Belgium has famously only existed as a country since the nineteenth century, and still sometimes doesn’t seem entirely sure where its future as a country lies. But there were armed Brits roaming on what is now its territory a lot earlier than that.
I think Belgium is a bit of a hidden gem. It’s a place a lot of Brits seem to know very little about today, and yet it’s just across the Channel and has some fabulous towns, cities, scenery, history and beer. Go see it. Our troops of the past certainly did, regularly. And while their visits did not always leave the towns, cities and scenery unscathed, they certainly contributed to the history and no doubt enjoyed the beer.
Often had rather friendly relations with the area, rather friendlier, for instance, than with their next-door neighbours in France.
So often, as with Portugal, we’ve been involved with the area, trying to help (at least some of) the locals rather than harm them. Not surprisingly, it’s been us and them against the French. For example, the English were already fighting alongside Flemish troops against the French at the Battle of Bouvines (just on the French side of today’s French/Belgian border) in 1214. Again in 1297, Edward I led a brief and not hugely successful campaign in Flanders against the French.
When the Hundred Years War broke out, England was yet again trying to help the Flemish against the French, and in 1340 Edward III turned up with a fleet and anchored at Blankenberge (now in Belgium), while his wife Philippa (this is Philippa of Hainault and therefore, in modern terms, basically Belgian herself) was safe in Bruges. He then smashed the French fleet at the Battle of Sluys (fought just on the Dutch side of what is now the Belgian/Dutch border, but don’t worry we’ll get to battles on Belgian territory very shortly). Their son, John of Gaunt, was not called that because he had a particularly gaunt look, but because he was actually born in Ghent in what is now Belgium. John of Gaunt is John of Ghent.
Later in the fourteenth century we invaded the area, again supporting the Flemish against the French and this time adding a religious element, siding with Pope Urban VI in Rome against antipope Clement VII in Avignon. This is what has become known as Despenser’s Crusade. Sounds like something to do with pharmacists, but in fact it was in honour of Henry le Despenser, Bishop of Norwich, who was a major leading figure in the crusade. Actually, when we say �?in honour of’, it’s more like �?in dishonour of’ because it was all a bit of a disaster. Or quite a lot of a disaster. The force set off from Sandwich and landed at Calais. Then it headed up the coast, took Gravelines and set off to besiege Ypres, a town many Brits were to fight in more recently, albeit to defend it instead of attacking it as Despenser’s lot were. The siege was not a success and Despenser’s Crusade fell apart. When it was all over Despenser, was put on trial.
The rise of the United Provinces (Netherlands) as a significant regional power had a major impact on the power politics of the area and in the late sixteenth century Brits were back. English troops repulsed the Duke of Parma’s forces in fighting near Aarschot in what is now Belgium. And in 1580 English soldiers sacked Mechelen in what became known as the �?English Fury’. In fact, as it turned out, assorted armed Brits were to spend quite a lot of time wandering around what is now Belgium in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. Horace Vere, for instance, could be found, along with Scottish and English troops, on the victorious side at the Battle of Nieuwpoort in 1600 and then in 1601 he was defending Ostende. Well, we’ve always loved the Channel ports. By the middle of the seventeenth century we were back invading what is now Belgium yet again. This time English forces, for a change, were allied with the French and fighting the Spanish. But, not everything had changed. After victory at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658, they still ended up besieging Ypres.
Then at the end of the seventeenth century we were back roaming around what is now Belgium in the Nine Years War. This time we were fighting the French and allied with the Dutch. Despite our troops fighting bravely in the victory at the Battle of Walcourt in 1689, it wasn’t an entirely successful venture, including defeat at the Battle of Leuze in 1691.
With a new century came a new war, the War of the Spanish Succession 1701–14, and this time we had a really thorough go at invading what is now Belgium. This is Marlborough’s war. Early on he captured Liège. In 1706 he beat the French decisively at the Battle of Ramillies in Belgium and after that took Antwerp. On 11 July 1708, he crushed another French army, this time at the Battle of Oudenarde, again in Belgium. Ramillies and Oudenarde are two of those names that I remember clearly from school history, but I have to admit that until writing this book I didn’t really have any concept of where they actually were. Oudenarde at least sounds Belgian or Dutch, but the name Ramillies doesn’t particularly. The way it was pronounced at school sounded more like Rameses than anything, which didn’t help in giving a sense of where it actually was. In case you’re interested, Ramillies is near Namur and Oudenarde is sort of south of Ghent and west of Brussels.
With the War of the Austrian Succession we once again had troops fighting in Belgium. This time, sadly from our point of view, it wasn’t such a string of victories. In fact, in 1745 the Duke of Cumberland suffered a serious defeat by the French at the Battle of Fontenoy in Belgium. Oh and they had already taken Ypres before that. And things didn’t get much better as the war ground towards an unsuccessful end. British forces were on the losing side at the Battle of Rocoux near Liège in 1746 and again at the Battle of Lauffeld in 1747.
With the arrival of the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, we had troops on the ground here yet again. Against the French, obviously. In the 1790s, for instance, British troops were involved in heavy fighting in the Flanders region as part of an allied force trying to push into France. After early successes, things went into reverse and we found ourselves back fighting on Belgian soil. There were still some successes like the Battle of Willems in 1794, but Austrian support for the alliance wavered and the British and allied front in Flanders collapsed, with our troops retreating through the Netherlands, all the way back to be eventually evacuated from Bremen. That’s a long retreat. In 1809 the Walcheren Expedition failed to take Antwerp. But who could forget the final, decisive victory at Waterloo in 1815? This, of course, was won not far from Brussels and, famously, the Duchess of Richmond’s ball. This was held in Brussels on 15 June and was attended by numerous officers from our army, before being interrupted by news of the approach of Napoleon’s army.
In 1830, after a revolt aimed at separation from the Netherlands, the sovereign state of Belgium was formed and we sort of gave it a king. We came up with Leopold of Saxe Coburg Gotha, uncle of Queen Victoria and widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales, only legitimate child of the Prince Regent, as a candidate for the throne. And he got the job. The twentieth century saw many, many Brits fighting to help the people of Belgium. In 1914 we went to war to protect Belgium when Germany violated its neutrality and for four long, bitter years, British troops bravely fought on Belgian soil. The Belgian city of Ypres, with the Menin Gate commemorating men whose bodies were never identified, and the Belgian village of Passchendaele, have become synonymous with that struggle. The course of the First World War also saw courageous ventures into occupied Belgium, such as the raid on Zeebrugge on 23 April 1918, when the Royal Navy attempted to hinder German ships and submarines using the port by sinking old British ships in appropriate places. Our last soldier of the war to die was George Edwin Ellison from Leeds, serving in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, who was killed about an hour-and-a-half before the armistice came into effect. He had fought near Mons in Belgium in 1914 and died near Mons in Belgium in 1918.
In 1940, during the Second World War, British forces fought in Belgium before being forced to withdraw by the German advance. In 1944, less then three months after D-Day, they were back. On 3 September we liberated Brussels, and on 4 September Antwerp.