Flanders off the beaten path: The secrets of Antwerp

Summary

The rich heritage of Flanders has left many traces behind. Some are touristic highlights, others remain virtually unknown. Flanders Today went in search of its quirkiest historical spots for our five-part series, Flanders off the beaten path. This week we visit the province of Antwerp, unearthing forgotten tales of fruitless defensive lines, independence declarations and back-breaking industrial labour

A lasting reminder of WWII

Visitors to Lier who don’t know where to look will never find that one spot in the city with a huge significance in Flanders’ military history. Visitors walk past the unmarked concrete pile on the crossroads between Aarschotsesteenweg and Slenderstraat, unaware of the purpose it once served.

The metal and concrete construction reinforced with steel looks unimpressive, yet it is a remnant of a large structure, the hastily built KW-line, which was meant to stop the Germans from advancing during the Second World War. The defensive line ran all the way from Koningshooikt, Antwerp, in the north to Wavre in the south.

During the 19th century, the country’s military defence relied on a number of forts around strategic locations such as Antwerp and Liège. Decades later, the First World War made it painfully clear that that approach would not suffice when the Germans invaded without much effort, marching in through a piece of undefended territory then referred to as the “hole of Visé”.

After the war, new forts, such as the supposedly impregnable fortress of Eben-Emael on the border with the Netherlands, were built. Still, the country’s military leadership remained worried about its ability to fend off attacks. When international tensions again began to mount in the mid-1930s, they came up with a new plan.

The idea was to build various defensive lines, with the KW-line the main one, complete with bunkers and anti-tank barriers. The line was to be defended together with English and French troops. Construction of the KW-line began in September of 1939, and the line became operational just before the outbreak of the Second World War, stretching from the fortress of Koningshooikt to Wavre, good for some 400 kilometres of bunkers and anti-tank obstacles.

A lasting reminder

Belgian army soldiers guarded the KW-line from Lier to Leuven, while British troops took positions between Leuven and Wavre. On 15 May, the Germans reached the KW-line in Wijgmaal, Flemish Brabant. A day later, the Belgian Allied High Command ordered its troops to withdraw. 

The Germans had broken through the defence in northern France, and the Netherlands had already surrendered. The risk that German troops would encircle the Belgian troops had become too high. The soldiers pulled back further along their bases on the Leie river, and the KW-line was abandoned even before it was ever really fully used. On 28 May, Belgium also capitulated.

A lasting reminder of that Second World War history, the concrete structure in Lier served to anchor the Cointet elements. Named after the French general of the same name who masterminded the barricades also known as C-elements or Belgian Ports, they look like heavy metal gates with reinforced rear structures. The fences were mounted on rollers so they would be movable, and they were fastened together with steel cables and occasionally anchored to concrete pillars, like the one in Lier. A large part of the KW-line consisted of Cointet elements, so residents referred to it as the Iron Wall. In nearby Haacht, a former anti-tank ditch that was part of the KW-line was also well preserved.

The Cointet elements didn’t change the course of the war. Most were dismantled by the Germans and were reused in the construction of the Atlantic Wall defence line. In Raversijde, not far from Ostend, for instance, Cointet elements were used. Here and there, concrete anchoring piles can still be found in the landscape. Many bunkers along the former defence line still stand today, silent witnesses to the history of the war. 

A bridge too far

Meanwhile, another forgotten spot in Antwerp was also home to a memorable bit of heritage. In spite of the current construction works on the building’s facade, visible from Twaalfmaandenstraat, the city’s former stock market today looks abandoned. Hidden in a little street off the Meir shopping avenue and currently closed to the public, the Handelsbeurs has long stood empty, waiting for a new purpose. 

Yet almost some a century ago, in the final year of the First World War, it served as the backdrop to a dramatic political event – Flanders’ erstwhile declaration of independence.

In the years leading up to the conflict, the “Flemish question” had become increasingly important, and, during the war, the German occupiers tried to use these nationalist sentiments to their advantage. Through the infamous Flamenpolitiek, they tried to drive a wedge between the two language communities so they could bring “Germanic” Flanders under the German sphere of influence.

Their scheme didn’t work out as planned. Even for the many Flemings who had advocated for their language rights before the war, collaborating with occupying forces proved a bridge too far. But a small group of Flemings calling themselves activisten (activists) were willing to co-operate with the Germans. Needless to say, the majority of the local population considered them traitors.

As the war dragged on, the activisten took increasingly radical positions. On 22 December 1917, the Council of Flanders, a shadowy organisation headed by the leaders of the activists, declared the independence of Flanders.

The activisten knew all too well that they did not have the support of the general population, so they staged elections to give their actions legitimacy. Only Flaminganten, or nationalist Flemings, were allowed to vote in these elections.

In Ghent and Brussels, the polls were organised discreetly, but in Antwerp a large meeting was held in the Handelsbeurs – a move that soon proved to be a bad idea. A counter-demonstration brought 10 times as many people, and a street fight broke out between the two camps. The Germans subsequently grew tired of the activisten, and that was that. The Declaration of Independence came to nought.

Hell on earth

A bit further south in Antwerp province, the banks of the Rupel river today seem quiet, but at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the brick industry thrived here. There are still traces of that gloried industrial past in the Antwerp hamlets of Hellegat and Noeveren.

Below the river’s surface lies the wealth of the region. Stretching from northeastern Belgium to the east of the Netherlands, a clay layer, dubbed Boomse Klei by geologists, is deposited here by the Rupel. The clay is suitable for making bricks and tiles, and the strategic location of places like Niel, Noeveren and Boom on the Rupel near the Scheldt resulted in a flourishing brick industry from the mid-19th century onward.

The name Hellegat (literally “hell hole”) probably refers to the neighbourhood’s location near the mouth of the Rupel, and for a long time the place lived up to its name. For workers in the region’s brickyards, life must have indeed felt a little like hell on earth. Working conditions were miserable in this town, even by the standards of that time. Men, women and children worked long days, performing extremely heavy, monotonous labour.

Throughout the region, traces of that once-flourishing brick industry can still be found in the old clay pits, the now beautiful nature reserves and the remains of the old furnaces. In Hellegat and especially in Noeveren (pictured above), the remnants of this past are still visible, with multiple types of former brick-baking ovens and drying sheds.

The neighbourhoods with tiny houses where workers lived in appalling conditions also survived. You can find the Boom Brickworks Eco Museum and Archive here, too, which is dedicated to the history of the brick industry. All this makes the Noeveren area, which has been protected industrial archaeological heritage since 1986, the only place in Flanders where the atmosphere of the early days of the Industrial Revolution still lingers.

Photo by Toon Lambrechts

We visit the province of Antwerp, unearthing forgotten tales of fruitless defensive lines, independence declarations and back-breaking industrial labour for this instalment of our our five-part series Flanders off the beaten path.

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