When you explore Wallonia’s soft green hillsides, rolling fields and landscapes fringed with rivers, woodland and pretty farmhouses it’s hard to imagine that this tranquil land runs deep with stories of wartime past. Three of the most important conflicts of the last 200 years – each of which, by historical coincidence, was either wholly or partially fought in Wallonia.
Over 200 years ago, it was Napoleon’s last victory at Ligny against the Prussians only to be defeated 2 days later on 18 June 1815 by Wellington & Blucher’s armies. Bonaparte had finally met his match at the battle marking the end of the Napoleonic wars.
The region saw the very start of WW1, when the city of Liège was invaded by the Germans in August 1914. It also witnessed some of the fiercest battles of WW1, including the Battle of the Frontiers, and also the Battle of Mons, the first to pit the British army against the German invader. It was in Mons that the first British shot of the war was fired, and that the first and last British soldiers to lose their lives on the Western Front.
WW2 is also a defining aspect of Belgian war history from May 1940 with the Germans’ attack on the Forts around Liege and Hitler’s HQ in Bruly de Pesche to lead the French campaign (May-June 1940) until January 1945 with the end of the Battle of the Bulge. Just as Wallonia staged the last military engagements of the First World War, it took centre stage again towards the end of the Second World War, when the Germans, apparently on the brink of defeat on the Western Front, mounted a daring counter-attack in the Ardennes shortly before Christmas 1944 and briefly created a salient between the American and British armies.
Everywhere you go, from east to west, from forest to field, war history is hardwired into the landscape. From immersive and contemporary war museums with impressive collections and multi sensory re-enactments to poignant war cemeteries filled with the well kept graves of allied and enemy soldiers. Even old buildings bear the scar of its significant role with farmhouses still pockmarked with bullet holes and rifles embedded in tree roots. Listening to the locals share their region’s stories – both tragic and heroic of evacuated villages, vicious battles and the efforts of resistance to protect and defend their country makes you realise how important Belgium’s role in wartime history really is.