Ghent, occupied city 1914/1918

Ghent, occupied city 1914 / 1918

Belgium was dragged into the First World War by the German invasion on August 4th 1914. At the end of October the front stabilized along the River Yser. The warring parties positioned themselves for deadly trench warfare, which was to last for more than four years. Ghent escaped the worst of the invasion. The city didn’t suffer severe shell damage and, in fact, came out of the conflict relatively unscathed. However, this didn’t mean that the war was without its consequences for the people of Ghent. For them, like the great majority of Belgians, the war years meant four years of occupation, misery, hunger and increasingly difficult living conditions.

To date, commemorations of the First World War have tended to concentrate on the German invasion, the barbarity of that invasion, and on the Yser Front.

STAM’s exhibition ‘Ghent, occupied city’ focuses on the daily lives of the people of Ghent.

A second story line is the importance of photography as a historical source: as a source of information, but also as a propaganda tool. Between the summer of 1917 and the autumn of 1918, a team of some 30 German art historians, photographers and architects took more than 10,000 photographs of Belgium’s major monuments and artworks. No fewer than 1,061 of them were taken in Ghent. The exhibition combines a number of these pictures, which these days are preserved in Brussels in the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), with written and visual material from Ghent City Archive and other archives.

the beginning of the first world war

The Germans invaded Belgium on August 4th 1914. The German army engaged in numerous atrocities as it advanced through Belgium: cities came under merciless attack and some were set alight. The civilian population wasn’t spared either and this resulted in a flood of refugees. The consequences of the attack on Mechelen (August 27th) and Dendermonde (between September 4th and October 7th) were tangible even in Ghent. Between the end of August and the middle of October, some 45,000 refugees arrived in the city. After the stabilization of the Yser Front at the end of October, most of the refugees returned home. In the first few days after the invasion, anti-German sentiment manifested itself in several cities. A number of German families were forced to leave Ghent. The German atrocities, and the fire at the University Library in Leuven in particular, caused international outrage, and before long the war came to be seen as a battle between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarity’. In a bid to soften the image of Germans as (cultural) barbarians and redeem itself, in the autumn of 1914 German propaganda introduced the Kunstschutz - literally ‘art protection’. However contradictory this may have sounded in 1914, the organization’s remit was to protect and preserve cultural heritage and artworks during armed conflict. It goes almost without saying that in all of this the border between ‘protection’ and ‘propaganda’ was a flimsy one. The German professor and art historian Paul Clemen (1866–1947) was appointed head of the Kunstschutz in Belgium and all the other German-occupied areas.

incarcerated in an occupied city

German troops arrived in Ghent on October 12th 1914. As the capital of the Fourth Etappe area, a military zone comprising East and West Flanders and a small part of Hainault, the city was under direct military rule, which meant that life under occupation was even tougher here than in the rest of the country. Contact with the rest of Belgium was well nigh impossible. Press and mail were strictly censored, political reporting was forbidden. Daily life was dominated by constant demands. The Germans took possession of an increasing number of buildings in the city centre, starting with all the barracks. De Kouter served as the operating base where the Kommandantur (the command headquarters or the administrative heart of the occupying force) was sited along with the Pass-Zentrale and other such departments. Weapons were kept and repaired in the Gravensteen (castle), beer and wine stored in the Groot Vleeshuis (large meat house) and vegetables in the Pand (a former Dominican monastery). Soldiers convalesced in hotels and schools and in the Casino on the Coupure. The Belfry served as a lookout post for pilots. The fleet of army vehicles was housed in sheds in the port. With the army numbering some 12,000 soldiers, it had a high-profile presence. German flags fluttered on façades, German signposts hung from walls and trees, and cafés were given German names. Gent Sint-Pieters station became the main railway junction for transporting troops and equipment to and from the front. For some time the government had used placards on walls to communicate with the population, but during the occupation the number rose dramatically. The placards communicated all the rules and regulations governing civilian life. They were usually issued by the German (military) occupying governments, the Belgian authorities (sometimes at the request of the occupier) or the local food committees.

  • 582 2
  • 582 Beeld 007

shortages and hunger

From the outset of the war, food supplies were the main problem. Even pre-war Belgium depended to a large extent on food imports, its domestic production being insufficient. The situation was compounded by the British maritime blockade which cut off imports, and by the many demands made by the Germans. On August 8th 1914 the City of Ghent set up a municipal food committee - Comité der Volksvoeding - which distributed free soup and bread. However, by the autumn the food situation was critical. On October 23rd 1914 a national umbrella organization for aid and food – the Comité National de Secours et d'Alimentation / Nationaal Hulp- en Voedingscomité – was established in Brussels. The food was purchased in the United States of America by the Commission for Relief in Belgium and it was distributed in Belgium by means of a network of provincial and local committees overseen by the national committee. The food was rationed and sold in ‘American’ shops. In 1916 more than 60,000 Ghent residents were dependent on this food aid. As the war continued, the committee took on more and more tasks, such as organizing soup kitchens, distributing milk and school meals and items of clothing, providing unemployment benefits for Belgian workers and packages for prisoners of war and interned soldiers. As well as the national committee, some 30 smaller relief organizations were also active in Ghent. But the various relief initiatives only show one side of the coin. In many cases shortages also led to hoarding, the black market and extortionate prices. The nouveaux riches were scornfully nicknamed ‘Baron Soap’, the shortage of soap being such that the manufacture of imitation soap proved extremely profitable.

  • Affiche 003
  • Beeld 031

propaganda and censorship

On October 30th 1914 the De Gentenaar newspaper headlines read: “Wij zijn hier weer!! Na 18 dagen gezwegen te hebben, richten wij weer ons dagelijks woord tot onze lezers”. - “After 18 days of silence, we’re back, addressing our readers on a daily basis”. During the occupation, all newspapers were subjected to strict German censorship. Yet Het Volk, Vooruit, De Gentenaar, Gazette van Gent and Le Bien Public continued to appear – more or less – throughout the war. As one might expect, there was a huge appetite for news: in 1915 De Gentenaar had a circulation of 45,000 copies, Het Volk 35,000 and Vooruit 20,000. Only La Flandre libérale and Het Vaderland refused to publish under German censorship. From January 11th 1915 the sale of any newspapers not censored in Ghent was banned. In addition to the well-established, trusty newspapers, new ones, fully financed by the Germans, also appeared. In Ghent there were three activist newspapers.

A spin has always been put on facts, photographs manipulated and the like. The German occupier tried to salvage its image with posters, and photographs appeared showing Germans distributing food to the people.

Beeld 048

Photographische Abteilung der Kommandantur

At the command headquarters, the Kommandantur, citizens could obtain food coupons and secure permissions of various descriptions. A photographic department was set up at the end of 1915. The Photographische Abteilung of the Kommandatur Ghent kept a very close eye on amateur photographers and checked their cameras. As time passed, the working conditions for professional photographers became more and more difficult. For instance, they had to submit all their photographs, their work was censored and their equipment checked monthly or confiscated.

The Photographische Abteilung also played an important role in the war propaganda. For example, War Albums were made as ‘souvenirs’ of the German soldiers’ stay in Ghent, including photographs of military soldiers posing amicably with workers in their place of work, all clearly orchestrated. The albums show photographs of officers recuperating in the Casino in Ghent and soldiers leaving for the front. One would hardly know that Ghent citizens were also living in the city, never mind the conditions they were living in.

  • Kriegs Sint Pieters
  • Kriegs2

the economy stagnates

Owing to the constant demand for raw materials and the dismantling of its infrastructure and machines, industry pretty well ground to a standstill during the war. In Ghent metal companies were forced to close at the end of 1914, flax factories at the end of 1915 and cotton mills in 1917, resulting in mass unemployment. In March 1916 the city had more than 38,000 unemployed. In the autumn of 1914 the city council had approximately 6,000 workers manually excavate the Middendok, but in June 1916 this type of dock work came to an end. From 1915 all unemployed blue- and white-collar workers were entitled to a benefit, paid through the trade unions. By 1917 everyone could request support from the national committee for aid and food, the umbrella relief organization. The German army used prisoners of war as forced labour. From the beginning of the war the wire drawing factory in Gentbrugge, (better known as the ‘Puntfabriek’), fell into the hands of the German army. Initially German workers cum soldiers worked there, but that changed in 1916 when Belgians were also put to work there, along with Italian, French and Russian prisoners of war. The Russian prisoners of war endured particularly harsh living conditions and received only the minimum ration. Fearing German sanctions, the burgomaster of Gentbrugge Maurice Verdonck called upon the citizens “to refrain from all show of sympathy with the employed prisoners of war.”

  • Affiche 007
  • Affiche 008

black snow

In 1916 hunger set in. Discontent grew especially in working-class districts like Muide and Heirnis. The first protest was held on Noordkaai at the beginning of June. This was followed on June 20th by a noisy demonstration by several hundred women at the Town Hall, the Lakenhalle and the Kommandantur. Two days later a new demonstration followed at the Town Hall. At the end of 1916 an office for identification and checks – the Centraal Bureau voor Identificatie en Controle - was set up to try and prevent the improper use of supplies. In the winter of 1916–17 the food situation deteriorated still further with many people surviving on a diet of bread and potatoes. In 1917 grassy areas and gardens were planted with potatoes and vegetables. Urban gardens were turned into potato fields, their produce destined for the poor during the winter. The distribution of the – meagre – supply of meat also became more irregular as time passed. By now coal was also in short supply. To make matters worse, the winter of 1916–17 was particularly harsh, with temperatures down to –15 °C, and at the end of February the weakened population suffered a flu epidemic.


As the war continued, Germany faced a growing shortage of labour. From October 1916 unemployed workers in the occupied parts of France and Belgium were coerced to work. In Ghent they were ordered to assemble in the textile mills near the Rabot railway station. From there they were taken mainly to the Yser Front or to Northern France where they were made to support the German war effort by felling trees, constructing railway lines, excavating trenches and the like. In 1917 Belgians in employment were also recruited. A year later razzias were even carried out in cafés and trams. In Ghent 11,782 people were requisitioned, some more than once, making a total of 14,877. No fewer than 333 people died as a result of deprivation. The 505 men who returned to Ghent between January 1st and May 30th 1917 had lost on average 18 kilos. Cardinal Désiré Mercier, who enjoyed great international prestige during the war, and the Belgian bishops lost no time in protesting about the deportations. At the beginning of March 1917, the deportations were stopped in large parts of the country, but they continued in the Etappe area. Not until the armistice was signed did they come to an end.

  • Beeld 069
  • Beeld 070

endless demands

From the beginning of the occupation, daily life was dominated by demands for and sequestrations of food and raw materials. In 1917, in particular, as the consequences of the war and the British blockade really hit home in Germany, literally everything was taken away: copper, nickel and pewter objects and all the bicycles (March 1917), items of clothing, mats, mattresses, shoes and the entire hazelnut and walnut harvest (July 1917), wine in bottles and barrels (August 1917), clothes, fabrics and bandages (September 1917), bronze, copper and brass lights (October 1917), all the walnut trees (end October 1917), pillows, mattresses and oil products, more shoes (November 1917), all the chicory roots and all the remaining copper and wool (December 1917). The copper wastepipes of the university auditorium and the sculptures in institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts, the Verlorenkostbrug (bridge), the Post Office and the Nederlandse Schouwburg (Dutch-language theatre) were taken. The copper roof covering was removed from the Belfry. No fewer than 7,204 kilograms of copper were taken and replaced by slates and tar board. But not everything was handed over and not everyone went along with the demands...

museum contents also coveted

The occupier was interested not only in food and raw materials, but also in heritage and works of art. At the beginning of the war, curator Alfons Van Werveke hid a number of valuable objects in the Museum of Antiquities in Lange Steenstraat, including the ornamental chains and medals belonging to the Guild of St George and St Anthony.

In the course of the war, the Germans took away to Spandau near Potsdam 15 crossbows, three rapiers and a cavalry standard - captured by the Austrians from the Prussians in 1759. All the objects were returned after the end of hostilities. The moulds from the famous De Keghel tin foundry on the Kortemunt were also stowed away in the museum. The stock of tin in the foundry, which had not been hidden, was taken by the Germans. Of course the Germans were also keen to get their hands on the Ghent Altarpiece, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Ghent’s pièce de résistance. Immediately after the invasion, Canon Gabriel Van den Gheyn (1862–1955), treasurer of St Bavo’s Cathedral and an expert on the Ghent Altarpiece, decided to hide the central panels. He and several confidants divided up the retable and concealed them in a house on Langesteenstraat and a house on Schouwvegersstraat, and after that in the Augustinians Church. The boxes containing the painting were removed, hidden under bits of old iron, stove pipes and firewood. Those involved swore never to reveal the hiding place. The whole operation had the support of the Ghent-born Minister of State Jules Van den Heuvel: after his mediation, Minister of Arts and Sciences Prosper Poullet confirmed in a letter dated August 30th 1914 that the retable was in Great Britain.

Soon after their arrival, the Germans went looking for the altarpiece. Van den Gheyn explained that the work was in London. After some hesitation, the Germans accepted this explanation. In the summer of 1916, however, they began to doubt the British story. The first phase of their search was concentrated on the cathedral, where special envoys scoured the building in vain. Van den Gheyn was interrogated, but he used as his scapegoat Van den Heuvel, who had been safely ensconced as Ambassador to the Holy See in Rome since 1915. At the beginning of 1918 the Germans seized more and more civilian homes. For security reasons, on February 4th the painting was taken to another hiding place. Even after the war Van den Gheyn remained stubbornly silent about the hiding place. In 1920 all the panels of the altarpiece, including the side panels which were in Berlin having been purchased by William III of Prussia in 1816, were reunited in the cathedral.

  • Beeld 074
  • Beeld 075

the photographic inventory of belgium's artistic heritage

The German art historian Paul Clemen headed up the German Kunstschutz in Belgium, which was founded in the autumn of 1914. Before the war Clemen had drawn up an inventory of the Rhineland’s art heritage. Since the beginning of the war he had toyed with the idea of making a photographic inventory of Belgium’s artistic heritage. Having raised enough money, he assembled a group of German art historians and architects to execute the project, which was officially launched in June 1917. The work in East Flanders was led by architect and art historian Christian Rauch, who was assisted in Ghent by architect Hans Vogts. They collated a total of over 1,100 images taken by various photographers, including Richard Hamann, Hans Holdt and Paula Deetjen.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the project was made part of the German propaganda campaign. Clemen was in no doubt that the visual material that had been collected would show that the influence of the Rhineland, and so German influence, on architecture reached far into Belgium. Or to put in more directly, it would prove the historical and cultural bonds between Belgium and Germany. So, to put it mildly, there were several remarkable aspects to the project. The photographic work continued unabated even in the summer and autumn of 1918, when the situation at the front was becoming increasingly desperate for Germany. Two months before the end of the war, the institute responsible for surveying buildings, the Königlich Preussische Messbildanstalt from Berlin, took another 92 pictures of religious and secular structures in Ghent. These are very high quality, glass plate negatives measuring 40 by 40 cm. Analysis shows that usually two photographers worked simultaneously. Ghent photographers also played their part. On July 20th, 22nd and 23rd and October 14th 1918, a total of 31 architectural drawings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, preserved in Ghent City Archive, were photographed by Charles De Wilde.

  • Beeld 076
  • Beeld 081
  • Beeld 087
  • Beeld 090
  • Beeld 092
  • Beeld 093
  • Beeld 079
  • Beeld 083

52 citizens executed

The Germans used the municipal shooting range on Godshuizenlaan for target practice, but also and above all for executions. A total of 52 citizens were executed there, most accused of spying. They included three women: Leonie Rammeloo, Emilie Schatteman and Marie Preenen-De Smet. All those executed, with the exception of one, are buried in the Western Cemetery. Assistant priest Octaaf Declercq was taken to Campo Santo in Sint-Amandsberg. Not until after the war were most members of the resistance reburied with the necessary honour and respect in their city or village of origin.

  • Bijn Alfons 10 09 1917
  • De Smet Prudence 15 09 1917
  • Keppens Louis 14 09 1917
  • Ottevaere Kamiel 31 10 1916

Kaiser Wilhelms Weihnachtsreise

On December 23rd 1917 the German emperor Wilhelm arrived in Ghent. As the capital of the Fourth Etappe area, Ghent was a strategically important city behind the Yser Front. The emperor spent several days in the city and visited (among other places) the Gravensteen (castle) and St Bavo’s Cathedral. He celebrated Christmas with his troops to boost their morale. The emperor’s visit was documented at length in photographs and film, mainly for propaganda purposes. The film was made by the Bild-und Filmamt (BUFA). Thanks to the film, we know something about the identity of the photographers and the techniques they used. The photographer was probably Henri Jäger, who worked in Ghent before the war and was enlisted by the German army.

Beeld 097
Discover the photographer in the film excerpt and the camera man in the picture.

the occupation draws to a close

In Ghent the liberal-socialist city council, which had been in post since January 1912, stayed on until March 28th 1918. In January the city council passed a motion of no confidence in the activist Council of Flanders, which had declared Flemish independence. The occupier reacted immediately by deporting burgomaster Emile Braun and alderman Maurice De Weert to Celle Schloss near Hannover. In protest, the other aldermen, who included the socialist politician Edward Anseele, stood down. Several activists took their place. The German Franz Künzer, deputy burgomaster of Posen, replaced Braun. September 26th 1918 saw the beginning of the final allied offensive on the Western Front. At the beginning of November the people of Ghent were no longer allowed to leave their houses between four in the afternoon and eight in the morning. The Germans did everything in their power to slow the advance of the allied army by blowing up all the railway bridges between the Strop and the Snep bridges, along with the switches (points) in the stations and the rails. The devastation wreaked in the ports was even greater: the bridges between Meulestede and Zelzate were destroyed, sheds were burned down, inland navigation vessels were sunk. Urban bridges and locks were mined and only after difficult negotiations were the mines on the Verbindingskanaal and Coupure (canals) and the Bovenschelde (Upper Scheldt) removed. For their part, the allied bombing raids were targeted mainly at the railway stations and their immediate surroundings. So the destruction of the railway lines at Dampoort station caused a great deal of damage to St Bavo’s Abbey. The ‘Toreken’ on the Vrijdagmarkt, where artillery was stored, was also damaged. In November 1918 one event followed another in rapid succession. On November 8th the German burgomaster Künzer left the city, a day later Edward Anseele took over as acting burgomaster. On November 10th the Germans finally pulled out. The people took revenge on the activists by attacking their houses and plundering them.

  • Beeld 102
  • Beeld 103
  • Beeld 104
  • Beeld 105

the euphoria of liberation

On November 13th Belgian troops paraded through the streets of Ghent and Albert, Elisabeth and heir to the throne Leopold made their solemn entry into the city. From November 15th onwards prominent figures who had been deported also returned, including burgomaster Braun, alderman De Weert and professors Henri Pirenne and Paul Fredericq. In general, liberation brought joy and relief, but of course the armistice didn’t solve all the problems. The social unrest in large parts of Europe and the situation in Russia were a cause of great international concern. And then there was the Spanish flu, which had been raging since 1918 and eventually claimed more victims than the war itself. In Belgium, and in Ghent, daily life continued to be difficult for many people. Food rationing didn’t come to an end until March 1919 but a number of products were sold on the open market, albeit at greatly inflated prices. The economy was also slow to recover, not least because most of the infrastructure had been destroyed or dismantled and raw materials requisitioned. In March 1919 the Casier flax factory was the first to resume work.



Maria De Waele, Rika Deltour, Anja Hellebaut, Kris Uyttersprot


Robrecht Janssen, Tim De Vocht, Koninklijk Instituut voor,het Kunstpatrimonium (KIK), Guy Dupont, Pieter-Jan Lachaert, Storm Call, Stadsarchief Gent (De Zwarte Doos) in het kader van het digitaliseringsproject ‘Met de rug tegen de muur: Tekstaffiches WOI’, Titus Simoens,stage Master Fotografie, KASK School of Arts Gent


Dooreman & Dams




Amsab-ISG, Universiteitsbibliotheek en -archief Gent, Stadsarchief Lokeren, Rijksarchief Kortrijk, Koninklijke Bond der Oost-Vlaamse Volkskundigen, Documentatiecentrum,voor Streekgeschiedenis dr. Maurits Gysseling vzw, EYE Filmmuseum Amsterdam, Museum Huis Doorn, STAMteam


Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen

Ghent, occupied city 1914/1918