Gathering century-old memories of wartime Belgium

As part of their World War One commemorations, organisers in the Belgian city of Antwerp plan to reconstruct the pontoon bridge which helped the Belgian Army and many residents escape occupation in 1914. But first they wanted people to share their families' stories at a roadshow in the king's former palace.

Louis Van Gysel holds up a page of photos of the reunion between his mother and the man who's life she  helped flee down the River Scheldt to Holland Louis Van Gysel with photos of his mother and the man whose life she helped save at the start of WWI

Louis Van Gysel is 86. When he recalls the story of how his mother saved a boy who was fleeing the Germans, his eyes mist over. The event he is talking about happened almost 100 years ago, yet the thought of his mother risking her life to get the young man to neutral Holland still touches him.

"She could've been shot for what she did. She was unbelievably brave," he says as he shows me his family photos.

A photo taken in 1969 of Louis as a young man with his mother, Maria and Paul Bouvette at their reunion Louis in 1969 (right) with his mother, Maria and Paul Bouvette at their reunion

"Despite the dangers, she pretended he was her boyfriend and they slipped past a fort occupied by the Germans to the banks of the River Scheldt," said Louis. "That night, he swam for two hours until he was spotted by a Dutchman in a rowing boat who picked him up and took him to safety."

Louis, a retired bank trader, has brought his wife Anna Maria with him to share his story at a WWI roadshow in Antwerp's elegant Palais op de Meir.

Last chance to remember

Organised by Antwerp's Peace Centre, the event - which attracted almost 1,000 people and 80 contributions - is one of many being held across Europe to encourage families to share their memorabilia on the Europeana 1914-1918 website. With so many WWI diaries, letters, pictures and other objects deteriorating with age, the idea, devised by Oxford University's IT Services department, is to scan and photograph each item so they can be preserved online and made accessible to all.

After Belgium was invaded by the Germans in 1914, King Albert, who was head of the army, moved his headquarters to Antwerp. But despite a last-ditch effort by Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, to offer naval support and persuade the king to stay put, he was so overwhelmed by Zeppelin bombs and attacks on his city that the king fled, along with the army and thousands of residents, over a hastily-constructed floating bridge on the River Scheldt.

In total, one million Belgians left for Holland, while 250,000 went to the UK and 250,000 to France.

Bridging past and present

  • Five bridges were built across Antwerp's River Scheldt in 1914, in anticipation of an attack
  • One of the bridges stretched over 400m on floating pontoons from the centre of Antwerp to the left bank of the river
  • It was made of wood and wide enough that cars could use it and 75mm guns could be brought across
  • Fishing boats and small sailing ships were confiscated to create the floating bridge
  • The pontoon bridge will be reconstructed by the Belgian and Dutch Armies and opened on October 3-5, 2014. Tickets for pedestrians to cross one way on the Saturday and Sunday will be at priced 5 euros for adults and half price for children on sale from October 1, 2013 under 16.
  • A prototype reconstruction of the bridge will take place on October 1, 2013

Speaking in near-perfect English, Louis explains how his mother, blacksmith's daughter Maria Christine Van Meir, was in her 20s and working in the family cafe in Berendrecht, north of Antwerp, when she helped the young Belgian, Paul Bouvette, in his attempt to get to Holland.

She said one way was to swim to the Dutch border down the River Scheldt, although the current was very strong and he risked being picked up by German searchlights from the bank.

"The Germans knew the family, so when they went past looking like a couple, she whispered: 'Don't tell my father!' and they let them go," said Louis.

Paul - who went on to become a Jesuit priest - managed to get a postcard smuggled out of Holland into Belgium to tell Maria Christine their plan had been a success. More than 50 years later the pair reunited and even visited the spot where they had gone to the river, arm in arm, as they did in 1917.

"As soon as Paul saw my mother in 1969, he thanked her for saving his life," said Louis, from Wilrijk, near Antwerp. "Watching the two of them was very moving."

Police inspector Louis Janssens, 59, and his second cousin Paul Alix, 61 - a retired industrial mechanic - also find it hard to keep their emotions in check when they talk about their grandfathers, orphaned brothers who fought together at the Yser and in Ypres.

Brothers Ludovicus and Franciscus Alix in military uniform in a black and white photo taken shortly after the war Brothers in arms: Ludovicus Alix (seated) with his brother, Franciscus (standing) shortly after the war

Paul's grandfather Franciscus Alix, born in 1890, was already in the Belgian Army, stationed in England, when war broke out. But his brother Ludovicus Alix, born in 1896, escaped through Holland to join him.

'They only had each other'

The brothers were responsible for driving carts, pulled by dogs, carrying machine guns to the front.

Cousins Paul Alix and Louis Janssens talk about their grandfathers, brothers Franciscus and Ludovicus Alix Two generations on: cousins Paul Alix and Louis Janssens remember their grandfathers, the brothers who fought together

"It was the most exciting time of their lives, but it must also have been overwhelming for them," explains Louis. "They were simple, illiterate boys from a small village in the countryside. My grandfather learned to read at the front."

"After the war, when the brothers got together at a family party; within 10 minutes they were back in the trenches and telling their stories," says Paul, whose eyes have suddenly filled with tears at the memory.

"They didn't have parents to send letters to or get support from - they only had each other," adds Paul. "Even for us to tell this story is very emotional."

John Poullet says it is down to his grandfather, Prospect Poullet - Belgium's prime minister in 1925/26 - that children in Dutch refugee camps and soldiers in the trenches received an education. "He was schools minister during the war and made sure the youngsters didn't miss out," he said.

Start Quote

Personal stories ... are so important historically, but risk being lost”

End Quote Jill Cousins Europeana Foundation

Baroness Antoinette Pecher's father, Jean, wrote so many letters to his parents - who had escaped to England - that she turned them into a book. Jean, a sergeant in the Belgian Army, took photos in France using a Kodak camera and, probably illegally, sent the films home to be developed.

"After the war he was part of a delegation of soldiers who toured the US asking for funds to help rebuild Belgium," said Antoinette, former president of the National Institute for War Invalids, Veterans and Victims of War. "They were enormously successful."

Amazing day

Jill Cousins, executive director of the Europeana Foundation, said: "It's the personal stories like the ones we've heard in Antwerp that are so important historically, but risk being lost. That's why our online archive, which is collecting material from across Europe, is so valuable."

Grainy black and white photo of the original pontoon bridge in Antwerp A photo, taken during WWI, of the pontoon bridge which will be recreated in Antwerp next year

Marleen Van Ouytsel, director of Antwerp's Peace Centre, said: "We have had an amazing day, with many stories not just focusing on action at the front, but also on what it was like for Belgians who were under occupation," she said.

"It is the perfect kick-off to our event next October when we plan to reconstruct the pontoon bridge across the Scheldt and allow 200,000 people to use it over two days."

"A lot of people have dreamed about crossing from the left to the right side of the city, like you can in Paris and London, so we are hoping the event will be really massive."

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