Forced labour during First World War "underestimated"

The number of Belgians that was ordered to work for the German regime that was installed during the First World War, has been heavily underestimated so far. The amateur-historian Donald Buyze from the Wervik region (West Flanders) has been doing extensive, pioneering research into the matter and also concludes that the number of people that died as a result, is much higher than officially recognised.

Donald Buyze (small picture) has just retired after a long career as a teacher in the Wervik area. We meet him at Wervik station, in the historic Macote pub that was occupied by German troops during the war. Buyze has been doing research into the matter of Belgian forced labour during the First World War for 9 years now, spending almost all of his spare time on the issue.

His aim is to compile a complete list of all Belgians that were called to labour camps, and of all those that died as a result of the work. Deportations from Belgium mostly were to Germany itself, or to Northern France. Other civilians living close to the frontline in West Flanders, did not have to go to labour camps, but were forced to work for the Germans near their homes. "They were, in general, better off, as they could recover at their home", Buyze points out.

From church to church

The research brought him in Northern France, across Belgium and in Germany. He took some 150,000 photos at different municipalities in Belgium, covering all the Belgian area that was occupied during the Great War (which is almost all of most Belgium, except for the westernmost part behind the River IJzer).

Among other things, Buyze made pictures of the commemoration plaques at the churches, which mention the names of the victims (both soldiers and civilians, and among the civilians those that were executed, or those that died as a result of forced labour). Soon after he had kicked off his research, he realised that forced labour among Belgians was a much bigger thing than previously accepted. (photo below: at Anzegem church, the list of local civilians that died of forced labour, is longer than the list of local soldiers that perished).

"Hunger, hunger, hunger"

The personal story of his grandfather triggered Donald Buyze's interests as a child. Buyze got to know his grandfather, Victor Perneel, quite well as they lived in the same house. He was already 15 when Victor Perneel passed away. Perneel was taken away after the German "Verordnung" of October 1916 and put on a train with hundreds of others to work in Northern France. ""Hunger, hunger, hunger. These are the words he repeated most of the time to me", Buyze tells us. His grandfather had a weight of 35 kilos when the war ended. His normal weight as a young man in his 20s was 70 kilos.

The story fascinated him and touched him personally. He eventually decided to leave no stone unturned to reveal the whole truth about the matter. "The more I discovered, the more I realised I was only on the top of the iceberg. This motivated me even more to continue the search", Buyze explains. (photo below: forced labourers in Northern France worked in Zivilarbeiter Bataillone or ZAB's. They received a bracelet, or a tattoo directly on their body as they were, in fact, being marked as slaves for the German regime that had to keep the war industry going).

New insights as history is being rewritten

The number of Belgian victims of forced labour in the Great War was put at 2,600 by a Parliamentary Commission in the 1920s. The number of Belgians forced to work for the Germans, was put at 120,000. This number was often repeated in literature, but nobody ever took the effort to do new, thorough research into the matter.

Donald Buyze did, and comes to the conclusion that up to 180,000 Belgians served in labour camps, and that many more than previously estimated died as a result of the bad conditions. He presently has almost 7,000 names on his list, and thinks he may end up with about 10,000 when his work will be finished in two years' time. Most 'Zivilarbeiter' - as the forced labourers in Northern France were called - died from exhaustion, starvation, disease, from the cold - the winter of 1916 was particularly cold - or from bad treatment. Some were twice unlucky as they were killed by allied bombardments in the frontline.

The rest of Buyze's research will mainly focus on Germany. Buyze will receive subsidies from Ieper's In Flanders Fields Museum (IFFM) for this work in Germany, and in return he will share his final list with the renowned "Name List" coordinated by IFFM.

"The lazy Belgian shall work!"

Historian Piet Chielens who is at the helm of the IFFM calls Buyze's work "pioneering". "It's a gigantic challenge, you need a lot of patience and dedication for it." Mr Chielens says the work is of big value: "He (Buyze) is digging up a real treasure of information and data." 

Forced labour was installed in October 1916. The German regime had noticed that a lot of Belgians had become unemployed as a result of the war. Their number was put at half a million at the time. This was a thorn in the side of the German war commanders, who labelled the Belgians as 'arbeitsscheu' (afraid of working) and argued that they might as well make themselves useful for the German occupier. After all, every German worker in the factory or in the field, the mines, or any part of the war industry that could be replaced by a Belgian, was one German soldier more at the front. (photo below: a German letter ordering unemployed Kortrijk residents to present themselves at a German venue in the city, from where they will be put on a train to be taken away. It mentions which clothes people should bring, and warns them that "heavy penalties" will be imposed on those that fail to present themselves.)       

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