Four question Gaëlle Powis de Tenbossche, and Carl Vander Maelen
"We will never forget the sacrifices made by American soldiers"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
The Embassy of Belgium has a remarkable new World War I exhibit that has been traveling across the United States. It tells a unique story, of a unique military unit, that had adventures unlike any other, during the World War I period. The Expeditionary Corps of Armored Cars (often called ACM) was a military division formed by Belgian volunteers during WWI. It was sent to Russia at the request of the Tsar to fight the German Army on the Eastern front and distinguished itself in battle in Galicia in 1915. After the Bolshevik revolution, the ACM corps found itself in hostile territory and reached the US through Siberia and China. In the United States, the unit became a tool of propaganda in support of the war effort and was celebrated in May and June 1918 with major military parades (San Francisco, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Detroit, Niagara, New York). The exhibition consists in 19 banners (4 dedicated exclusively to their journey in the USA) and we would like them to be exposed on the trajectory of the ACM corps 100 years ago. We caught up with two members of the Belgian Embassy staff, who worked with the exhibit -- Gaëlle Powis de Tenbossche, and Carl Vander Maelen. They took a few moments to tell us all about it.
The Embassy of Belgium has an incredible traveling exhibit on the Expeditionary Corps of Armored Cars (ACM). Tell us about the exhibit.
The exhibit details the epic and one-of-a-kind story of the Belgian Expeditionary Corps of Armored Cars during World War I. Through 19 richly-detailed and beautiful panels, we tell the remarkable journey of this elite corps through Russia, China and the United States.
Just as the ACM traveled through the US, our exhibit will too. We are currently identifying partners in order to display it in the same major cities where the ACM stopped and was celebrated by the American public. The choice to make this a traveling exhibit thus not only helps us find a wider audience, but also honors the journey that the ACM made.
The ACM travelled all around the world from 1915 to 1918. What are some of the highlights of this journey? Who were some of the soldiers who joined this elite group?
The ACM fought alongside Russian troops on the Eastern Front, and earned a distinction during the Battle of Galicia in 1915. However, after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the ACM corps suddenly found itself in hostile territory. They undertook an incredible journey that led them through Siberia and China, eventually arriving in the safety of the United States of America in mid- 1918.
In the US, they were celebrated as war heroes. They traveled all across the country to tell their story, and major military parades were held in San Francisco, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Detroit, Niagara and New York.
Although the ACM was a division formed by Belgian volunteers, it featured some remarkable individuals. Among the ACM soldiers were four-time wrestling world champion Henri Herd (real name Constant le Marin) and famous Walloon poet Marcel Thiry.
The ACM corps’ travels through America were used as propaganda for the war effort. How did the public treat and interact with the ACM corps?
American public support was firmly behind the Allied forces. Belgium, in particular, had been displayed in war propaganda as Brave Little Belgium: a small country making a heroic stand against the overwhelming German military aggression.
During the ACM’s travels through America, large crowds cheer them on and hand them flowers, while the press incessantly covers their journey and parades with incredible enthusiasm.
Praised as battle-scarred “lion-hearted” heroes, the ACM get a ceremonial reception in the famous Memorial Church in San Francisco, a military march with a million spectators in Chicago, a high-profile reception at the Vanderbilt residence, and their very own military parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
What do you hope audiences will experience and take from with this exhibit?
Above all, the central theme of this exhibit is the bravery of the ACM corps. Faced with impossible odds and surrounded behind enemy lines, they nonetheless chose to improvise, adapt and – ultimately – prevail. Their journey displays incredible stamina and courage, and it is a military story unlike any other.
Just as important, however, are the close ties that always have existed – and always will exist – between Belgium and the United States. We will never forget the sacrifices made by American soldiers as they fought on our soil to defend our freedom, nor will we forget the warm welcome and hospitality that the US public gave the veterans of the ACM.