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«1) The events: The First World War is brought about after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a ...»

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The Cenacle during the First World War (1914-1918)

1) The events:

The First World War is brought about after the assassination of Archduke Franz

Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914.

But this event is only the detonator of the explosive situation in Europe since the end of the

Nineteenth century, made of tensions due to the spreading of the nationalisms and to the rise

of imperialism. In retaliation to its heir’s assassination, Austria-Hungary declares war to Serbia on July 28, and Germany does the same with France on August 3. The latter is bound in a treaty with United-Kingdom and Russia whereas Germany is part of the Triple Alliance along with Austria-Hungary and Italy until her change of camp in 1915. Almost the whole of Europe is immersed in war.

Very quickly, the French, Belgian and British armies draw back from the German troops. Following the Belgian government’s refusal of the ultimatum to let the German army enter freely in Belgium, the Germans enter Brussels on August 25, 1914 and occupy most of the country until its country’s liberation by the Allies in 1918. In October starts the “run to the sea” and the Germans attempt several offensives, in particular during the bloody battle of the Flanders (October 29-November 24, 1914). This event represents the end of the movement war, because the front is stabilized on around 800 kilometres from Switzerland to the North Sea, and the beginning of the trenches war. The battle of Verdun, brought about by the German High Command who wants to “bleed the French Army dry” in the main event in 1916, starting on February and finishing in December. At the end of the battle, the losses are enormous since 62 000 men are killed, 101 000 reported missing and more than 200 000 wounded, and 22 million shells are shot. On the other hand, neither army yields any field. On April 2, 1917, the United States renounce their neutrality by joining France, the United Kingdom and Russia. But in spite of their taking an active part in the war, 1917 is a difficult year during which every domain is struck by crises and mutinies arise in French troops after the bloody Chemin des Dames offensive (April-October 1917). In 1918, the German army is in a slow down and attempts last offensives in July in the Champagne region. After this failure, she is not able to continue fighting anymore and asks to sign an armistice. It is signed in the forest of Compiègne near Rethondes on November 11, 1918. The Versailles treaty signed in June 1919 puts a final end to the conflict by stipulating Germany’s responsibility and by cutting out 1/7th of her territory, in particular the Alsace and the Lorraine regions which are restored to France. In all, this conflict has cost the lives of 10 million people, out of which 1,7 million Germans and 1,3 million French, and has wounded 6 million soldiers.

2) The Belgian Cenacle in turmoil:

At the time of the declaration of war, the Cenacle survives illegally in France since the suppression of religious congregations in 1901, thanks to a few Sisters dressed in civilian clothes who do their best to continue the apostolic work. As it will be explained later, they are rather spared by the war. On the other hand, the houses of Brussels, where the general government has found shelter in 1901, and above all the ones in Menin and Yvoir, founded in 1901, are affected by the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 and by the military occupation that follows.


Elbisser, « The Cenacle during the First World War (1914-1918) », June 2009 General Archives of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Cenacle 1  Brussels:

Although the Germans occupy the city as soon as they enter it on August 25, 1914, the Brussels Cenacle does not seem to have suffered too much during this difficult time that only ends after the signing of the armistice. The letters and cards sent during this period show that the Sisters are more concerned with each other’s health than with the enemy’s stay. No trouble is mentioned in their relations with the German authorities, and the individual as well as the group retreats seem to prosper.

However, most of the Sisters are repatriated in France by the Red Cross in 1917 like many other inhabitants affected by the compulsory evacuation of the country. Two groups leave Brussels during the second half of September. They stop at Enghien where they are accommodated by Sisters of Nazareth for a week, because due to some trouble the departure of the train for France in uncertain. They do leave after all and travel with some nurses working for the Red Cross and under the watch first of Germans then of Swiss. Despite a luggage control before the departure which forces them to leave some belongings behind, all goes well. They are all very moved upon their entering France, especially in Lyon, because many of them have not come back since their hasty departure in 1901.

 Menin:

The Menin community is the one most affected by the German occupation and this period has left a strong mark on the Sisters. Indeed some of them have left a very detailed account of the occupation in several diaries: the Mothers Madeleine Scrive, Marguerite Constant and Fernande Le Mintier left very detailed souvenirs, in particular the latter whose description has been done with meticulous care.

The festive atmosphere of August 1914 does not suggest at all the arrival of the Germans.

France, the United-Kingdom and their soldiers are acclaimed everywhere and flags are hoisted on every house including the Cenacle. From the very first days of the war, the general superior puts the three Belgium houses at the disposal of the government to install ambulances, and preparatory courses are given by a doctor and attended by all the ladies of Menin. An ambulance is installed in a house close to the Cenacle, at the Mill St Jean and the superior sends a Sister to help around the growing number of the wounded. Two choir religious and a few coadjutresses are in charge of the supervision of the ambulance and the material care and operations are carried out by home nurse Sisters, ambulance drivers and soldiers from the civic guard. The wounded needing special care are entitled to rooms of their own while the others must content themselves with sleeping in dormitories. At the beginning of the conflict, the ambulance caters for voluntary Belgian soldiers who have been wounded by their fellow-countrymen who mistook them for Germans… Everyone is quickly lacking news about the military operations, and the spreading anxiety soon gives way to panic. The accommodating of six Belgian conscripts coming back from the front calling it a “slaughter” is far from reassuring. On August 23, canons are fired during the whole day, and the Belgian and French flags are hastily taken off the houses. A few days later, the rumour of the Germans’ moving towards Paris causes a new rise of anxiety.

But despite the fear, the care of the wounded goes well, and when the soldiers go back to the front they want to thank to community by making themselves useful. Thus one sows a sheet, another gardens and a third and a fourth paint some old furniture.

In September there are new panic movements and spreading of false rumours. On October 2, the mayor of Brussels announces that the city waters have been poisoned by S. Elbisser, « The Cenacle during the First World War (1914-1918) », June 2009 General Archives of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Cenacle 2 German spies, but it quickly happens to be false. However the presence of spies in Belgium is true, since several of them are arrested and executed in September, including King Albert’s personal driver. The diaries of the Cenacle Sisters contain many details on these spies and on the executions of civilians by Germans, which shows that fear is in everybody’s mind. Here is Mother Le Mintier describing the atmosphere at the beginning of October: “People are moving about, some out of curiosity are running everywhere to see what a German soldier looks like. Others, seized with an exaggerated fear, magnify the merest event so much so if we were to believe them we would be going back to the worse events of the barbaric Antiquity”.

The Germans enter Menin on October 6 in the middle of the annual procession of the Rosary which is suddenly stopped while all its participants immediately go home, and the next day Mother Constant talks of a “Prussian deluge” when 30 000 soldiers parade in the streets. The next day, the Sisters witness the whistle passage of British soldiers shooting on a German patrol with a machine gun. The ambulance becomes German and the wounded are brought to the civilian hospital. The Sisters regret however not to have treated French soldiers. From this moment on, the house slowly turns into military barracks, because the Germans don’t stop requisitioning beds, and the Sisters’ life becomes hectic. Besides, the word “invasion” often comes back in their diaries and letters from this period. On October 18, more dead than alive, they witness a night visit of German soldiers threatening them and searching the house from top to bottom, believing them to hide French soldiers. There are incessant comings and goings of German soldiers who settle in the house’s courtyard with cars and often also with horses since there is no stable for them. These movements create an “indescribable” atmosphere for religious who usually live cloistered and rarely go outside.

They have described the incessant activity taking place in the courtyard, from the loading and unloading of the cars that are washed, scrubbed and polished, to the noisy repasts of the batmen, the hanging of meat on the yard’s columns by the cooks who more than once have to run after ducks that have escaped from the bugs they were kept in… Mother Le Mintier kept a thorough account of the soldiers lodged at the Cenacle between October 1914 and July 1917 which allows us to image the house bustling with activity. In all, she believes that 9200 militaries lived in it with a maximum in January and March 1915 with 1360 and 1280 of them… As time goes along, at each arrival of soldiers, the Sisters are forced to give up their rooms and to sleep in the corridor. They also have to give them sheets, blankets, wine and eggs. While struggling with food, they also face floods twice in January and December 1915 when the rise of the nearby river obliges them to pump… Drawing by Mother Le Mintier of Major Esser’s helmet in quarters in the Cenacle in the city of Menin

–  –  –

S. Elbisser, « The Cenacle during the First World War (1914-1918) », June 2009 General Archives of the Congregation of Our Lady of the Cenacle 4 Thanks to the lodging of soldiers, the Sisters pick up details on their living conditions at the front, especially in the trenches, and on the German troops’ gradual demoralization. In August 1915, the soldiers don’t want to go back to the living death of the front lines. The regular visits from the ones who have lodged at the Cenacle allow the Sisters to realize their living conditions. They also realize it when they see soldiers coming back from the horrors of the battle field: “Infantrymen, cyclists, ambulance drivers, we see all of them, passing wet with yellowish mud up to their waist, trudging rather than walking, with haven and haggard faces… it is an awful sight” writes Mother Le Mintier in December 1914. The battle of the Flanders rages at this time and the human losses are heavy. The gun-fires are incessant during the whole occupation, both during the day and at night, and the inhabitants live in the fear of being bombed in their bed. As writes Mother Le Mintier in February 1915, “everything goes on with the company of the cannon”. Mother Marie Choquet, the house superior, writes in a letter from November 22, 1914 that they have heard the cannon 26 days and 26 nights in a row, which gives an idea of their very difficult living conditions. But the soldiers continue to come and go regularly at the Cenacle until their departure that seems definitive in September

1915. The enclosure door is put back in its place but only for a short time because the barracks is reinstalled in January 1916 at the Sisters’ great distress who also witness with consternation the display of a board indicating “Soldatenheim” above the front door.

From this period on, the activity of the house increases, since on top of the soldiers they also accommodate around fifty girls to teach them catechism, more than a hundred adolescents and as many schoolboys and girls for retreats, which results in an “endless movement that makes one go dizzy”. So the German occupation clearly doesn’t prevent the congregation’s apostolic work which continues to be dynamic, and the Sisters manage to keep living a community life in particular thanks to the preaching of priests. The chapel is also used by the near-by secondary school for Sunday masses and first communions. However, the religious are constantly disturbed by the Germans who become more severe from 1916. They want to search the house for supplies, or ask for a list a all its inhabitants with their names and ages.

A military exercise in the courtyard

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