Columns

No Armistice Day

November 11, 1918. An important date in world history, as it marks the end of World War I, or ‘the Great War’. For the first time it was a worldwide war, with several front lines in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The use of machine guns, poison gas, barbed wire, tanks and planes made this ware completely different than previous wars. Soldiers were not trained for these new ‘inventions’, which caused a loss of about 9 million soldiers’ lives. An amount of people that equals 1.5 times the total population of the Netherlands in those days. More than 100 years later WWI still plays an important part in the history of so many families.

Gunners firing a canon during World War I, anonymous photographer (photo credits: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, object RP-F-2002-36)

Neutral

Most people in the Netherlands will not consider World War I the ‘great war’. For our country, the first war contrasts sharply with the second war. In the Netherlands, World War II still leaves its traces, raises questions and causes a lot of pain. The big difference between the two wars is, that the Netherlands were neutral in 1914-1918 and were occupied territory in 1940-1945.

Although the Netherlands were neutral, the first world war had consequences for its inhabitants.

  • Mobilization. Belgium became occupied territory and thus the German forces threatened the southern border of the Netherlands. In order to have enough troops to guard the border, all men up to 40 years old who had ever been in the army were mobilized. Most of them were stationed in the provinces of Noord-Brabant and Zeeland.
  • Refugees. About one million Belgium men, women and children fled to the Netherlands. They were first housed in tent camps, later they found a semi-permanent home. In order to stop the flow of refugees, the Germans built a 200 km long wall of barbed wire with a current of 50,000 volts: the Dodendraad or Wire of Death.

Because of the Dutch neutrality in World War I, the Netherlands does not commemorate on 11 November. There is no Dutch Armistice Day.

Josephus Petrus Snoeren thinking of his wife Adriana Cornelia Biemans, shortly before his departure as a mobilized soldier, 1916 (photo credits: private collection, John Boeren)

Aftermath

After the Treaty of Versailles, the German Empire crumbled. ‘Kaiser’ Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate and to go in exile. He found a safe place in a small town in the Dutch province of Utrecht. It was the former parental home of Baroness Ella van Heemstra (1900–1984), the mother of actress Audrey Hepburn. The emperor bought the manor house of Doorn in 1919, for 500,000 guilders. He lived her with his first and second wife until his death in 1941.

The oldest parts of House Doorn date from the 9th to 14th century, most of the house was rebuilt in the 19th century. (photo credits: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Amersfoort, document 54742_1464365185)

Resources

Some archives in the Netherlands have digitized and published records about the Belgian refugees that came to the Netherlands. Some examples of databases and literature.