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Royal British Legion Brussels history uncovered

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Did you know that about 6,000 British servicemen wed Belgian women and settled here after WW2? Or that Princess Margaret's divorcee lover Peter Townsend was unceremoniously packed off to Brussels to avoid a scandal? If such things are new to you, then fascinating new research by Belgium-based UK expat Dennis Abbott will be right up your street, writes Martin Banks.

In what was something of a labour of love, Dennis, a former leading journalist (pictured, below, from when he served as a reservist on Operation TELIC Iraq in 2003, where he was attached to 7th Armoured Brigade and 19th Mechanized Brigade) delved into the rich and varied history of the Royal British Legion to help mark the RBL’s 100th anniversary later this year.

The result is a wonderful chronicle of the charity which, for many years, has done invaluable work for serving men and women, veterans and their families.

The impetus for the project was a request from the Royal British Legion HQ for branches to mark the 100th anniversary of the RBL in 2021 by telling their story.

The Brussels branch of the RBL itself is 99 years old in 2021.

The history took Dennis just over four months to research and write and, as he readily admits: “It wasn't so easy.”

He said: “The Brussels branch newsletter (known as The Wipers Times) was a rich source of info but goes back only to 2008.

“There are minutes of committee meetings from 1985-1995 but with many gaps."

One of his best sources of information, up until 1970, was the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.

"I was able to search through the digital archives at the National Library of Belgium (KBR) for stories about the branch.”

Dennis is a formerly a journalist at The Sun and The Daily Mirror in the UK and former editor of European Voice in Brussels.

He uncovered, during his research, many intriguing nuggets of information about events linked to the RBL.

For instance, the future Edward VIII (who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication) and WW1 Field Marshal Earl Haig (who helped found the British Legion) came to visit the Brussels branch in 1923.

Dennis also says that fans of The Crown Netflix series can discover, through the  RBL history, what became of Princess Margaret's divorcee lover Group Captain Peter Townsend after he was unceremoniously packed off to Brussels to avoid a scandal at the start of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.

Readers can also learn about the secret agents who made Brussels their base after WW2 - notably Lieutenant Colonel George Starr DSO MC and Captain Norman Dewhurst MC.

Dennis said: “The 1950s were undoubtedly the most glamorous period in the branch history with film premieres, concerts, and dances.

“But the history is mostly about the ordinary WW2 servicemen who settled in Brussels after marrying Belgian girls. The Daily Express reckoned that there were 6,000 such marriages after WW2!

He said:”Peter Townsend wrote a series of articles for Le Soir about an 18-month solo world tour he undertook in his Land-Rover after retiring from the RAF. My guess is that it was his way of dealing with his break-up with Princess Margaret. She was the first person he went to see after returning to Brussels.

“In the end he married a 19-year-old Belgian heiress who bore a striking resemblance to Margaret. The history includes video footage of them announcing their engagement.”

This week, for example, he met 94-year-old Claire Whitfield, one of the 6,000 Belgian girls who married British servicemen.

Claire, then 18, met her future husband RAF Flight Sgt Stanley Whitfield in September 1944 after the liberation of Brussels. “It was love at first sight,” she recalled. Stanley would often take her dancing to the 21 Club and RAF Club (pictured, main pic). They married in Brussels.

The history was submitted this week to the national headquarters of the Royal British Legion in London as part of their centenary archive.

The full RBL history compiled by Dennis is available here.

Belgium

Belgian artist's 'portable oasis' creates COVID-free bubble for one

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When governments around Europe told people to create a "bubble" to limit their social contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was probably not what they had in mind, write Bart Biesemans and Clement Rossignol.

Alain Verschueren, a Belgian artist and social worker, has been strolling through the capital Brussels wearing a "portable oasis" - a plexiglass mini-greenhouse which rests on his shoulders, cocooning him in a bubble of air purified by the aromatic plants inside.

Verschueren, 61, developed the idea 15 years ago, inspired by the lush oases in Tunisia where he had previously worked. In a city where face coverings are mandatory to curb the spread of COVID-19, his invention has gained a new lease of life.

"It was about creating a bubble in which I could lock myself in, to cut myself off a world that I found too dull, too noisy or smelly," Verschueren said, adding that he has asthma and finds breathing within his contraption more comfortable than wearing a facemask.

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium 16 April. REUTERS/Yves Herman

"As time went by, I noticed that people were coming up to me and talking to me. This isolation became much more a way of connecting," he said.

Onlookers in Brussels appeared amused and confused by the man wandering between the shops - mostly closed due to COVID-19 restrictions - encased in a pod of thyme, rosemary and lavender plants.

"Is it a greenhouse? Is it for the bees? Is it for the plants? We don't know, but it's a good idea," Charlie Elkiess, a retired jeweller, told Reuters.

Verschueren said he hoped to encourage people to take better care of the environment, to reduce the need to protect ourselves from air and noise pollution.

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Pakistan urged to 'take responsibility' for 'genocide'

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A group of activists who demonstrated in Brussels want Pakistan to be held to account for the violent events of over five decades ago which, it is claimed, have so far gone unpunished, writes Martin Banks.

On 26 March 1971, Pakistani troops entered east Pakistan in order to put down a growing movement for Bangladeshi independence. A nine-month war of Independence followed, ending with Pakistan’s defeat and surrender on 16 December.

The level of casualties inflicted on the Bengali civilian population, and the issuing of a Fatwah by Pakistan encouraging their soldiers to treat Bengali women as “booty” of war, was such that as many as 3 million prople were killed, and up to 400,000 women, and young girls, suffered rape.

The events of 1971 are widely considered as genocide.

This week the Bengali community in Belgium came together with human rights activists to call on the European Union to recognise this fact.

Speaking at a gathering outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, President of European Association for the Defence of Minorities Dr. Manel Mselmi spoke to this website.

Dr Mselmi said: “The Bangledeshi Genocide reminds us that we are all human beings, and that we should respect each other’s cultural heritage, language and religion.

“Conflict based on linguistic and religious levels can never be solved by violence, war, persecution and torture, because at the end the oppressed people always seek to find freedom and dignity even though they lose their families and lands, they will always defend their values and identity.”

The activists called on the government of Pakistan to acknowledge and to take responsibility for its past actions. A letter, hand-delivered by Belgian human rights activist Andy Vermaut of the Alliance internationale pour la défense des droits et des libertés AIDL, addressed to European External Action Service High Representative Josep Borrell, called upon the European Commission “to utilize its considerable political leverage to pressure the government of Pakistan to acknowledge its responsibility for this genocidal atrocity”.

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Commission approves €10 million Belgian scheme to support organizers of festivals in the Flemish and Brussels Regions in context of the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €10 million Belgian scheme to support organizers of festivals that are planned to take place in the Flemish and Brussels Regions in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The scheme was approved under the state aid Temporary Framework. Under this scheme, the support will take the form of direct grants. Beneficiaries will receive up to €500,000 to cover the costs incurred for the organization and production of the festivals as well as for the implementation of measures that the Belgian authorities had to impose to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The purpose of the scheme is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that the beneficiaries are facing due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Commission found that the Belgian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, (i) the support will not exceed €1.8m per company as provided by the Temporary Framework; and (ii) the aid can be granted no later than 31 December 2021. The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions of the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.62017 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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