Imagine Your Own Home, Your Attic, Cellar, and Backyard With a Platoon of Strange Soldiers Camped in It Who Do Not Speak Your Language – They Flirt With Your Daughters, Chop Your Fences Down for Firewood, Sing Late Into the Night, and Then March Away Before You Get Well Acquainted and Another Lot Takes Their Place – And This Goes On Year After Year – Be Thoughtful, Boys.
By Greg Clark – January 18, 1919
Our good friends the Belgians are meeting with rather rough treatment at hands of some of the returned soldiers. Since my return, both in Toronto and out in the Province, I have been asked at least a score of times questions such as:
“Now, what about the Belgians? Here we have been working for four years, collecting clothing, raising money by charities and doing all manner of things for the Belgians. And So-and-so, just back from the war, tells us that the Belgians are a low and cheating people who treated our soldiers very shabbily, refused to let our tired boys drink from their pumps, robbed them of their money!
Have we, then, been working hard for an undeserving, almost an enemy people?”
This question is being asked everywhere. where. If only to still the doubts over that splendid charity that been exercised by thousands of Canadian women the last tour years, not to mention the fidelity we owe to our historic and splendid little ally, Belgium, the question needs an answer.
And I think the answer is that the comments of returned soldiers regarding Belgians are thoughtless anecdotes in France.
I have heard twenty or thirty such anecdotes in France. But in two sojourns on the Belgian front I never seen a definite case of ill-treatment of our men. In fact, I have encountered the same good-natured, generous and friendly spirit in Belgium that we found in France.
To realize the utter injustice of these reports on the Belgians we have only to look at the map. See what a little narrow strip of Belgium was in our hands. See how little of Belgium and how few Belgians it was possible for our soldiers to meet. There is Ypres on the last tragic acre of Belgium. And were there many Belgians in Ypres? And nearly every Canadian soldier has a good memory of Poperinghe (good old “Pop,” where so much lace and so many silk cushion covers, souvenirs de la guerre, and eggs-and-chip meals have come from). Yet Poperinghe is in Belgium.
Was there any stiff line of demarcation between Poperinghe and Steenvoorde, that is, in spirit? Yet “Pop” is in Belgium and Steenvoorde is in France!
No doubt there have been cases of petty meanness and cheating in the Ypres front. There have been such cases on every front. But up on the border, where France and Belgium meet, the people nearly all speak Flemish.
Far back into France, miles from the Belgian border, Flemish is heard as often as French. There is no definite border between the two races of people. But to the Canadian soldier, anyone who spoke Flemish was a Belgian.
To credit all Belgians with the character of a few ill-tempered and thievish members of a mixed border people is a rank injustice.
And furthermore, to judge either the Belgians, Flemish or French people from the samples encountered along the fringe of the fighting line is most absurd.
Imagine your own home, your attic, cellar and back yard with a platoon of strange soldiers camped in it. They do not speak your language. They are tired. They tramp through your halls and peek curiously into your own room. Sometimes they sing late at night. They flirt with your daughters. In the middle of the night you hear someone chopping something. You wonder if it is your back fence or your cellar door or what that is being turned to firewood? And then before you have a chance to make the acquaintance of these men and earn their goodwill, they up and march away, and an entirely strange platoon lands in on you.
That’s the life of the householder in the war zone. Not for a day. But day in and day out, year after year.
And mind you, there’s nothing wrong with that platoon. It is a platoon of as fine gentleman as any country ever boasted of sending to war. Good gentlemen every one. But, as I say, they are warriors. They are tired. And my description holds good.
Can you wonder, then, at here and there our boys encountered some crabbed old dame whose good humor failed under the strain, and who might charge them double price for an omelette or in a rage refuse them water. Poor, nerve-wracked, upset creatures! The wonder is not that they fail to recognize us occasionally as allies and friends but they remembered the fact that all.
So let us catch these tales of the Belgians on the wing and stop them. Come down to brass tacks and ask the thoughtless soldier who makes these statements on what wide knowledge of Belgium he condemns the Belgians and throws a cloud on our staunch ally and takes the heart out of what patriotic work has been done for them.
And his reply will be:
“Well, among the mixed Flemish, French and Belgian races of the Ypres area, I have encountered certain cases of meanness.”
Some of these reports are based not on the experiences of our boys at the front, but experience with refugees in England. But can we justly judge a race from the misconduct of a refugee or two?
Let us remember, instead, the good Belgian woman who threw open her house, barns and orchard to shelter our whole battalion that early morning near Cassel, when we were ready to drop to a man on the paved road. I just remember the jolly fat lady at Kootenlook near Caestre who had the pretty blonde daughters and who made such divine, fairy-light omelettes. We can find a hundred memories like them to offset one memory of cheating or claim of damage, in all our campaigning from Ypres to Amiens. And they sound better to our friends in these days of peace.
Editor’s note: This was the first news story written by Greg and illustrated by Jim after they started working at the Star Weekly when they returned from the war. It was originally published on January 18, 1919 (the day the Paris Peace Conference began). Belgium had only recently been liberated in the months prior, and the story illustrates the friction that can occur even between liberators and the local population. Britain (and Canada) had only joined the war (in theory) because Belgian neutrality was violated by Germany in 1914, and for much of the war, relief donations were collected for “Brave Little Belgium”.