Flanders Fields reconstruction after Armistice 1918Flanders Fields

Armistice Day 1918: What Happened Next?

After 11 November 1918, life returned to normal in Flanders. Except that it didn’t

Armistice Day 1918 marked the end of the First World War. We tend to think “phew, that was that!” and believe that people could finally get “back to normal”. But to the Flemish returning to Flanders Fields, they were greeted by desolation and danger. It marked the start of a huge clear-up of the devastated landscape.

The bloody battlefield

For most of the First World War, Allied and German forces were involved in trench warfare along the Western Front. This bloody battlefield stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France. Despite the efforts of both sides, it remained essentially unchanged for the duration of the war.

In Flanders the Front Line extended from Nieuwpoort on the coast, along the banks of the previously picturesque River Ijzer, past Diksmuide, around the medieval town of Ieper, and past Mesen to the French border. Its width varied between two and ten kilometres. On a clear day, a Belgian soldier would have been able to stand in relative safety behind the Front Line and see the German army moving in relative peace on the other side.

The land in between, however, was a monstrous hell of death and destruction. In this long, narrow stretch of West Flanders, more than half a million soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. Tens of thousands of civilians were forced to flee for their lives. Towns, villages, farms, woods and fields were totally devastated.

first World War devastation

When peace was finally restored on 11 November 1918, virtually nothing was left of the original landscape. The area became known as the Verwoeste Gewesten – the Devastated Lands. What happened next and how the landscape was restored to its previous state is a remarkable story of the perseverance and opportunism of the Flemish people.

Two action plans after Armistice Day

After the Armistice, two action plans were hastily formulated and implemented. The first was to retrieve, identify if possible, and bury the bodies of the soldiers who had died on the front. Many of these had lain unburied for years and all clues to their identity had been lost. Others had been buried in temporary graves. These were exhumed and laid to rest in permanent cemeteries.

The second task was to level the ground. The British Army’s Chinese Labour Corps played a key role in this work. Initially shipped over from China to dig trenches and latrines and provide other support to the fighting soldiers, they stayed in Flanders after 1918 to help clean up the war zone. They did not return to China until 1920. German prisoners of war were also used. Trenches, craters and shell holes were filled in and at some point it was declared that civilians could be allowed to re-enter the war zone. They were told to expect the worst.

Armistice 1918

It would have been an extremely traumatic return – a nightmare scenario. One farmer returned to his farm, found absolutely nothing recognisable, and committed suicide. Another man from Ieper couldn’t find a trace of his farm until he found a tap to an underground water pipe that he had installed in 1914. It was the only thing remaining of his property.

Priorities

Their first priority was to build temporary accommodation, and the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Flemings came to the fore. Scattered around the battlefields were huge dumps of wood and scrap iron. Using such materials, basic huts and sheds were constructed.

Flanders Fields 1918

Other families took over abandoned Nissen huts. These were prefabricated, portable multi-purpose huts developed by Major Peter Nissen of the Royal Engineers in 1916. At least 100,000 of them were produced in World War One as temporary barracks for soldiers. The Belgian government also provided their people with temporary wooden huts.

Flanders Fields

The availability of clean drinking water was a problem. The River Ijzer and the two lakes that provided water to Ieper were totally contaminated and unfit to drink. Local breweries came to the rescue. They drilled deep bore holes and pumped up clean water. They used it for their own brewing processes and to provide potable water to local inhabitants.

Redevelopment

The next task was to re-develop and re-stock the land. This was necessary not only in the war zone itself but up to ten kilometres on either side. One of the reasons was the extensive use of chlorine, phosgene and mustard gases in the region. These poisonous gases were not only fatal to humans but killed everything living in their path, including livestock as well as vegetation. The Belgian Ministry of Agriculture provided new seeds and plants, while farmers in the Netherlands – particularly from the province of Limburg – donated cattle, horses and even chickens. Slowly but surely, new life began to return to the Devastated Lands.

Flanders Fields 1918

Danger lurks beneath

However, working in Flanders Fields in the early 1920s was a dangerous occupation. It has been estimated that a quarter of the one billion projectiles fired during World War One failed to explode, but remained live. Farm labourers were constantly being maimed or killed by unexploded ordinance. It was apparent that the initial clean-up operation had been too superficial.

Around this time some clever opportunists appeared on the scene. They would perform a service of “deep digging”. For a fee they would thoroughly dig out a hectare of land, remove all the shells, and proclaim it as clean land. A number of family fortunes were made in this way.

Reconstructing Flanders Fields

Also amassing great personal wealth were the scrap metal merchants who went from battlefield to battlefield collecting shells and selling the iron and copper. Both jobs were fraught with danger and frequently led to workers losing limbs, if not their lives.

Rebuilding

With the land beginning to yield its first crops and livestock increasing in numbers, farm buildings could be rebuilt. Often the same architect would be commissioned for a number of farms and he would use the same design.

The deaths continue

Unbelievably, the so-called Period of Reconstruction of the Verwoeste Gewesten lasted until 1967, when the final annex to the Cloth Hall in Ypres was finished.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite the end of the trauma. Each year, nearly 300 tons of rusting bombs, grenades, mortars and shells are unearthed. About one in 20 contains poison gases that are still potent enough to kill. The locals call it the “Iron Harvest”.

In 2014, two people were killed in Flanders by a century-old unexploded shell.

Despite all the efforts, the legacy of this horrendous episode in European history still remains in Flanders Fields.

(Photos copyright of In Flanders Fields Museum)

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40 replies »

  1. I enjoyed reading this Denzil. When we visited Flanders we sat in the town square in Ypres and even though we knew the Cloth Hall, Town Hall and the Cathedral had been completely rebuilt we just couldn’t imagine that these buildings hadn’t always been there. The rebuilding program was amazing.

        • I can understand his thinking, to leave a memory of what it was like. But maybe not a whole town. And thankfully we have photos to remind us of what it was like.

          • Yes, but it wasn’t his home that was wiped out. I’m pleased the people ignored him and rebuilt their beautiful town. We saw photos there. It’s almost impossible to believe that anything could be resurrected from the rubble that was left. But they did an amazing job.

  2. I couldn’t hit ‘like’ on this historical post because of all the devastation and lives lost. But, I applaud the tenacity and strong willed people who came back and resurrected the area through fierce determination and hard work. I think every politician around the globe could benefit from reading this account because maybe they would get a visual the next time they think being a proponent of going to war is a good thing.

  3. Lovely post. It is truly amazing what people can do when they put their minds to it. Unfortunately the War to end all wars hasn’t happened yet. Re politicians, there is an old soldiers saying that if politicians had to go to war instead of sending other people, there would be no wars.

    • Yes Glen you are right. The very same politicians who sadly plant wreaths around memorials on Armistice Day are often those who approve warfare and the consequent suffering.

    • Thanks Anabel. No need to feel shame. Until I researched this topic I had never once thought what actually happened after Armistice Day. I had somehow thought “great, the war has stopped, peace has broken out, back home and back to work.” Unfortunately life was never the same again for these people.

  4. Very interesting read. Thanks.
    And even despite the big clean up, 100 years on, still so much ammunition and remains of bombs are found in the fields every year.
    Also makes you think about the bombings currently around the world, and how it will affect those areas for decades to come …

  5. Reblogged this on Life Sentences and commented:

    November 11th 1918 marked the end of the First World War, but the beginning of a huge clear-up of a totally desolated region. This reblog of a post I wrote a couple of years ago for my other blog tells the story of the reconstruction of Flanders

  6. This is a fascinating story, especially to me as I studied (W. Hemisphere, not so much European) history in university. Thank you for sharing it. I was just reflecting on the date and how next year it will be a full century since the Nov 11 Armistice brought the horrors of the Great War to an end…

  7. Learned so much from reading this posting. Well written and informative. Thanks for sharing this information about something I knew little about. Reminds me of Bosnia-Herzegovina after the Bosnian war. Even in the major base camp at Tuzla, they were finding unexploded landmines.

  8. This post taught me such a lot, Denzil. I never considered how the area had to be totally regenerated, how locals lost everything, and shockingly, how lives were still being lost due to the dangers that still lurked beneath the surface. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • It was fascinating to research Judy. Those first folk who returned to their lands must have thought they were entering Hell. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be attempting to dig in that soil that was full of bodies and shells. Thanks for dropping by!

    • Thank you Sue. While not wishing to trivialise this story in any way, I think the recolonization of Flanders and north-west France is is one of the war stories that hasn’t been made into a movie yet (or maybe not a book either). I could see this as a great human interest story.

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