On the battlefield
Starting point : Maison de la Laïcité Place Degauque, 6142 Leernes
The forgotten battles of the Sambre
On 4 August 1914, the German staff launches more than 700,000 men on the assault of Belgium. The 2nd German army, commended by General Karl von Bülow, reached Maubeuge passing through Belgium. The aim was to invade France and to topple Paris. The 5th French army was commended by General Charles Lanrezac. The meeting of these two armies occurred from 21 to 24 August at various locations on either side of the Sambre.
The Battle of Leernes – 22 August 1914
The 3rd battalion of French soldiers of the 28th Regiment, nearly all the members of which were from the Evreux region of Normandy, occupied the Espinette plateau. On 22 August, sustained by a powerful artillery, the Germans made their way to Goutroux and Monceau-sur-Sambre. The confrontation was brief yet bloody. Two civilians lost their lives: Evariste Bellot watching the firing behind his hedge, and Léon Gandibleu who was hit taking aid to the injured French with his cart. The civilian population organised care for the injured, creating provisional hospitals.
During the war, this location served as the meeting room for the aid committees, the provisions room, etc. It was also the office of the doctor Emile Hautain as Medical Inspector of the municipal schools in 1917, and as president of the local aid committee in 1918.
Doctor Emile Hautain
Doctor Emile HAUTAIN, born in 1873, moved to Leernes in 1908. As of August 1914 he set up Belgian Red Cross post No. 1284 in Fontaine-l’Evêque. The facility was housed in the building of the municipal girls’ school (rue de l’Enseignement today). The doctor’s wife, Rose Demesse, and their daughter Marguerite were both Red Cross nurses and took in a large number of wounded in their own home. The most critical cases were sent to Fontaine’s city hospital. Donations poured in: “The cupboards were filled with reserves of all kinds, from dishes to the most trivial of toiletries. Our cellar filled with food and drink (beer and wine) and our till filled with silver”. (Testimony of Doctor Emile Hautain).
Through his devotion and medical expertise, Doctor Hautain helped to save many lives. In recognition of his work, Doctor Hautain received the Medal of King Albert in 1920. This medal was awarded to citizens for their great charity and humility. He was made a Knight of the Order of Leopold and published his account of the battles and conditions in which the wounded survived in 1932.
The temporary hospital in the Sisters’ School (École des Soeurs)
Acceding to a French officer’s request, the nuns set up a dozen beds in their old school. In practice, this temporary hospital was staffed by three Red Cross nursing graduates, namely, Raoul Michot, Marie Wegehenkel, and Yvonne Golière. The first wounded soldier was brought in on a stretcher less than thirty minutes after the fighting began. The next wounded soldiers were brought in by the people of Leernes, who carried them on their backs or dragged them in on makeshift stretchers.
Beds started to become scarce. Down comforters and thick layers of straw were used instead. “As soon as an apparently more severely wounded soldier entered, we would see the others get up, or at least try to do so, to cede their places generously to the unluckier man. It was moving to see them encourage each other, to try to buck up those in greatest pain with comforting words, even with a bit of humour” (testimony of Doctor Emile Hautain). The evening after the fighting had ended, the most critically wounded who could be transported were sent to Fontaine-l’Evêque’s hospital.
At the same time, and in concert with Doctor Hautain, the Wespes neighbourhood set up an additional Red Cross post in the building that housed the girls’ school.
Memorial: Gozée Cross
After the war, a vast commemorative movement took hold of Belgium’s towns, as was the case everywhere in Europe. Monuments would ‘make something’ of this war, would help the nation rediscover an identity and a future, so that people had not died for nothing. Memorial steles and monuments were raised, plaques affixed to walls, and obelisks erected. They depicted the soldier, death, or the dead, showing the various facets of the war as its contemporaries saw them. In practice, these monuments and memorials were placed on former battlefields or in the middle of community life: places of battle or death, near churches, in public squares, in cemeteries, etc.
Families also raised monuments in memory of the deceased. Mrs Champetier de Ribes, who lost two sons for France, had a cross made by a local stonecutter. This cross, which was cut from a solid block from Fontaine-l’Evêque’s Stenuick quarries, was initially placed (in 1916) in the Franco-German cemetery of Gozée, known as ‘La Pépinière’ (the nursery), to mark the mass grave of soldiers in Leernes. In 1922 the French soldiers were transferred to Belle-Motte Cemetery in Aiseau-Presles. With Mrs Champetier de Ribes’s consent, Doctor Hautain had the Gozée Cross moved to the entrance of Leernes’s cemetery.
Plateau de l’Espinette
The two armies engaged on this plateau at around 2 p.m. on 22 August. Belgian civilians were requisitioned on 24 August to bury the bodies of 72 French and 12 German soldiers in a mass grave. The soldiers’ remains were transferred to the military cemetery of Gozée, and then Aiseau-Presles, later on. However, monuments were built in Leernes and throughout Wallonia in the aftermath of the war to attest to the will not to let the memory of the war fade. A subscription was launched on 20 March 1920, under Doctor Emile Hautain’s aegis, to erect a ‘memorial to the French soldiers who died in the Leernes countryside’. This memorial was unveiled on 22 August 1921.
Temporary POW camps
The number of prisoners of war taken during World War I was enormous. Slightly more than 6.6 million soldiers were taken prisoner during the war, 2,250,000 of them by Germany. Once they fell into the enemy’s hands, the French soldiers were forced to do heavy labour and lived under harsh conditions. Most of the prisoners were soldiers, but some were also civilians who were taken hostage and kept in detention in Belgium or sent to Germany.
Following the battles of the Sambre and Mons, this farm was used as a POW camp, mainly for British prisoners but also for a few Frenchmen, for several months. Once the entrance was closed, the building was very easy for the German authorities to guard. With its three storeys for storing grain and hay, it housed some fifty prisoners, who worked the fields during the day, guarded by German soldiers.
Interestingly, the Germans also requisitioned this farm’s barn from 1940 to 1944 as a hangar for their supply trains. The farm is known as the “Fourmeau Farm” because the Fourmeau family acquired it between the two world wars.
Place Degauque, 6142 Leernes
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