A picture of Alfons Switten at his return to his hometown Zonhoven after having fought for four years and having witnessed massive human suffering.
A picture of Alfons Switten at his return to his hometown Zonhoven after having fought for four years and having witnessed massive human suffering.

Our sister city gives European perspective on war

AS THE community of Gayndah pauses to remember those who served for our country, the community of our sister city in Zonhoven will be doing the same thing.

The following is a summary of World War 1 in Belgium and Zonhoven.

This summary was written by Ludo Bunkens who is a member of the historical society in Zonhoven, it was then translated by pupils from the 6EM class at Saint John Berchmans College in Zonhoven.

The immediate cause for the beginning of the first world war was the murder on the Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek in Serbia on June 28 1914.

This murder was the final straw in a series of events and tensions between the European powers (Germany, France, Great-Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary) that caused the beginning of The Great War.

To cover themselves the powers had pacts with each other: Serbia with Russia, Russia with France and Great-Britain, Austria with Germany and Italy, and Germany and the Ottoman empire.

Belgium

On August 1, 1914 the Germans demanded unhindered entrance through Belgium to attack France.

Belgium refused this because it wanted to stay neutral.

Despite this refusal the Germans crossed the Belgian eastern border on 4 August 1914.

The Belgian army, badly armed and ill-equipped, offered a lot of resistance and slowed down the German forces.

This led to German reprisals and caused many Belgian deaths: about 6 000 people lost their lives and thousands of others were deported to Germany.

This abomination encouraged the USA and the UK to help Belgium and France with weapons and food.

After the Germans had occupied the biggest Belgian cities - Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp - the Belgian army was forced to retreat to the coastal area behind the river Yzer around Nieuwpoort, Diksmuide and Ypres.

With the aid of the water the Belgian forces stopped the German troops.

The trench warfare started.

In the year 1915 the Germans carried out the first gas attacks in Ypres.

The green-yellow, poisonous chlorine gas (later on called 'Yperite', after the Belgian city Ypres) caused irritation of the mucous membranes and the respiratory tracts of its victims (people and horses).

The consequences were horrible: lack of oxygen, spitting blood and a painful cough.

For years the front moved slowly or not at all.

Gas attacks, frontal attacks that made living targets out of the soldiers, bombings, what was the solution?

US participation proved crucial for the ending of the war.

Meanwhile in Germany problems were arising in the government and they eventually deposed emperor Wilhelm.

The German generals made the offer of an armistice.

On 11 November 1918 the treaty was signed in a train wagon in Compiègne, France.

Zonhoven

In 1914 Zonhoven had a population of about 3500 people. 200 Men were directly involved in the war as a soldier, and 21 were killed in action. 52 more people were deported to Germany.

During the war, daily life in Zonhoven was governed by German orders.

They were composed in German and translated into Dutch.

These orders regulated public life, cultivation and proceeds of farm lands, services to the Germans.

Because many men had enrolled or were deported, many Zonhoven families were without breadwinners or workers at farms or workshops.

Women were on their own and this also created more independence, less strict rules, less supervision in the homes.

Zonhoven gave shelter to 465 refugees from the front and from France.

Life was hard: food was rationed and the German occupier set the price.

There was a system of coupons to ensure that everyone could obtain food and resources.

Products like soap, bread and meat were only available with coupons.

Humanitarian aid organisations and the USA tried to relieve the biggest needs and avoid famine.

The Germans were strict.

Zonhoven farmers had to declare all crops they cultivated, how many cattle they owned, how much milk was produced.

The Germans often claimed cattle and horses.

Farmers were forced to bring grain, flour, oil, butter, hay and potatoes to the neighbouring city of Hasselt for German use.

Families were required to feed German troops billeted in Zonhoven.

Freedom and personal initiative were also limited.

Political or patriotic manifestations were prohibited. The Belgian flag could not be hoisted.

There was a curfew between 9am and 5pm.

Shops and pubs were closed at 9pm.

All doors and windows had to be closed.

Public intoxication was punished by imprisonment.

Riding a bike without a light was fined.

Travelling was impossible without the "Kommandatur's” permission.

Gatherings of more than five people were prohibited.

Men eligible for fighting were supposed to present themselves monthly at the "Meldeamt” in Hasselt.

But worse than all of this, was the grief for the fallen, and the uncertainty about and lack of news from the men still fighting at the front or those deported to Germany.

How many men returned with physical and mental wounds and had to live on with these for years?

It is with good reason that we still remember this and all those involved, every year on November 11.


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