At the start of the First World War, the German Army invaded Belgium without a great deal of trouble, marching through largely undefended territory. In an attempt to make it more difficult for an invading army in the future, after the war new forts were constructed in Belgium, such as the supposedly impregnable fortress of Eben-Emael on the border with the Netherlands. Despite this, the country’s military leadership were still concerned about its ability to defend the country. When international tensions again began to rise in the late-1930s, they came up with a plan.
This involved building a 400-kilometre defensive line from the north of the country to the south: more specifically from Koningshooikt in Antwerp to Wavre. It was called the KW-line and was replete with bunkers, anti-tank walls, water-filled ditches, trenches, machine gun pillboxes, steel fences and barbed wire obstacles.
Construction of the KW-line began in 1939, involving firstly conscripts and then about a thousand civilian workers hired from private contractors.
The Belgian army was responsible for guarding the northern part of the line down to Leuven, while the British army was ready to hold the part from Leuven to Wavre.It became operational just in time: on the eve of the German Army’s advance: 10 May 1940.
Unfortunately, theory didn’t equate with practice. South of the KW-line, in northern France, the German Army was making great gains, while north of the KW-line, the Netherlands surrendered. There was a very real risk that the Belgian and British troops guarding the KW-line would become encircled.
On 15 May 1940, the Germans reached the KW-line at Wijgmaal, just north of Leuven. A day later, the Belgian Allied High Command ordered its troops to pull back. The KW-line was abandoned, before it was ever really used. On 28 May, Belgium capitulated.
In Haacht, north of Leuven, part of the anti-tank ditch that formed a section of the KW-line is still visible. It covers 3 km between the Hansbrug, a bridge over the River Dijle, and the small village of Wakkerzeel. It consists of a 3.5 meter high concrete wall flanked by a ditch with several locks and dams to regulate the flow of water into the ditch.
The whole length of the 3-km anti-tank ditch in Haacht can be walked, although don’t go expecting anything spectacular. For much of the way it looks very much like … a low concrete wall and a rather muddy ditch! Part of it is now a nature reserve, as it’s been colonized by rushes and sedges, making it ideal for various amphibians, so spring is probably the best time of the year to visit it.
However, if you are interested in a bit of Belgian war memorabilia, it might be your ideal afternoon trip. If you want to get a feeling of the place, here is a Google Street View along the footpath.
Thanks to reader Alan Anderson for sending me this picture of his local KW-line bunker south of Leuven:
In the true spirit of a Discoverer of Belgium, he crawled inside to take this shot of the machine gunner’s view over the River Dyle and the surrounding countryside and the mustard-filled fields:
Alan also points out that there is a Museum of the KW-line in Chaumont-Gistoux (open May to September)