While I was eating cream tea with my Mum in Battlesbridge, Philip was checking out a museum in Brussels – he really enjoyed it, so I asked him to write about it for you guys…
It’s now 100 years since the outbreak of World War One, which affected Belgium more than almost any other country. Whole towns were laid to waste, and the trenches created in Flanders effectively sawed the country in two.
Even today, craters from falling bombs and underground mines litter the countryside, and the iron harvest (bullets, grenades, all kinds of hardware) is ploughed up in the fields every spring.
Belgium has been opening more exhibitions that commemorate the conflict as the months have gone by, and one of the most interesting has been in the Town Hall museum in the Grand Place. The Occupation exhibition that runs until the summer of 2015 shows the effect that the German authorities had on the city of Brussels and its people.
A quick history lesson. Belgium managed to hold off the German army once it invaded for over a week, when all expectations were that it would fold in a matter of hours. Aided by the British Army, the Belgians retreated to Flanders, and a series of trenches created that then held roughly in place for the next 3 years. Trapped on the wrong site of this was Brussels, and for the next 4 years the city was occupied and run by the invading German army.
German occupation meant for Brussels survival rather than any actual fighting like the Flanders region suffered. An oppressive and humiliating regime imposed by the Germans meant that many basic materials (such as copper saucepans and even woollen bedding) for sustaining life were requisitioned and sent back to Germany. Finding enough food to eat, keeping mind and body together in the face of ever tightening rules were the order of the day.
This was illustrated in the floor dedicated to the exhibition, cabinets full of documents and posters detailing the daily effort to just survive. It’s a story not often told, and harder to find original pieces that illustrate those times, but this has been done beautifully in the town hall. From underground newspapers, to cartoons published lampooning the Germans, it is a curated selection from the initial days of the war until liberation.
I especially enjoyed the clock mounted at the door into the room- it was set an hour forward of the actual time, an imposition made by the ruling administration to put Brussels onto German time (+1 hour from Brussels). With typical Belgian defiance, the population stated it merely made the time closer until they were liberated by one hour!
The exhibition is well presented and thought-out, for a €6 fee you can see everything this and the Town Hall Museum has to offer, excellent value for money as it charts a period of history that is both painful and inspiring.
Find out more on the Exhibition’s Website