Four Questions for Brion Patrick
"The Belgian people have never forgotten who came to help us"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
The First World War had a profound impact on the history of Belgium and of the whole world. It is only fitting, therefore, that Belgium will play a central part in the centenary commemorations. These will include a number of national commemorative ceremonies with international scope. In addition, Belgium’s various levels of government will oversee a range of cultural, artistic, historical and scientific initiatives throughout the centennial period. Colonel Brion Patrick is part of Belgium's centennial commission, and he talked to us about how the centennial period will be marked, and what activities the Belgian government is involved with.
Your organization is very similar to ours, as the official Belgian government office for WWI commemoration. Tell us about how you are organized, what your mission is, and what projects you are working on.
The Belgian army holds different massive archives as to the Great War. Unfortunately, they are sometimes hard to access and even harder to go through. Our unit, the Belgian Army Public Affairs was asked by the Belgian government in 2014 to support the federal website regarding the Commemorations around WW1, up to 2018. The website can be found here : http://www.be14-18.be/en
However, we are following a strict path as to the commemorations, due to the historical timeline of events in Belgium and of course the role of the Belgian army during 1914 – 1918.
This means that in 2014, going through 2015, there was a massive amount of commemorations and events in Belgium. As of April 2015, following the commemoration of the first gas attack (1915), things went more quit.
But, we clearly understood that we needed to continue with the communication and established the Facebook page, which allows us to work on themes and specific events.
The Belgian Army Public Affairs unit works closely with other federal institutions, like the Royal Army Museum, the Veterans Institute etc... Our mission is inform the public, even on a global scale, about upcoming events and themes around the Great War. More important even than the communication around it, is now the network that I managed to create. Simple rule : “If I don’t know it, I surely do know someone who does...” And it works very well, resulting in an ongoing exchange of data and archives, supporting each other with assets only the army has.
Our unit also holds a large expertise on the audiovisual level, as we have our own photographers, cameramen, journalists and editors (web and audiovisual). This allows us to really be creative and support the historical time line with great clips. We’ve also started using drones with camera, to show the public how it looks from the air. Those clips receive in average like 60,000 hits when published.
As the historical timeline advances, we move into the third year (1917 – 2017) of the commemorations and this year it will pick up very quickly to continue to go until November 2018. We plan to go beyond that date, up to the signing of the Versailles Treaty and the occupation of the Rhineland Region by the Allied armies, including the US, Belgian, French.
This year, 2017, your theme is "The International War". Tell us about that. What does it mean. Who are you referring to? How will the theme take shape in Belgium?
This theme is very important, as in April 1917 the United States enters the conflict, that has been raging for four years in Europe. It clearly shows the global scale of the conflict and the turning point in history, when the first US army units arrive in Europe. As we work closely together with the US Embassy in Brussels, and this since many years (also due to the WW2 period, especially the Battle of the Bulge), several events will be supported by the Belgian Army as “Host Nation”, which results into technical, logistical and protocol support.
The same will be with the Commonwealth countries, focused around the Battles around the Ypres Salient, which were very hard in 1917. It promises to be a very interesting and intense year!
Tell us about your social media and web efforts. You have remarkable resources and imagery for people to see & experience.
The Facebook page we hold, allows us to work directly towards a large public, thus allowing to share the information and archives we publish. Since 2013, I have been very active in tracking the archives in Belgium, but also in other countries. What people like most, are audiovisual sources.
As an active military photographer, I specialize in that type of archival research. Currently, we hold over 200,000 digital photos and other audiovisual items. Our ancestor unit, the “Service Cinématographique de l’armée belge, S.C.A.B”, started in 1915 with the mission to cover the war effort. Since then, then unit went through many reorganizations, but still exist. That’s the unit where I work today. We hold their heritage in film here in our unit, that has also been digitalized.
The success of the social media is mainly due to the motto “show what you have...”. It’s historical heritage that people should see and learn about. The value of the archives should be measured in how well they can accessed and not only in what they have.
World War I was so devastating to your country. So much took place there. And your King, Albert I, was a truly great leader. How is World War I remembered in Belgium?
Belgium, although trying to maintain its neutrality in 1914, suffered throughout the Great War. Even today, many towns and cities remember very well how the German invading armies swept through our country.
Our armed forces, despite being ill-equipped, showed a resolute moral, led by King Albert I, which stayed for the entire war with his army. The Forts of Liège, Namur and Antwerp that were to delay the advancing enemy, allowed history to be written. The flooding of the Yser Region in October 1914, the harsh battles fought in the “Westhoek”, as West-Flanders is known, resulted into the final victory in 1918, where our army was very well organized and equipped.
Since 2014, we had numerous commemorations and events, very large but also sometimes very intimate, to remember what happened 100 years ago. The Belgian people have never forgotten who came to help us and the sacrifice of so many soldiers, again during WW2, has resulted in an everlasting gratitude towards those nations.
I invite our American visitors to come to Belgium and discover and learn what happened 100 years ago. War is never a good thing, but it does bring out the best in people. That’s a lesson to be told and to remember.