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The strange WW1 tale of Belgium in Normandy, at Sainte-Adresse

We knew of Sainte-Adresse from some delightful summery paintings by Claude Monet but didn’t know where it was, or that it used to run Belgium, until we picked up an old postcard with a lovely view of the Seine estuary.

We also didn’t know there was never a saint called Sainte-Adresse…

Match! A rather wet one, it was pouring with rain.
Match! A rather wet one, it was pouring with rain.

Belgium arrives in Sainte-Adresse

France’s bravery in WW1 is well documented and thankfully the terrifying front line did not reach as far as Sainte-Adresse by Le Havre.

As Germany forced it’s way across Europe, on 13 October 1914 one small and one medium sized boat, the Pieter de Coninck followed by the Stad van Antwerpen, sailed into Le Havre.  On board were representatives of a less fortunate and near defeated government, fleeing invaded Brussels.  They are preparing to set up a Belgian base in the comparative safety of Normandy.

An imaginary Saint for a disappearing country

We have no idea why Sainte-Adresse was chosen by the dispossessed Belgian politicians.

Belgian machine gunner guarding a trench, 1918
Belgian machine gunner guarding a trench, 1918

Was it because the town itself was named for ‘Adresse’, the ‘skilful’ one, a saint invented by sailors who needed dexterity and quite a bit of prayer to safely navigate the dangerous waters to Le Havre?

Perhaps the Belgians thought some of that cleverness would rub off.

They certainly had lovely views and were considerably less distracted by canon fire and bullets.

A brave beloved King

Back in what was left of Belgium their King Albert I was absolutely furious.  He was convinced that in spite of a fairly compressive take over of Belgium by Germany, the power of the country should remain within.

 

Albert  I Belgium
Albert I Belgium

 

As supreme commander of the Belgian forces Albert personally led an army that held off the German advance for a very useful amount of time. 

Eventually his forces were pushed back to a tiny strip of land, all trenches but still Belgium, behind the River Yser, where they bravely held their ground for four terrible years.

It was a family affair with Albert’s wife Queen Elisabeth nursing soldiers on the front and his son enlisting at 14 to fight as a private.

Back in Belgium (Sainte-Adresse)

While all this incredible bravery was going the Belgian government set up home in the freshly built (1911) and appropriately grand L’immeuble Dufayel, which is still on Place Frédéric Sauvage.

Punch cartoon depicting Begium's bravery against all odds.
Punch cartoon depicting Begium’s bravery against all odds.

Rather than be a ‘government in exile’ and all the defeat that implied, the Belgian’s decided to lease the whole of Sainte-Adresse for the duration of the hostilities, and call it Belgium.  Émigrés of the richer variety soon arrived to keep them company.

A post office was put at their disposal and they arranged for some stamps to be made, for use only from Belgian Sainte-Adresse.

Politicians…

It was of course impossible to govern an occupied Belgium from France.  Instead the Sainte-Adresse politicians squabbled endlessly and plotted unrealistic foreign policy moves, such as the annexation of Luxembourg or bits of the Netherlands, once the war was over. 

Back home horrendous reprisals were taken out against the Belgian people by the invading army.  Aware more than any soul on earth of the horrors of war, behind the scenes Albert worked hard but unsuccessfully to negotiate peace.

Seat of the Belgian government, in Sainte-Adresse
Seat of the Belgian government, in Sainte-Adresse

Liberation and home

Eventually in 1918 it was Albert who led the final offensive of the war that liberated occupied Belgium.  King Albert, Queen Elisabeth, and their children arrived in Brussels to a hero’s welcome.

In France the Belgian government gave up the lease on Sainte-Adresse and returned home.  We notice that Luxembourg is yet to be annexed.

Letter from Belgium, in Sainte-Adresse
Letter from Belgium, in Sainte-Adresse

Proud memories in Normandy

Albert and the Belgian government are well remembered in this Seine-Maritime seaside resort.  The best Boulevard is named ‘Albert’ and the Belgian flag has been stylishly incorporated into that of the town.

 

When Albert fell off a mountain and died in 1934 Sainte-Adresse decided to erect a statue in his memory.  It stands at the bottom of the hill on the road named for his wife, Rue Reine Elisabeth.  

A final comment, From Albert

As in life Albert is in the uniform of the plain soldier but with the determined expression of a brave, respected yet modest King who held out with his people against a much bigger foe.

It is perhaps not just for the view that Albert faces out across the sea with his back firmly towards Sainte-Adresse.  

Albert_I_of_Belgium,_statue_in_Le_Havre_(France)
By Philippe Alès (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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