At the beginning of the war in 1940 the young Belgian people, who were soldiers on the front line, were asked to go to the South of France to be the reserve of the Belgian army. As we know their war finished after a few months, and they returned to Belgium, but they still wanted to help and many joined the Resistance Forces. After the liberation of Belgium in September 1944 they came to Northern Ireland to train, and these men were later to become the seed of the new post-war Army of Belgium.
When they first arrived in N. Ireland, several road signs were erected in French and Flemish to direct the soldiers to their respective camps. First to set foot in Belfast was Colonel B.E.M. Camille Louppe who was to be based in Milltown House at Lenaderg. Almost 4000 officers and men from the Belgian 4th Brigade, known as Steenstraete, were soon based in and around Banbridge, with the main contingent of the Brigade, billeted at Seapatrick. Others were based at Bells Hemstitching factory at Lenaderg. In Gilford, units of the 4th Brigade were also stationed at Gilford Castle, and on the present site of Bannvale Social Education Centre, as well as on the Stramore Road. All sites there were well wooded and located alongside the River Bann. The Gilford units travelled on the 14.30 p.m. Sunday afternoon train from Belfast, and arrived at the Madden Station shortly after three o’clock. It was six o’clock before they were eventually released to go to their respective camps. Local people were shocked to see these men, for many arrived in women’s clothes, others had few clothes at all and many were without shoes. From the way they broke and ate the bread they were given, it was apparent that they were starving and in need of food. These young Belgian men had been resistance or freedom fighters and had been found dug into the trenches in France and Belgium. They had been rescued by the British troops when they had invaded France for the second time. It was to be nearly three weeks before British Army uniforms were given to the Belgians to replace their own clothes. Much to our shame they were initially ripped off by some shopkeepers and others, who realised they had no concept of the British money, and a poor grasp of English. However they were soon befriended by many other families, and local people still have fond memories of the young Flemish lads waiting for the opportunity to liberate Europe from the Nazis. Locals grew fond of the mild-mannered soldiers more famous for their chocolates than for their aggression.
In Gilford their camps comprised of rectangular huts, capable of holding twenty to twenty-five men in sleeping bags. The huts also housed the officers, and their buildings were identical to those used by their men. The huts were also used for offices, shops, canteens, toilets etc. Some had piped water and electricity and were constructed with fires. At first the camps still resembled British or American camps, but gradually the décor became more to the taste of the Belgians themselves.
Although originally the 4th Brigade were volunteer soldiers, and not regular army, by the end of April each man in Gilford had undergone two observation tests, one maths test and one interview. Following this, the men were placed mainly with the workshop of the Royal Army Service Corps to prepare for military training. The young soldiers were also vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and typhoid.
Soon the 4th Brigade would be responsible for up to 600 vehicles – motors and motorcycles. During October the men also received a number of bicycles for their own use, but only after learning and being tested on the British Instructions which accompanied the bikes.
By Monday 16th April new orders were issued. Grades and numbers were given out, with details of the new Regiments and numbers. The Brigade received their National colours, and units were trained how to salute, how to address officers etc. Training was very intense. They were given keep-fit exercises, and training with and without the use of weapons. Morning and evening there was basic war theory to be learnt, as well as lectures on service to one’s country. Soon they began distance walks, drills, sport, and hill-climbs. Often the men marched in full battledress. All the camps had assault courses with obstacles.
The British uniforms were soon discontinued, and the men were measured locally for their new Belgian uniforms. Mail was very slow to arrive – not until April 1945, which was distressing for the men, but food was readily available at reduced rates from the N.A.A.F.I shops. The men in Gilford often found themselves being invited to many private houses, dance halls and family orientated functions, both Catholic and Protestant. They were always made very welcome, and in certain camps the welfare officers organised reciprocal parties to return the favours.
By early May their first period of instruction finished and a new one commenced. Now they were learning to speak and understand English and the Northern Ireland sayings, traits, and mannerisms. They constructed barricades and built and demolished many bridges across the River Bann and nearby Newry Canal. The men also started serious training in weaponry. They were instructed in the use of grenades, machine guns, bayonets, and the use and detection of land-mines.
By this stage victory in Europe had been won and the young soldiers were soon to return home. General Bucknall, British Military Commander for Northern Ireland visited the camps. A few days later they were visited by the former Belgian Minister of Defence, as well as four members of the Belgian House of Representatives, five members of the Belgian Senate and a number of journalists, photographers and interpreters.
In June 1945, a special service took place for all the Belgian troops, in Scarva Street Presbyterian Church in Banbridge. The Rev Walter W Harichal – Protestant Padre for the Belgian forces in Northern Ireland conducted the service in French. A number of civilians also attended and enjoyed the service. Mr Wm Cupples, organist, played the accompaniments for the French Hymns and the service concluded with the Belgian National Anthem.
Travel restrictions had now become more relaxed, and now the men were able to visit various parts of Northern Ireland and use trains and buses more freely. Visits were arranged to the Giant’s Causeway, Newcastle, Portrush, Enniskillen and many other places. However they were soon to receive the news they had been waiting for, they were to leave for England on 20th September 1945, eventually arriving home in Belgium on 13th November.
Gilford and the area around Banbridge, proved to be the corner stones of the new post war Belgian army as Europe was being rebuilt out of the ashes. In 1988 the chief of the modern Belgian army retired. He had been the young Colonel B.E.M. Camille Louppe who had been based at Lenaderg with the 4th Infantry Brigade during the war years.
Incidentally all the new Belgian army badges now include a shamrock, in honour of the Irish link to the new army. The 4th Brigade badge however, was unfortunately designed with a yellow shamrock. General Camille Louppe quickly had this changed, explaining “We could never return to Ireland with yellow shamrocks.”
The Belgians left an indelible impression on the people of Gilford and Banbridge, and until recently they returned each year to lay a wreath on the local cenotaphs, and to meet up with old friends.