When WWI broke out in 1914, thousands of Aalst's residents became unemployed. Different industries were forced to stop production and the Germans requisitioned everything that was usable. The Germans requisitioned unemployed men for their war industry.
To spare their fellow townsmen from this degrading fate, aldermen Romain Moyersoen and Désiré De Wolf decided to put the men to work in Aalst. Alderman De Wolf worked out the idea: he looked for an architect to design the park and contacted every building contractor in Aalst. The first team of 35 labourers started work in July 1915.
In order to employ as many unemployed men as possible, they established a rotation system. Labourers and overseers relieved each other so that they didn't work more than one day in five yet escaped deportation to Germany. In gratitude for this smart tactic to by-pass unemployment, a few ex-overseers – with donations from Aalst residents - erected a monument for Désiré De Wolf.
During the German advance on Dendermonde, Lebbeke was the second last village on the route. They entered the city on 4 September 1914. When a soldier was suddenly shot, the German troops blew a fuse. They shouted 'franc-tireurs!'. In the Brusselsesteenweg, in the Kazeirekes neighbourhood, German soldiers dragged several young men out of their homes to vent their rage.
A few boys were able to escape, but 14 of them experienced a horrible death. They had to dig their own graves before the Germans murdered them mercilessly. The news illustrated the arbitrary cruelty of the German army and newspapers all over the world covered the story.
When German troops entered Liezele on 4 September 1914, the residents left all their belonging behind and fled until they were behind the belt of forts. Because the Germans took cover in the empty houses, thereby endangering the Belgian troops in the fort, Commander Fiévez, the commanding officer of Fort Liezele, set Liezele on fire.
Two hundred and nine houses went up in flames during the night of 4 to 5 September 1914. The remaining façades were torn down a few days later. Liezele was an abandoned ghost village from that moment on. Some residents only returned much later and had difficulty resuming their lives.
German soldiers entered Sint-Amands on 5 and 6 September 1914. Rumours about the invasions quickly spread in Fort Bornem. It was rumoured that the Germans had occupied the entire village and placed artillery in the church tower. In reality, no more than 30 German soldiers arrived in Sint-Amands but the cruel stories about their march through Belgium preceded them so many residents fled.
The artillery in the fort shelled the church and the village without warning. On the afternoon of September 6, 200 Belgian soldiers set the church tower on fire in order to destroy the observation post. The tower, the roof, the rood loft, the pulpit and a large number of chairs were destroyed. The most urgent repairs were made in the first months of 1915 and the tower was repaired in 1928.
Buggenhout Forest is a wonderful place to walk and a top-notch destination in Scheldeland. It is also an important place in WWI history. The forest was the scene of heavy fighting during the Battle of Buggenhout (26-27 September 1914).
About 40 Belgian boys died, including gunners, riflemen on foot, infantrymen and grenadiers. The battle was part of the Third Sortie of the Belgian army out of Antwerp.
The Rubbens jenever distillery was founded in the Langemuntstraat in Zele in 1817. When WWI broke out and the German army occupied Zele, the production of jenever was halted.
Rubbens was temporarily given a second life: the distillery cooked 'volkssoep' (common soup), which was distributed to all schools and neighbourhoods in Zele by the National Relief and Food Committee. That's how Rubbens Distillery helped to combat starvation during the First World War.
The neighbourhoods on the right bank of the Dender River in Aalst were hit hard by the German invasion. From there the enemy advanced a bit further towards the Zwarte Hoek bridge.
Belgian riflemen, the ‘Black Devils’, were hidden on the right bank in the locomotives depot and in houses to prevent German troops from crossing the river. The Germans vented their rage on the local population.
On the right bank they smashed doors and window-shutters, and dragged men, women and children out of their homes to kill them in cold blood. In the Driesleutelstraat they set houses on fire and herded men to the riverbank as human shields. Different testimonies gathered after the war show how brutally the German soldiers treated their random victims. The battle at Zwarte Hoek bridge is a telling example of this.
German troops descended on the fields around Denderbelle, where today you can walk in the nature reserves of Wiestermeersch and Denderbellebroek, at the beginning of September 1914 after an initial offensive against Dendermonde.
Some people still remember the anecdotes that they once heard. Dirk De Cock, an alderman from Lebbeke, recalls old stories that the residents of Denderbelle were surprised when the German troops held an open-air mass in the fields.
The image of those 'horrible, ruthless Germans' was difficult to reconcile with the sight of loyal believers. This ‘Feldgottesdienst’ in Denderbelle is also described in the diary of a German soldier. For him it was the first mass in enemy territory.
Dendermonde was more or less burned to the ground in 1914. Of the 2239 houses that stood before the war, 1252 went up in flames. Even city hall caught fire and burned down. This marvellous city was reduced to smouldering ruins.
Today Dendermonde is one of the seven Belgian 'Martyr Cities', a dubious honour that the city owes to the fact that the German army mainly attacked citizens and destroyed their houses.
The rubble has been removed, but the stories are found in countless books. For example, German soldiers took a group of citizens hostage in the Franz Courtensstraat during their first attack on 4 September 1914. They did that often because their fear of 'franc-tireurs'– citizens who waited in ambush in houses and shot Germans – ran very deep.
The male hostages had to stand upright for two hours with their faces against the façade of a house. Passing troops jeered and threatened them with execution. By evening the men were released in a beetroot field in the village of Appels. They came away unharmed, many of their fellow townsmen did not survive the evening.
Near the Vondelbeek in Lebbeke, straight across from the since vanished Borms mill, they found the shallow grave of six men from Sint-Gillis at the beginning of September 1914. German troops, afraid of 'franc-tireurs', had dragged them out of their homes and taken them to Lebbeke.
They were brutally assaulted and murdered near the Vondelbeek on 4 September 1914. Armand Dubois, the mayor of Lebbeke, described the facts in his war journal. The story is so horrible that we prefer to let it rest.
The Battle of Berlare took place near Dendermonde, along the Scheldt River, at the beginning of October. The Belgian battalion commanded by Lieutenant General Michel tried to prevent the Germans from crossing the Scheldt River via the bridge that connects Schoonaarde with Berlare. Heavy artillery fire resounded for days.
68 Belgian soldiers lost their lives in the battle for the Schoonaarde bridge. Their names are engraved on the war monument in Berlare, the municipality a bit further on the left bank. The effects were felt in otherwise peaceful Zele. Heavily wounded victims were brought to the hospital in Koevliet for treatment. The Goossens burlap factory on the Kouter was fired upon and burned to the ground. After their defeat on 8 October 1914, the retreating Belgian soldiers passed through Heikant.
In the first months of the war in 1914, the church in the fishing village of Mariekerke was destroyed. Belgian engineers destroyed the church to prevent German troops from using the tower as a look-out or machine-gun post. On the evening of 7 October 1914 gunboats emerged on the river.
Once ashore pontoneers burned all the church furniture with petroleum. The fire was so intense that the church bells melted. The church of 'Onze-Lieve-Vrouw ten Hemel Opgenomen' was rebuilt in neo-gothic style in 1925. These days it is know for its performance of the Passion Play every five years.