in a nutshell. The places put in bold are the subject of the tours that I would like to present to you.
Belgium gained its independence in 1830, breaking up the union with the Netherlands, dating from 1815 as a result of the Vienna Conference.
Before that, our country was a patchwork of different counties, from which the most important were Flanders and Brabant, with well known cities as Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Antwerp and Louvain.
The geographical situation of our country has always been a grace and a burden at the same time. Our central position in Europe was commercially very beneficial, surrounded as we were by countries as France, Germany and Great-Britain.The distance between our country and Britain, separated by the small English Channel, has never been a major obstacle for the establishment and expansion of our commercial ties.The soil in Belgium is often fertile, industry omnipresent and important ports as Antwerp and Bruges were receiving and exporting goods to Northern and Southern Europe. The frantic economic activity brought a lot of cash in our region and art was seen as a lucrative investment, already in the 13th century.
But the great rivalry between the German speaking states, France, Great-Britain and Spain, to which the southern Netherlands belonged for more than 150 years, made them fight bloody wars to gain a predominant position at the core of Europe.
France, initially the legal sovereign of Flanders, never accepted the autonomous Flemish movement and tried multiple times to conquer its old possession, but in vain.
Alas! In 1794 the French revolutionary armies invaded the by then Austrian Netherlands and beat a coalition army of British, Dutch, German and Austrian armies.
When Napoleon spoiled his huge Grande Armée in the Russian winter (1812), the light of his comet faded away rapidly. When he lost the battle of Leipzig (1813), everyone knew that the Napoleonic era was coming to an end.
After his abdication (Fontainebleau 1814) Napoleon was banned to the isle of Elba, but he came back during the famous ’flight of the Eagle’ to take up the glove of war at Waterloo, where Wellington and Blücher succeeded in taming the French warrior for good but this at a tremendous human cost.
Battlefield of Belgium
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For Belgium, a very long period of peace began, enabling the young country to develop itself to one of the leading industrial nations of Europe. The steel and coal industry were laying the foundations of a wealthy and successful economy, making our country to one of the richest of the world.
In 1870 a nephew of Napoleon, emperor Napoleon III, thought he could beat the Prussians. The declaration of war to Prussia became a fatal error, once the badly prepared French army was beaten at Sedan in what was called the 'grande débâcle'. The new German emperor Wilhelm I decided to keep Alsace and Lorraine, sawing the seeds of a future, even more bloody conflict.
Due to the murder of the Austrian crown prince archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo and a perverse mechanism of coalition engagement rules, Germany and Austria-Hungary were soon at war with France, Russia and Great-Britain.
Germany invaded Belgium, the shortest way to Paris, and terrible battles were fought on our soil. The British Expeditionary Force came to our help, went to Mons and sacrificed itself during the following weeks, considerably retarding the advance of the German imperial army, allowing the French to regroup at the river Marne, where a very effective counteroffensive was launched in September 1914, changing the course of war.
Soon, hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth conscripts came over to Belgium and Northern France to fight shoulder to shoulder with their French and Belgian friends, trying to throw back one of the toughest adversaries they had ever met.
Ypres and Passchendale in Flanders and Vimy Ridge in France became synonymous of bravery, endurance and awfully bloody combats, finally resulting in brilliant victories of the Commonwealth troops, always in close collaboration with the French and Belgian allies.
The Armistice at Compiègne (November 1918) and the Treaty of Versailles (June 1919) sought to clarify the new order in Europe. Germany felt it was very badly treated and sought for revenge, once again.
Under the guidance and inspiration of a brutal dictator, Adolf Hitler and after having concluded a non-aggression pact with Stalin in August 1939, Germany invaded Poland in September of that year, to have a free hand in the West.
Due to bad weather, the Nazis postponed their offensive until the spring of 1940. The French army had to endure a new debacle in the months of May and June 1940, forcing marshal Pétain to conclude a dishonouring armistice with Hitler.
The victory of the German army was so complete and devastating that many Europeans thought a new European order under a German sceptre was born.
But Winston Churchill didn’t give up. He asked and received the much needed help of his friend, president Franklin Roosevelt. By signing the Lend-Lease bill, he allowed Britain to continue the fight on sea, in the air and on land.
Finally, on D-day, 6 June 1944, 150.000 allied troops landed in Normandy. After having destroyed very stubborn defended German positions dispersed over the treacherous boscage landscape, the Allied phalange took on speed, liberating one French town after another, extending the supply lines on a dangerous way and finally, in December 1944, the Americans arrived in the Belgian Ardennes and French Lorraine, preparing for what should have been a rapid advance into German territory.
General Bradley refused to give the Army winter clothing, giving priority to the transport of ammunition and gasoline, that had to be unloaded in Normandy and before arriving and delivering one gallon of gasoline in Belgium, the lorries had burned up 3 gallons of it. The Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower understood that before launching a major offensive against Germany, the port of Antwerp had to be repaired in a way it would be fit to receive millions of tons of war materiel.
Hitler wanted to exploit a lull in the fighting, as well on the Eastern as on the Western front, to go on the offensive in the Ardennes forest, to destroy the weak American forces present at the scene and grabbing the opportunity to reoccupy the port of Antwerp.
The Battle of the Bulge started on 16 December 1944. The Americans were totally surprised by the forceful attack of 200.000 German soldiers, to be hold up by only 83.000 GI's.
The Allied Force Headquarters immediately understood the necessity of sending the best troops available to throw the Germans back over the border.
The mission to stop the German advance was given to the 82nd (All Americans) and the 101st (Screaming Eagles) Airborne Divisions. They would have to fight very tough battles, together with regular infantry troops, tank troopers and air force, before driving back the Germans towards the Siegfried Line, opening the door for a final winter offensive (1945).
Battlefields of Belgium