As well as the era-defining battle of Waterloo, the two greatest conflicts of modern time have been fought on Belgian soil. World War I and World War II have left Belgium with a legacy of some 800 military cemeteries. Some of these cemeteries contain thousands of graves, but many little village churchyards also have a handful of memorials to the fallen who were buried close to where they fell.
Belgium also has a wealth of excellent museums in different parts of the country, many with military themes. Almost all of these museums have been or are being extensively modernised with interactive displays to bring to life the stories of real people.
War memorials, war cemeteries and war museums could be seen by some as rather morbid places, but it is only by taking note of the evidence of the mistakes of the past that we can try to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
With all the fighting that has taken place on Belgian soil throughout the centuries, it is nothing less than a wonder that the country’s landscape always seems to recover. Nearly 70 years have passed since the ending of World War II and hopefully we have managed to learn something from it.
Battle Of Waterloo
In 2015 the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo will be commemorated. The battle took place on 18 th June 1815 and involved 200.000 soldiers from seven different countries. The result was the defeat of Napoleon by Allied armies under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington and the ending of the Napoleonic Era.
Every year the battle is re-enacted by 1,000 participants on the battlefield about ten miles south of Brussels.
A cluster of monuments mark the mass graves of the Allied troops and a monument to the French dead, L’aigle Blessé (The Wounded Eagle), is said to mark the spot where one of the Imperial Guard units formed its square during the closing stages of the battle. After the war came the settlement.
Today the battlefield of Waterloo is easily found, dominated as it is by a giant mound of earth surmounted by a statue of a lion.
This Lion’s Hillock as it is called was constructed on demand of King William I of the Netherlands in order to commemorate the spot where his son, the future William II Prince of Orange, was wounded after being hit by a musket ball. The Prince was commander of the combined Dutch forces at both the Battle of Quatre Bras and the Battle of Waterloo. The Hillock, completed in 1826, was constructed using 300,000 cubic metres of earth taken from the ridge at the centre of the British line.
Although Wellington later complained that the mound had destroyed his field of battle, much of the terrain and the buildings to the east of the Brussels to Charleroi road are very much as they were nearly 200 years ago.
A key must visit spot is the Waterloo panorama. This was painted on canvas in 1912 to mark the first centenary of the battle. It is set on the wall of a circular room and depicts a panoramic view of the battle at one of its key stages. There are tours of the battlefield and you can also visit the Wellington Museum and Napoleon’s last headquarters.
World War I - Britain & The Commonwealth
In all there are approximately 90,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who have no known grave. Although thousands of bodies were recovered, it was impossible to identify them and they were buried in unmarked graves. There are two massive memorials to these missing Commonwealth troops. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) has tended not to move existing graves, although they continue to ensure their upkeep.
There are reportedly around 600 burial grounds containing Commonwealth war graves in Belgium, although the number may be as high as 800. Many of these burial grounds have only a single war grave or just a handful.
Of the two Great War memorials, the larger is the Menin Gate at Ypres. This is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth troops who were killed in the Ypres Salient. It is situated at the eastern entrance to the town at the starting point of one of the main roads to the Front.
The Menin Gate Memorial was opened in 1927 and 54,344 names are inscribed on its walls: 40,243 from the United Kingdom, 6,932 from Canada, 6,195 from Australia, 560 from South Africa and 414 from India. Except from the years of the German occupation in World War II, the Last Post has been sounded every night at 8pm. During the occupation it was sounded at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, but on the day that Ypres was liberated by Polish troops, even though fighting was continuing elsewhere in the town, the sounding of the Last Post was resumed.
The other large Commonwealth memorial dedicated to the missing is at Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Passchendaele. This has the names of 34,874 soldiers inscribed on a stone wall surrounding the cemetery.
The cemetery itself has the graves of 11,954 soldiers, of which 8,367 are unnamed. Tyne Cot also has a separate memorial to missing New Zealand troops who were killed fighting at Passchendaele. A further memorial to missing New Zealanders is at Messines Ridge for those who were fighting in the sector in 1917. Tyne Cot is the largest CWGC cemetery with just under 12,000 graves, 8,367 of which are unnamed. The cemetery gets its rather odd name from the Northumberland Fusiliers who thought that the German concrete pillboxes resembled the Tyneside workers cottages – their Tyne Cots.
Two posthumous recipients of the Victoria Cross are buried; both were killed during the First Battle of Passchendaele. In the same area is the CWGC cemetery at Lijssenthoek, on the road between Ypres and Poperinge.
The nearly 11,000 graves include just under 10,000 commonwealth graves, plus a number from other nationalities, including French and German. In Poelkapelle CWGC cemetery, on the road between Ypres and Bruges, among the 7,478 Commonwealth war dead is the grave of Private John Condon of the Royal Irish Regiment.
He is thought to have been the youngest battle casualty in the First World War, being just 14 when he was killed.
World War I - Belgium
Belgian war dead are buried in grave yards and cemeteries all over Belgium as well as close to hospitals in France and Great Britain or near German prison camps. There are, however, monuments and plaques commemorating the fallen scattered all over the country. A total of 42,000 Belgian soldiers died during World War I.
About a third were killed during the German invasion in the first months of the war and a further third were killed at the Battle of the Yser. In October 1914, after Antwerp fell to the Germans the Belgian army retreated to West Flanders, where they halted the German advance by flooding the low-lying Yser Plain and putting up a fearsome defence.
Although the Germans captured the town of Diksmuide, for four years the Belgians prevented them from reaching the coastal town of Nieuwpoort.
The remaining third of the Belgian war dead were killed during the liberation offensive led by King Albert I in 1918. Following the Armistice in November, a further 4,000 soldiers died as a result of wounds or of illnesses such as influenza. There is no accurate figure for the number of Belgian civilians who died as a result of the Great War, simply because data was never collected at a national level.
World War I - France & The United States
Most of the French cemeteries of the World War I era are located in the Ypres area of Flanders, which is where the bulk of the fiercest fighting took place, but there are also a number of French military cemeteries in the south of Belgium in French-speaking Wallonia, where the French army unsuccessfully tried to stem the German advance in 1914.
Both of the largest French cemeteries are near Ypres, one at the French ossuary on Mount Kemmel with 5,400 graves and the other at Saint-Charles de Potijze (known for the monument locally called 'de Engel' or Angel) with 3,500 graves.
Nearly all of the graves in both cemeteries are of unidentified soldiers. This was one of the features of the battlefields of World War I. Conditions were so appalling that many men vanished without trace.
Some were wounded and not being able to help themselves, simply sank into the mud, while others drowned. Many were simply blown to bits. In many cases identification was impossible. The United States did not enter the war until April 1917. President Wilson was reluctant to get involved, and it was only after Germany’s unrestricted U-boat activity cost many American that Wilson felt able to ask Congress to declare war. In the event, Wilson insisted to his commander General Pershing that his country’s forces should be distinct from the other Allied forces.
The American president wanted his soldiers to fight under their own flag and under his leadership.
Most of the American engagements took place in France, where heavy casualties were sustained, but there is one American World War I cemetery located in Waregem West Flanders with more than 360 graves. There is a wall of the missing with around 40 names, some of which are marked with the rosettes that show their bodies have since been recovered and identified.
World War I - Germany
The German cemeteries are the largest in Belgium, containing around 134,000 graves and memorials to the 90,000 German missing whose names are commemorated on oak panels and bronze tablets at the Langemark German cemetery. At the end of the First World War German graves were spread over 678 Belgian parish districts and in Langemark there were fifteen burial sites containing as few as 54 graves and as many as 1,562.
Along with these were thousands of individual burial plots in fields and woods, along canal banks and on roadside verges, as well as burials in civilian or allied military cemeteries. Many of these were reburied at Langemark.
In 1914 especially, both the Allies and the Germans were both confident that they would win the war and that it would all be over by Christmas. Both sides made great efforts to whip up the enthusiasm of their young people to take part.
The Germans recruited about 3,000 reservists, mostly young men from schools and university who fought in the First Battle of Ypres in October/November 1914. In this battle the German army lost over 135,000 men, killed, injured or missing against somewhere between 126,000 and 162,000 Allied dead, injured or missing.
Just about every one of the young German reservists was killed and this battle became known in Germany as 'Kindermord bei Ypern' or the Massacre of the Innocents at Ypres.
They are all buried together at Langemark, giving the cemetery its alternative name 'Studentenfriedhof'.
In 1954 an agreement was reached between the Belgian and West German governments to allow an official German organisation to maintain German war graves in Belgium. The new organisation decided that the troops buried in the existing 128 small German military cemeteries scattered across Flanders should be moved to four expanded and redesigned cemeteries.
As a result, Langemark now has more than 44,000 graves; Menen German War Cemetery has nearly 48,000, Vladslo has nearly 26,000 and Hooglede has more than 8,000.
The total number of German soldiers who died fighting in Flanders has never been confirmed, but the bodies of 126,168 known German soldiers are buried in the four main cemeteries, many in mass graves. Together with the 90,000 reported to be “missing”, this brings the total of German losses to around 210,000, which are staggering numbers.
World War II
Casualties in World War II were nothing like those of World War I. Belgian figures indicate that there are near to 400,000 World War I war graves from different nationalities in different parts of the country, while the total figure for World War II graves in Belgium is almost 75,000. The only country which lost more men in Belgium in the second great conflict is the United States, due mainly to the heavy losses incurred during the intense fighting of the Ardennes Offensive.
In World War II most of the American activity was in this south eastern region, which is where their two main World War II Belgian cemeteries are located. It is also in this part of Belgium that the best of the World War II museums are located.
The larger of the two is the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial. Just under 8,000 American war dead are buried here and the names of 450 missing are inscribed on the pillars of the colonnade.
Originally it was set up as a temporary cemetery for all military personnel, regardless of whether they were Allied or Axis, but after the war the dead of other nations were transferred to other cemeteries and 5,600 American war dead were repatriated to the United States. However, many American families chose for their loved ones to remain in the country where they died and the cemetery became solely for them.
Many of the graves are of troops who died during the US First Army’s drive into Germany through France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg during September 1944, while most of the remainder were casualties of the Battle of the Bulge.
The Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial has 5,323 graves and granite tablets inscribed with the names of 462 of the missing. Many of those who died were taking part in the Ardennes Winter Offensive in 1944, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bulge. Besides the two main cemeteries you also have the famous Mardasson War Memorial near Bastogne which lists and honours the names of 76,890 American soldiers who we're killed, injured or went missing during this infamous battle.
The Lommel German war cemetery is located in the Flemish province of Limburg. Many of the German war dead were originally buried at Henri Chapelle, but were transferred here in 1946 when the new cemetery opened.
This is the largest German war cemetery outside Germany and has a total of more than 39,000 graves, around 6,000 are of unknown soldiers.
Unlike the Germans and the Americans, the CWGC tended not to rebury World War II casualties in very large cemeteries, but usually preferred to leave them in graves close to where they fell.
The number of Commonwealth casualties on Belgian soil during World War II much smaller than the numbers who died during World War I. The CWGC lists a total of 624 graveyards and cemeteries in Belgium that are the final resting places of British and Commonwealth troops. Many of the World War II dead are buried in ones and twos in small village churchyards.