Dinant’s Citadel & City Massacre. Belgium, Europe.
Within a few weeks the whole world had gone completely mad and would never be the same again. Decent, hard-working family men turned into cold-blooded serial killers, millions were killed, cities were flattened, and borders changed as countries were swapped like cards in a poker game.
I’ve just returned from a WWl trip to Belgium. I’ll be writing about it in several instalments.
This is from the Dinant Tourist Board, and explains the story of what happened there;
At the dawn of the 20th century, the city of Dinant knows a remarkable tourism development.
Achieving its rail link to Namur, the High Meuse enjoys an influx of visitors foreigners who settle in for the season in hotels in Dinant, Anseremme and Waulsort. This rich clientele comes from all Europe. At the end of June 1914, hotels reservation requests are not disturbed by the news from Eastern Europe. Indeed, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, by a Serbian’s radical group in Sarajevo, on 28th June 1914, does not trouble the inhabitants of Dinant. However, the Serbian assassination in Bosnia will completely change the face of Europe and the balance of the world. The assassination will lead directly to the First World War when Austria-Hungary delivered an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia to recognise this murder but the Serbians denied this responsibility. Then, an international alliances formed over the previous decades were invoked: Russians supported the Serbians as Germans helped the Austria-Hungary. Within weeks, the major powers were at war and the conflict soon spread around the world.
Contextualisation Dinant 1914
On 2nd of August 1914, German government asked that German armies be given free passage through Belgian territory, a neutral country. Although the Belgian government, on 4th of August 1914, refused this Germans troops invaded Belgium and Luxembourg as part of the “Schlieffen Plan” in a attempt to capture Paris quickly by catching the French off guard. It was this action that technically caused the British to enter the war, as they were still bound by the 1839 “Treaty of London” to protect Belgium in the event of war (as the Netherlands).
The German cavalry tried to cross the Meuse between Visé and Liège but met a strong resistance of the Belgian soldiers who were defending the city through the fortifications of Liège (12 forts). The objective was to quickly gain control over the communication ways to allow the five army’s divisions (one million soldiers) to march to the north of France without wasting too much time. To their way to France, they also met a great resistance around Namur (9 forts).
15th of August in Dinant : Battles between French and German forces
When the German invasion of Belgium began, the French army also entered the country with the aim of defending the bridges across the Meuse, including which of Dinant. A single bridge spans the river in Dinant and this is where Dinant’s strategic location becomes evident, as for centuries this has been the only viable point where the Meuse can be crossed by an entire army. French forces were in Dinant on 15th August protecting its crucial bridge when the Germans advanced on the city. The Belgian and French forces were dislodged from the Citadel and the left bank of the town by the superior artillery of the Germans, to the other side of the river. One of the French soldiers shot in the leg while retreating across the bridge, happened to be a young lieutenant named Charles de Gaulle. Today the bridge bears his name. The French regrouped, counter-attacked and slowly retook the German-occupied bank of the river, including the Citadel (+- 2300 corpses =>French Military Cemetery of Dinant and former German necropolis).
23rd August in Dinant: sack of Dinant (civilian’s executions and house’s destruction)
By 22nd August, the 3rd German Army under the command of General Baron Von Hausen, was ordered to cross the Meuse between Namur and Givet. While all German forces headed southwards, it was the only part of the army to follow an east-to-west itinerary. To make the crossing, the Germans chose the passages of Dinant, Houx and Hastière. They did, however, meet great resistance, which they attributed to small French regiments that were helped by the inhabitants of the cities. While most of the French soldiers followed orders to retreat, some stayed behind, and along with Belgian partisans, took up sniper positions to slow down the Germans and stop them repairing Dinant’s bridge across the Meuse. The Germans suspected the locals would start shooting at them from everywhere, and so a treacherous atmosphere rapidly developed of “everyone is an enemy”.
The stories of the Belgian resistance and the participation of the civilians in the battles have been quickly spread within German soldiers since they crossed the Belgian border in early August. They were then convinced that they risked being attacked by hidden shooters, also called “francs tireurs”, making up real armies under command of the civilian and religious elite. All the incidents that occurred during the invasion of Belgium and which were related to this “guerre de francs tireurs” (“war of hidden shooters”) even further reinforced the German army’s beliefs and therefore its brutality towards the Belgian population. So doing, the German troops prepared their invasion of Dinant as a violent confrontation with its inhabitants. They received from the General Von Hausen an implacable watchword: sacking the city (pillage, set fire, exterminate/slaughter without taking into account age, sex or disabilities).
On their path, civilians were taken from their homes, which were then pillaged and burnt. The men were executed without trial, or taken to gathering places before being executed (Faubourg de Leffe: 150 workers at a textile factory were forced to leave their workplace and summarily executed). The women, children and elderly people were also assassinated (Over by the Rocher Bayard, soldiers simply lost control, firing wildly into a crowd killing over 80 people, including mothers with babies). The northern and southern parts of the city were particularly aimed at, while the city centre, still under French fire, did not allow for the deployment of the German troops. During the entire day of August 23rd, as well as on the day after, the High Meuse of Dinant was subjected to extreme brutality. Two thirds of the houses of Dinant were destroyed, and 674 inhabitants executed and a further 400 able-bodied men were transported to labour camps in Germany as “hostage prisoners”. Germans soldiers were even accused of sheltering behind women and children while the French were still firing on them from across the river. In the vicinity of the prison, along the main street, the main execution took place before the wall of a private property (the Tschoffen property). A few hundred metres from the banks of the Meuse, over one hundred people from Dinant were lined up to be executed.
To commemorate this tragedy, panels were installed already at the end of the war, and the wall became the main object of an important pilgrimage. In August 1927, a big bronze plaque was put up on the wall. A sculptor made it from Brussels, Franz Huygelen. It features an executed man lying under a shroud. A widow and an orphan are kneeling at his feet. A victory figure to the left and a motherland figure to the right are flourishing the deceased. The inscription blames the “Teutonic fury”. After the massacre, bodies were quickly buried in shallow graves and only in September were they gradually dug up again, identified, and returned to their families for proper burial in local cemeteries. Today, there are over 20 plaques around Dinant marking individual massacres, as well as a monument to German Barbary outside the town hall.
In the immediate aftermath of the massacre of Dinant, sophisticated propaganda machines moved into action on both sides. To justify the atrocities committed on the civilian population of Dinant and of others “Villes Martyrs”, the Germans created the myth of the Belgian “francs-tireurs”, evil civilian snipers who picked off poor German soldiers at random. From the Belgian side, the invasion of the country was referred to as the Rape of Belgium, illustrated by horrifying images of German Barbary (babies speared at the end of a bayonet, women raped…). This propaganda was to create a groundswell of outrage in neutral America that would eventually persuade public opinion there to back the entry of the United States into the war against the evil soldiers of the German empire. Today there is still controversy among historians about what exactly was myth about what both sides claimed was and what really took place.
Started in the beginning of a carefree holiday, the summer of 1914 was, for Dinant, the dawn of a terrible tragedy. The Balkan crisis leads to a war, which places States above human values. Within few weeks, the murder of a peaceful couple by a young Serbian, made fanatical by Serbian radicals, has generated the extermination of innocent families in Dinant and in others « Villes Matyrs » by young Saxons soldiers transformed into murderers by an ultra-nationalist military hierarchy.
We left our hotel early in the morning in our coach to visit the Dinant Citadel.
After weaving slowly through the narrow streets, waiting for lorries, vans and cranes to move, the coach stopped outside a church, beside the De Gaulle Bridge and we all got off to take photos.
Huge colourful saxophones lined the bridge as there is a saxophone museum nearby.
The Citadel loomed high above us, temptingly out of reach, as it must have looked to any potential invaders since it was built in the 10th Century.
Although cars and coaches can drive to the top, the road ahead was blocked by road works. The cable car didn’t open for another hour. I gazed up in horror at the well-counted 408 steep steps. I’ll try virtually anything on trips abroad, but somehow I just couldn’t conjure up the enthusiasm to climb them this morning!
But with one quick phone call from our guide, the cable car was opened especially for us and up we went in seconds! Whew, relief, I thought as I stepped out and admired the view.
Watching the boats cruising up and down the river in the sunlight with the clear blue sky above, and the imposing buildings on the river bank opposite it was impossible to picture the devastation of less than 100 years ago when the Germans deliberately destroyed the city.
The Citadel is huge. We hardly saw any of it. But what we saw was impressive.
My favourite part was the World War 1 Trench Experience.
We walked past walls of sandbags to the sound of explosions. Then we went down some steep, sloping Medieval steps to the level below.
Now this is rather hard to describe. Holding on to a rope, we walked along, round and back on ourselves, on a sloping, but not too uneven path.
Have you heard of the Electric Brae in Scotland? It’s a bridge with a magnetic fault, so you have to brake to go uphill and accelerate to come down the other side.
Well, I’m not sure if this was a magnetic fault in the depths of the Citadel, or an optical illusion, but we all had the strange sensation that the floor was rocking like a boat! It was solid rock – very solid rock!
OK it sloped a bit. So what? Lots of floors and paths slope, but they don’t give off a sensation like this did! Gripping the rope, we sort of shuffled sideways, afraid of losing our balance.
I paused halfway and looked around me, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was a total puzzle.
The sensation took several seconds to pass when we emerged in another room. Weird!
Luckily when we went outside, we were relieved to see the coach had managed to make its way to the top, through all the obstructions.
We visited the French graveyard there, beside the coach. They all had marble crosses, in neat rows, replacing what was obviously originally wooden crosses. It was a beautiful, peaceful site.
What did I think of Dinant and the Citadel? It’s worth spending a night in Dinant. It’s very Belgian and unspoilt. We hardly saw any tourists, but there’s a good selection of shops and restaurants.
You can walk round the town and see over 20 plaques, marking the places where massacres of the innocent Dinant citizens took place.
Yes we can forgive and move on in life, but we must never forget what took place in that city on 23rd August, 1914. It wasn’t a necessary part of war, it was cold-blooded, barbaric butchery!