The littlest Belgians
In 1915, the very first train carrying “The Children of Yser” left West Flanders for Paris. Its passengers ranged in ages from 14 all the way down to five. They arrived in what was known as the first kinderkolonie, or children’s colony. Many of them did not see their parents or their homeland again for several years.
In the First World War, thousands of children were shipped to “children’s colonies” across Europe
One of those children was eight-year-old Anna Vandewalle, and she is now the grandmother of Flemish novelist Anne Provoost. In the next instalment of the Canvas television series Verloren Land (Lost Country), Provoost explores the story of her grandmother and the flight of thousands of Belgian children to colonies in France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Britain when Ypres became the front-line during the First World War.
“She left when she was eight and came back when she was 12 – the years that make up what you remember most from your childhood,” says Provoost of her grandmother. “She must not have had childhood memories that didn’t go back to the colony. And it really affected her for the rest of her life.”
Children began being evacuated from the Ypres area in 1915 after the Germans released chlorine gas, the first-ever instance of chemical warfare in history. Farms emptied as entire communities fled to safety, and the Belgian government began the process of shipping its children to safety.
The children’s colonies became famous, particularly in France, the first country to establish them. The French were extraordinarily grateful for neutral Belgium’s resistance to the German offensive, and VIPs would visit the seminaries where hundreds of Belgian children at a time were housed. The American author Edith Wharton, who lived in France, was instrumental in establishing the colonies and rallied the upper-class of France around the cause.
According to official records of the nuns who cared for the children, the French plied the colonies with gifts of food, toys and chocolate. They painted a picture of happy, robust children safe and free from the horrors of the war.
What bothered Provoost was that her grandmother’s memories did not click with this picture. She never saw a toy or a piece of chocolate. Her shoes were stolen. Letters home were dictated by the nuns. Most disturbing, she said that she and the other children went hungry. And her sisters, who were also part of the first colony in Paris, confirmed this. “Oh, haven’t we been hungry there,” the grandchildren would hear them say, even decades later.
Was her grandmother exaggerating or were the children’s colonies a pretty face with a dark underbelly?
Verloren Land has Provoost looking carefully for answers. “If this were a novel, I would try to understand each one of my characters; I would want to see their dilemma,” she says. “So I try not to judge any of the parties.”
But what you don’t see in the documentary’s limited 27 minutes is perhaps even more revealing. One of Provoost’s grandmother’s sisters was slightly mentally retarded and was shipped to a different colony. She somehow went missing, and the family never saw her again.
Does Provoost think that, in the end, the colonies were a good idea? “When my grandmother came back, and they went to see the farm, it was gone. If she hadn’t left, she would have been killed.” Still, the mother of three admits: “From my current perspective, I cannot understand that you could let yourself be separated from your children in wartime. Because I cannot imagine that anyone else could take as good of care of them as I can. I would give my life for them; no one else would do that.”
Verloren Land is a series that looks into a specific history of well-known Flemish people. Last week, actress Katelijne Verbeke went in search of information on her favourite aunt, who is rumoured to have helped girls during the Second World War. Next month, TV personality Steven Van Herreweghe tries to find out why his grandfather travelled all the way to Russia to risk his life fighting Communism.
“They are historic programmes,” says Provoost, “but they show the emotion behind history.”
Verloren Land: Anne Provoost
12 May, 21.35, Canvas