Great War Scheldeland

When talking about WWI, people often focus on the Yser River, but the fighting was also heavy in Scheldeland. What's more, the battle in the Westhoek might not have happened without the delaying tactics employed around the Scheldt and Dender Rivers. They enabled King Albert I to guide the majority of his troops out of Antwerp safely.

The war battles moved away from Scheldeland at the beginning of October 1914, but the region was changed for good. The four-year occupation that followed left a mark, not always visible, but ever-present.

Curious to know what happened here? Be led through the past with thematic cycling and walking routes, exhibitions and events.

'100 Years Great War in Scheldeland' is constructed around three themes that characterise the battle that was fought here

1. The forts in Scheldeland

The forts in Liezele, Bornem and Breendonk were part of the 'Stelling van Antwerpen', a military defensive belt consisting of two rings of forts. They were supposed to protect Antwerp. Just like Liège and Namur, Antwerp was a National Reduit or refuge in the event of war.

Initially the Germans ignored Antwerp, but at the end of September 1914 they attacked. The Belgian army retreated across the Scheldt River towards Antwerp. Fort Liezele and the bulwark of Puurs were given the important task of defending that retreat. To obtain a wide field of fire on the German troops, Liezele village was burned to the ground by Belgian soldiers.

Today Fort Liezele is the most complete fort of the entire 'Stelling van Antwerpen'. You can visit the fort individually or as part of a group, with or without a guide. You can also walk through the fort with an audio guide.

2. Battle on the banks of the Scheldt and Dender Rivers

German troops left behind a trail of destruction during their march through Scheldeland. The fighting was particularly hard around Dendermonde, due to its strategic location with an important bridge across the Scheldt River that gave access to the left bank.

German troops burned down the entire city centre of Dendermonde in September 1914. 1252 houses went up in flames. Citizens were used as human shields, tortured and shot dead. That's how Dendermonde became one of the seven Belgian 'Martyr Cities'.

What failed in Dendermonde happened in Schoonaarde, eight kilometres upstream on the Scheldt River. A hard battle was fought here to cross the Scheldt River; the Germans eventually succeeded on 8 October 1914. 68 Belgian soldiers lost their lives here. Buggenhout Forest was also the scene of heavy fighting. About 40 Belgian soldiers lost their lives in this 'forgotten battle'.

3. Life in occupied territory

After the German invasion in 1914, Belgium was redivided into three parts with vague but heavily-guarded borders. Scheldeland was part of the 'Etappengebiet' where a strict military regime was prevalent. Life in the area became very expensive and smuggling was rampant.

The German occupiers requisitioned just about everything they could use. Not only goods; after a while they requisitioned people too. In Aalst the local aldermen came up with the idea of protecting their unemployed residents from possible requisition by using them to construct a 19-hectare city park. Today it is still a wonderful location with a marvellous history.

We mustn't forget the homeless and the refugees. For four long years the residents of Scheldeland had to survive in difficult circumstances, often without a real roof over their heads. They lived in stables, greenhouses and temporary accommodations. These have all disappeared but the stories live on.