The First Signs of War in The BIE-Region

The violence of the war reached the BIE-region on Monday October 19th, 1914, a day that would go down in local history as Schuwe Maandag. However, the war’s implications had begun to influence the daily lives of the region’s inhabitants long before this date.

When the first rumours of Belgium entering the war emerged in July, 1914, a great number of men voluntarily signed up to serve their country. This trend was rapidly succeeded by a general mobilisation order, applicable to all resilient men in the area. All throughout the region, church bells tolled and members of the fire brigade roamed the streets to bring the news to the attention of men who were fit to fight. Many witnessed a son, husband or father leave for war. The men left in good spirits, for everyone assumed that the war would soon be put to an end. Furthermore, it was considered heroic for a man to rise to the defence of his country. For all their initial optimism, it was not long before the first fatal casualties were suffered among the men. On August 5th or 6th, Alidor Vermote from the village of Lichtervelde died in the vicinity of Luik, while Leon Vanelslander from Staden met his end in the Tienen area on August 18th.

The war also had material consequences for the inhabitants of the region. A large-scale claim of vehicles, horses and basic foodstuff was organised by the Belgian army. Assemblies in public places were banned, concerts and fairs cancelled. The village of Lichtervelde was made into an assembly point for horses from the neighbouring towns of Roeselare, Hooglede and Gits. Economic implications included restrictions on the import and export of commodities, as well as a significant decrease in the consumer market. As a result, many people were rendered unemployed and a great variety of goods threatened to become scarce. 

August and September brought confusion and fear to the people of the BIE-region. One day, German soldiers would pass them by, the next would mark the sudden arrival of English troops. Although the war front was steadily advancing upon them, there was no distinct frontline to be perceived in the region’s landscape yet. About a fortnight after German troops set foot on Belgian soil, the first German scouts - the Uhlans - were signalled in the area.

When war broke out, a civil guard of men wearing blue tunics and tricolour arm bands was recruited to keep an eye on the German spies. In late August, word reached the area that the German army had engaged in numerous atrocities against civilians in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country. The civil guard was dissolved as a preventive measure to avoid German provocation. Moreover, mayors in most of the local villages asked their citizens to hand over their weapons to the authorities.

Soon after the outbreak of war, most towns and villages in the region founded committees to organise the accommodation of refugees and the nursing of the wounded. Civilians had the opportunity to support those committees by donating money, food, or other provisions.

Photo: collection Dirk Huyghebaert