Belgians honor WWII soldiers who liberated their town
November 13, 2003
OUDENAARDE, Belgium — Eighty-five years ago, two U.S. Army divisions helped liberate a swath of Belgium from its German occupiers.
On Tuesday, the people of Oudenaarde, a city freed during battles that stretched to Armistice Day, honored the soldiers who fired some of the final shots of World War I.
“We are grateful for what happened between 1914 and 1918,” ceremony organizer Jean-Pierre D’Beweer said. “We hold this ceremony every five years for representatives of all the nations who helped us.”
More than 2,600 American soldiers were killed during the Ypres-Lys offensive, which had pushed into Oudenaarde by Nov. 11, 1918, the day hostilities ceased and an armistice was declared. Veterans Day is meant to allow people to give thanks on the anniversary of the cease-fire.
In mid-October 1918, Gen. John J. Pershing dispatched Ohio’s 37th Division and New York’s 91st Division to help the French army drive east from Ghent, Belgium. A general attack began Oct. 31 and continued intermittently until hostilities ended on Nov. 11. More than 4,500 Americans died in Belgium alone during the war.
The town of about 30,000 residents is 46 miles west of Brussels. It devotes itself entirely toward the Veterans Day events, hosting a military parade to several monuments to the 1918 offensive. One monument to American soldiers was erected and is cared for by the American Battlefield Monuments Commission. Belgian monuments honor Belgian, French and British forces who participated in the battles.
During the ceremonies Tuesday, American, French and British military and city representatives laid wreaths at the monuments.
“Eighty-five years ago, the guns fell silent on this place after four years of war,” said Brenda Schoonover, the American charge d’affaires to Belgium. “Today, this place has a direct connection to all American soldiers and their families.”
The city lies in the East Flanders province, a name familiar to many Americans because 368 World War I soldiers are buried in Flanders Field American Cemetery nearby. During the ceremony Tuesday, some Belgian students read the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by Maj. John McCrae.
The U.S. Air Forces in Europe band played several pieces and marched with Belgian troops and a local color guard around the town’s main square and its vintage 1500 city hall. The 37th Transportation Command’s color guard and firing squad from Kaiserslautern, Germany, also participated.