A difficult reconstruction
OUR HUSBANDS JULES AND PETRUS ARE MISSING. In August 1915, Augusta D., a 19-year-old housewife living in Saint Josse Ten Noode. She is married to Jules B., who was arrested by the Germans near Antwerp for vagrancy and was imprisoned in Merksplas. Summoned shortly afterwards to Merksplas, Augusta was told that her husband Jules was dead, and she would be receiving compensation in the form of an annual allowance of 16 Marks.
As she had no proof her husband was dead she took several steps from 1919 on in an attempt to find him. Her inquiries unfortunately ended in failure and her husband could never be declared dead. As it was impossible for her to get married again or claim a widow’s pension, she stayed alone with her daughter, due to be born at the time, and lived in destitution.
In May 1918 it was Petrus’ turn to go missing without a trace. His wife, Pauline P., a dressmaker from Sleidinge, knew he had been arrested on suspicion of spying by the German secret police and held in Zelzate prison. He returned home after 8 days but then went missing a second time. Pauline never heard anything further …
Mr and Mrs Jacquet felt compelled to let their daughter Sidonie and her husband André stay with them because they were homeless. The other 2 daughters were married with children and were dependent upon the work of their husbands as their sole income, so they would not be able to help their aged parents.
NAMUR, NAMUR, 1918. OLD PEOPLE BREADWINNERS AGAIN. Mr and Mrs Jacquet from Namur, both roughly 65 years of age at the end of the war, spoke about how helpless they felt trying to cope with their dire circumstances. In the wake of his deportation to Cassel for nearly a year, their son was no longer able to offer the sole family support they could still hope for. He was completely incapacitated and required several kinds of dietary and medical treatments. One year after his return he died of Spanish flu.
FROM ROESELARE TO FRANCE, 1914-1915. The greengrocer Henri D. and his wife Marie had 9 children, between 1906 and 1915. In October 1914 they decided to leave Roeselare and flee to the North of France, in Bergues. The father started working as a cobbler there and they found a tiny house to accommodate them all. On 10 May 1915, a shell landed near the church Henri was just leaving. He died on the spot. In the end, Marie and her family sought refuge with a clog maker, in Saint-Germain-les-Belles, in the Haute-Vienne area.
The family was struck by illness: 37-year-old Marie died of TB on 10 June 1918 in Limoges hospital, leaving her children orphaned in a foreign country. Her 2 youngest children suffered the same fate: the one passing away in December 1918 and the other in January 1919. The 7 other children were left to the care of a guardian, who was a member of the family.
The children’s guardian did not have an easy time, as the family had very little money coming in. The guardian willingly agreed to allow one of the children to be educated by a French priest, who offered to prepare the child for the priesthood.
There was a deathly silence over the huge plain upon which 62 villages and 3 formerly rich and prosperous cities lay slumbering. (…) It was an unparalleled disaster. (…) On all sides, unexploded shells were strewn on the ground (…). 300,000 homeless and destitute people in this country. Damned war!
A FAMILY DECIMATED IN LANGEMARK, 1914. Théophile D., a baker and a shopkeeper, was the father of 8 children. On 20 October 1914, he was shot by some Germans in Langemark, while he was digging a grave for a French soldier near to Saint-Julien church. He died 6 weeks later.
That was not the end of the misery for Théophile’s widow, Félicie, as she was set to witness the death of her 4 eldest sons. Joseph (16) died of a disease at Poperinge hospital in December 1914. Gaston ( 23) was killed on the front in June 1915. Julien (16), was killed during a bombing raid in Amiens in October 1916. 24-year-old Jérôme, who was performing forced labour in Lille, died in October 1918 from the ill-treatment he had suffered. When the Armistice was signed, Félicie, then in her fifties, found herself alone with her daughters, Emilia and Martha, and her 2 sons, Daniel aged 12 and Léon aged 15.
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