Two Britons, killed during the WW2 Blitzkrieg, rest in the pretty Flemish cemetery of Peutie, among countless Belgian ex-combatants. Former UK journalist Dennis Abbott recently put crosses on the graves on behalf of the Royal British Legion during the Armistice commemoration week in November.
But he is also looking for answers.
What were those two young British boys actually doing in Peutie? And above all: who are Lucy and Hannah, the two Belgian women who maintained their graves for years?
Abbott has been living in Belgium for 20 years. He is a former journalist for, among others, The Sun and The Daily Mirror in London and was subsequently a spokesman for the European Commission. He is also a member of the Royal British Legion, a charity which raises money to support serving and former serving members of the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force facing hardship, as well as their families.
One of their tasks is also to keep alive the memory of those who died for our freedom. Indeed, Abbott was a reservist in Iraq for British troops in 2003.
"On the occasion of the annual commemoration of the Armistice, I looked into stories related to the Battle of Belgium in May 1940," says Abbott. "I discovered the graves of two British soldiers of the Grenadier Guards in Peutie. They are Leonard 'Len' Walters and Alfred William Hoare. They both died on the night of 15 to 16 May. Len was barely 20 and Alfred 33. I was curious why their last resting place was in the village cemetery and not in one of the big war cemeteries in Brussels or Heverlee.
“I found an article in a British provincial newspaper explaining that the two soldiers were first buried in the grounds of a local castle - presumably Batenborch - and then taken to the village cemetery.”
Abbott added: "The case won't let me go. I have looked into how the soldiers ended up in Peutie. Apparently, the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards fought alongside the Belgian 6th Regiment Jagers te Voet. But nowhere is a specific mention of the German attack on Peutie to be found.
“The Belgian and British troops fought a rearguard action during a phased withdrawal beyond the Brussels-Willebroek Canal and then to the Channel coast.
"It seems that Peutie was the divisional headquarters of the Jagers te Voet Regiment. My guess is that the staff of the regiment and the British Guardsmen might have been housed at Batenborch Castle. So the castle was a target for the Germans.
"Were Walters and Hoare guarding the place? Were they seconded to the Jagers te Voet to ensure the rearguard in the steady retreat towards Dunkirk? Or were they cut off from their regiment during the fighting?”
"The date on the memorial stone, 15-16 May 1940, is also strange. Why two dates?
“My suspicion is that they died at night during enemy shelling or as a result of a night raid by the Luftwaffe. In the chaos of war, it cannot be ruled out either that they were victims of 'friendly fire'.”
Abbott has also discovered that two women from Peutie, Lucy and Hannah, looked after Len and William's graves for years.
"That intrigues me. What was their relationship with the fallen soldiers? Did they know them? I think Lucy died. The question is whether Hannah is still alive. Their relatives are probably still living in Peutie. Does anyone know more? On both graves someone has laid some beautiful chrysanthemums.”
Art Nouveau gem: Hotel Solvay open to the public
Excellent news for the architecture aficionados, iconic Hotel Solvay in Brussels is opening to the public! Alexandre Wittamer, the owner of the building, and Pascal Smet, Secretary of State for Urbanism and Heritage, have announced today that the Solvay House will be open to the public as from Saturday 23 January 2021. This listed and iconic Art Nouveau building was designed and built by Victor Horta between 1894 and 1903 and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
“I am pleased that the Solvay House will frequently open to the public. This gives hope to the cultural and tourism sector, both of them suffering a lot because of the health crisis. From now on, both Brussels residents and tourists will be able to visit this Art Nouveau masterpiece in complete safety, and enjoy a dose of culture with a trip back in time. Thanks to this opening, Brussels will be able to further enhance its rich offer of cultural, heritage and tourist attractions. I am convinced that this way the cultural and tourist revival of our Region will receive a boost as soon as the health measures allow it,” explains Rudi Vervoort, Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region.
Urbanism and Heritage State Secretary Pascal Smet was happy that this Art Nouveau gem will now be open to all the people of Brussels and everyone who visits Brussels. “We owe this jewel to Victor Horta and Armand Solvay, of course, but also to the Wittamer family, who saved the house from demolition in the 1950s and have maintained it well all this time. That is why the Brussels Region is today giving the family a special recognition. It was an absolute priority for me to open the Solvay House to the general public and I thank Alexandre Wittamer for having dared to take this step with us.”
Given the history of the building and the initiatives taken by the Wittamer family to preserve this heritage gem, the Brussels Region has awarded the Bronze Zinneke to the Wittamer couple.
The owner Alexandre Wittamer shared his view: “It is an important moment for us. My grandparents bought the building in 1957 and saved it from demolition. They wanted to pass on their love for Victor Horta and Belgian Art Nouveau to future generations. What we are doing now with urban.brussels is following on from what we started last century. It is wonderful that both young and old can discover and rediscover Art Nouveau. Brussels can be proud of its architects and artisans of the time.”
“I’m very happy to award Alexandre Wittamer with a Bronze Zinneke. This statue, a miniature cast of the statue of Tom Frantzen in the Karthuizerstraat, is a tribute to Brussels residents who are informal ambassadors of our city. Welcoming people in a cosmopolitan, open, multilingual and people-oriented city. Like that Zinneke, a bastard dog: strong, streetwise, enterprising, complex and curious about the world. I find these characteristics in Alexandre and his family. His grandparents became the owners of the listed Hotel Solvay of our world-famous Brussels resident Victor Horta. The family converted it into a haute couture house and helped preserve it for future generations,” said Image of Brussels Minister Sven Gatz.
The Brussels government wants to enhance the value of its heritage, in particular by making it more accessible, which explains the decision to open the Solvay House to the public. In line with this, the Brussels Region financed the creation of a website and online ticket sales for the Solvay House on the initiative of the Secretary of State for Urbanism and Heritage, Pascal Smet.
Anyone can now visit the house by reserving a ticket on the website www.hotelsolvay.be for an affordable fee of 12 euro. To ensure that Horta lovers can easily plan their visit, a combination ticket with the Horta Museum and Hotel Hannon is being developed.
Art Nouveau and the Horta buildings provide a very attractive, specific tourism offer, an offer that until now was not structural, while the buildings were not always easily accessible. That is changing. After all, Brussels is the Art Nouveau capital and wants to keep that title.
Visit Brussels wants to keep using this asset both internationally and with the Belgian and Brussels visitors.
“The Solvay House is one of the absolute architectural Art Nouveau gems. Opening it up to the general public will enrich the museum offer and give Brussels an important tourism asset. We are convinced that this will improve the international reputation of our region,” says Patrick Bontinck for Visit Brusssels
“For Brussels culture and tourism, it is great news that the general public can now admire this Art Nouveau gem. The City of Brussels values this art movement throughout the year by supporting many recurring events. These include the BANAD Festival, Artonov and Arkadia asbl and its guides,” explains Delphine Houba, alderwoman for Culture and Tourism for the City of Brussels.
Now that the general public can visit it, the Solvay House reveals a hidden treasure. It was protected in its entirety in 1977 and is one of the best preserved Horta buildings, thanks to the attention and renovations by three generations of the Wittamer family, who bought it in 1957 to establish a haute couture house. The renovations happened under the supervision of the “Commission royale des Monuments et des Sites” (Brussels heritage instance) and the heritage services of urban.brussels. Since 1989, the region has spent no less than … euro for the renovation of this building. Urban.brussels has recently recognised the Solvay House as a museum institution, this way increasingly highlighting this heritage.
Commission approves €23 million Belgian measures to support production of coronavirus-relevant products
The European Commission has approved two Belgian measures, for a total of €23 million, to support the production of products relevant to the coronavirus outbreak in the Walloon region. Both measures were approved under the State Aid Temporary Framework. The first scheme, (SA.60414), with an estimated budget of €20m, will be open to enterprises that produce coronavirus-relevant products and are active in all sectors, except the agriculture, fishery and aquaculture, and financial sectors. Under the scheme, the public support will take the form of direct grants covering up to 50% of the investments costs.
The second measure (SA.60198) consists of a €3.5m investment aid, in the form of a direct grant, to the University of Liège, which aims at supporting the production by the institution of coronavirus related diagnostic tools and the necessary raw materials. The direct grant will cover 80 % of the investment costs. The Commission found that the measures are in line with the conditions of the Temporary Framework.
In particular, (i) the aid will cover only up to 80% of the eligible investment costs necessary to create production capacities to manufacture coronavirus relevant products; (ii) only investment projects that started as of 1 February 2020 will be eligible and (iii) eligible investment projects must be completed within six months after the grant of the investment aid. The Commission concluded that the two measures are necessary, appropriate and proportionate to fight the public health crisis, in line with Article 107(3)(c) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework.
On this basis, the Commission approved the measures 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 decisions will be made available under the case numbers SA.60198 and SA.60414 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website.
Royal British Legion Brussels history uncovered
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.
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