On 11 November 1918, at 11 a.m., the First World War came to an end. What happened on Armistice Day in Belgium? And what did the date mean afterwards? Here are 11 facts about 11 November 1918 from a Belgian perspective.
#1 The Battle of Mons was fought on Armistice Day
In 1914, British forces had put up a fierce resistance around the Belgian town of Mons to try and slow the German drive towards Paris. The Germans pushed the British out and occupied the town for four years. Mons was a coal mining centre, and its resources were vital to fuel Germany’s war effort.
Recapturing Mons now, at the end of the war, was of huge symbolic importance to the Allies. The task was given to the Canadian Corps under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie.
The Canadians encircled the town on November 9th and engaged the German army. They were finally able to enter Mons in the morning of 11 November 1918, fortunately without the use of heavy shelling. Bagpipes played as the town’s inhabitants welcomed the Canadians as liberators.
Overall casualties in the Battle of Mons were slight, compared with other battles, but no less poignant: 280 men were killed, wounded, or missing during the last two days of fighting, November 10 and 11.
#2 The last Belgian soldier was killed at 10:45
Marcel Toussaint Terfve, a 24-year-old Liège man who served in the 1st Line Regiment, was fatally hit by German machine-gun fire in East Flanders. He died on 11 November 1918 at 10:45 am, 15 minutes before peace was declared.
#3 The last soldier fighting on Belgian soil was killed at 10:58
The fighting in Belgium continued until literally the very last moment. The last soldier to die in action on Belgian soil was the 25-year-old Canadian George Lawrence Price during the Battle of Mons. He served in the 28th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was shot by a German sniper in the Belgian town of Ville-sur-Haine near Mons. The time was 10:58 a.m. – two minutes before the armistice began.
#4 Revolution broke out in Brussels
In the last two months of the war, Germany was in a state of chaos. With the German army on the western front being pushed back, dissatisfaction on the home front reached boiling point. Uprisings broke out all over Germany – and spread to Brussels. The German soldiers stationed there rebelled against the imperial authority and on November 9th they set up a revolutionary council. They stated they were no longer the occupiers of the city.
This caused confusion as to who was actually in command in Brussels, leading to anarchy. Fighting broke out between rebellious German soldiers and those still loyal to the emperor. Houses were looted, shops on Rue Neuve were plundered, the Banque Allard was robbed, and the prison gates were opened. In the vicinity of Rogier Square, German soldiers fought each other, and several dozen were killed.
On the morning of 11 November 1918, a remarkable meeting took place in rue Lambermont in Brussels. It involved three parties: Belgian politicians, the German occupation authorities, and a delegation of soldiers who had rebelled.
The meeting restored public order. The German soldiers, it seemed, were not particularly interested in revolting. They just wanted to return home as soon as possible.
#5 Discussions to extend voting rights began
Another meeting of importance took place in the early morning of November 11th 1918. It was held at the castle of Loppem in West Flanders, where Albert, King of the Belgians had established his headquarters. It was between the Catholic leader of the Belgian government in exile, Gérard Cooreman; the liberal politician Paul-Émile Janson; and the socialist politician Edward Anseele.
King Albert expressed his opinion that ‘ordinary’ people should have more political influence, in return for their efforts during the war. He wanted to allow all Belgians to vote in federal (national) elections.
The talks lasted several days, at the end of which the decision was made to introduce the universal vote for Belgians. However, because the socialists feared that women would vote en masse for the Catholic party, only men were given the right to vote.
For historical interest, in 1919 a small number of women obtained voting rights: mothers and widows of military personnel and of civilians killed during the war by the enemy. In 1920 a law was introduced giving voting rights to all women (except for prostitute and adulterous women) in municipal elections. Voting rights for women at parliamentary and provincial elections were not decreed by law until 1948.
#6 The King and Queen of Belgium became more popular
On November 11th 1918, the advancing Belgian army, led by King Albert, now occupied a more extensive front line than ever before, running from Zelzate in the north to Mons in the south. His role as commander-in-chief greatly increased his popularity and also of Queen Elisabeth who visited the front lines and supported the nurses.
The national media enjoyed portraying the couple as the Knight King and Nurse Queen, and it was the start of the affection for the monarchy in Belgium.
#7 Peace brought retribution
For those who had collaborated with the German occupier, November 11th was not such a bright day. In many places throughout Belgium, collaborators were attacked and their houses looted.
#8 The return to Belgium could begin, but was not easy
Hundreds of thousands of Belgians had fled abroad at the outbreak of the war. The ceasefire was the signal to return. However, due to the damage to roads and railways, the continuing movement of troops, and the difficulty in obtaining supplies, for many people, their repatriation would be postponed for weeks and even months.
This was particularly so for the many West Flemish people stuck in northern France, as Flanders Fields was a dangerous wasteland, full of bodies and unexploded ordnance. You might like to read my post on the recovery of Flanders Fields.
#9 November 11 was not the original Remembrance Day
Initially, the Belgian government set August 4th as the day to commemorate the end of the First World War (this was the day on which the war for Belgium had begun in 1914). In 1922 the date was changed to November 11th.
During the first official celebration in 1919, the remains of an Unknown Soldier were buried in the crypt of the Congress Column in Brussels. Since then, this has been the focal point of the official commemorations of the Armistice. Every year, the King of Belgium lights the eternal flame and lays a wreath.
#10 After the Second World War, Armistice Day became Remembrance Day or Veterans Day
11 November 1918 initially referred only to the Armistice of the First World War, but since 1945 the day also commemorates the end of the Second World War. However, the Allied victory of 1945 initially was given a holiday of its own: V-day on May 8th. However, V-day never became an official holiday, in order to limit the number of paid holidays for employees.
#11 November 11 gained new meaning in Belgium in 1966
In 1966, at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month … thousands of volunteers took to the streets of Belgium to participate in the first Joint Action for the Third World. They wanted to give a new interpretation to the commemoration of the Armistice of 1918, namely, to fight for world peace and against injustice.
11.11.11 is now an annual campaign combining the efforts of about 60 organizations and more than 20,000 volunteers.