Hilary St George Saunders, The Left Handshake, 1948

Chapter IV


Scouting in Occupied Countries: Part Five — Belgium


The attack on Holland by the Germans was accompanied by a simultaneous onslaught upon Belgium, her next-door neighbour. For the second time in a generation this small but gallant nation, "the stoutest warriors in all Gaul," as Caesar, the first of the dictators to try conclusions with them, described them, found itself at bay against the troops of the most ignoble of his imitators. The campaign lasted eighteen days. At the end of it the country was overrun, and the British and French armies, which had come to its support, flung back, the first across the Channel, the second into their own country, there to disintegrate with a speed which appalled all Europe.

The small, hard-fighting Belgian army counted many Scouters within its ranks, and of these many were killed in the course of the brief but hard-fought campaign. Most of these had been of military age, but there were in Belgium many thousands of Scouts of all grades too young for active service, but constituting in their own persons the nation’s reserve of youth. Within a few hours of the outbreak of war, the Government, realising that Belgium would certainly become a battlefield, determined to send as many of these to safety as they could. They should go to France when, as they grew old enough, they would return to swell the ranks of the Belgian army. At the time this decision was taken, the imminent fall of Belgium’s great neighbour was undreamt of. On the 14th May a special Scout train left Brussels, every carriage filled with boys in uniform, cheerful and resolute. Some twelve hundred reached Montpelier in the south of France by this means. They were more fortunate than the remainder, who soon found themselves making for the same destination on foot, without food, money or shelter, all their possessions in a haversack upon their shoulders. But they were Scouts, and therefore able to take care of themselves. More than that, they could take care of others in that great stream of civilian refugees winding southwards with no clear journey’s end, filled with but one thought, to escape from the Germans. Along the Via Dolorosa the sound of singing would sometimes be heard. It came from the lips of Scouts, the Belgian boys who, "trusting in God and their own resources," strove each to do his duty. Around them were men and women in the last extremity of woe. It was for an occasion like this that the Scout Code had been promulgated. They set about fulfilling as literally as they could the Fourth Law—A Scout is a Friend to all. One Troop from Tournai worked without a break day and night for three days at a canteen cutting bread, carrying drinks, and leading to the rest centres an increasingly large number of refugees terrified by bombs.

Not all the Scouts went by road. In addition to those who had been sent away in the special Scout train, there were others who travelled on refugee trains, refusing to sit in the carriages, which they gave up to elderly folk and children, and crowding instead into the corridors and the guard’s van. One such train ran, near Calais, into a heavily-loaded goods train. The fourth and fifth coaches were telescoped, burying the survivors, but the Scouts jumped from the van just as the two trains met. Most of the passengers thought the accident was the result of an air raid and fled screaming from the line. They were met by resolute Scouts and Rovers who checked the panic, then returned to the train, calming the people and leading them away from the wreckage. For an hour the Scouts worked alone, two doctors discovered in the train being so panic-stricken as to be useless. The younger Scouts did their best to recover the luggage strewn in every direction and very precious, for they represented the only possessions of their owners; the older Scouts bore away the casualties, nursed the wounded, and carried off the dead. "They worked without respite, like automata in the rank smell of blood." Two ambulances presently arrived, but the driver of one of them made off. A Rover took his place, though he had never driven a car in his life. He brought the injured safely to hospital. Unshaken by this grim experience, this Troop of Belgian Scouts reached Paris, where they worked at the headquarters of the "Scouts de France" before joining the huge mass of refugees streaming through the southern gates of the capital.

The Belgian General Commissioner, Armand de Coninck, eventually established his headquarters at Toulouse, and in this town and round about it a small army of young Belgians, some 1,500 in number, began to collect. The older Scouts, belonging) as they did to the only disciplined organisation on the spot, had the task of looking after them, and were given the equivalent of commissioned rank. From the 5th to the 18th June the Belgians poured in. They were divided into fifty-four Companies, and 300 Scoutmasters with twenty chaplains took charge under the guidance of Baron Charley del Marmol, the Belgian International Commissioner. They arranged for billets, for rations, and above all for occupation, for many of the young men kicked against inactivity and found this enforced exile in a foreign land irksome and hardly to be borne. The Belgian Scouts taught the young men to "make and mend" and to scrub. Once a week their quarters were painted with creosote to destroy vermin. Their food was improved and better cooked. Sports were arranged and physical training classes, and there was a touch of ceremony, so important when dealing with human nature en masse. Each night the Belgian flag was saluted. Afterwards sing-songs, reminiscent of evenings round the camp-fire, were instituted, and the strains of harmonica and accordion filled the southern night.

All this was accomplished very quickly, but not without ascertain friction with the army authorities, who, however, finally realised the value of persons who, whatever their ages, knew the meaning of discipline and had a cheerful and quiet spirit. In General Orders published on the 13th June it was stated: "In principle the cadre of every Youth Company is composed of Boy Scouts. This arrangement has given good results and all efforts to alter it have failed. Wherever possible, it is to be extended and used."

By the time that order was published, the demeanour and bearing of the Belgian Boy Scouts had confounded their French hosts who had not been niggardly in the harshness in which they had criticised the Belgian surrender. Now, however, both French and Belgians were in the same boat and it was anchored, seemingly for good, in the harbours of the enemy. For a time the Belgian Boy Scouts contrived to carry on their life in Southern France. By then there were many small camps of them scattered round Provence in the neighbourhood of Montpelier, and from these they went out day by day and laboured in the vineyards, spraying the vines and digging the red earth. In August, on the orders of the Germans, they were sent back from the Occupied Zone of France to their own country, which they had left free but which was now "feeling the hardness of the German boot." Before quitting the soil of France they set up small monuments in the little sun-drenched villages of the South, to commemorate their short stay there and to thank their hosts. The return journey was sad, long and difficult. In the short space of a month France and Belgium had suffered terribly from war. Many roads and railways had been damaged or destroyed. Those that remained were cumbered with refugees returning home again, having failed to find safety in France. These were helped by the Scouts, one young Rover of eighteen succeeding in bringing back to Belgium several families of refugees and their luggage packed in a large furniture van.

At first, as in every other conquered country except Poland, the Germans behaved mildly, seeking to win over the population who, twice in a lifetime, had to support their armies, with fair words and kind deeds. To the Scouts, however, this period was exceedingly short-lived. A few months passed and then the Gestapo called upon the Scout leaders in Belgium and demanded detailed information regarding all Scouting activities. They were fobbed off with vague general statements, and the files containing what they sought were burnt or safely hidden. A demand for a detailed inventory of equipment, tents, camping grounds, dens, etc., was met by a flat refusal, and the Boy Scouts de Belgique, one of the three Scout Associations flourishing in that country, informed the Germans blandly that all their assets belonged to the Church. The inevitable happened. Scouting was forbidden except by permission. Outwardly the Belgian Scouts complied. "We gave up the uniforms and kept up the spirit."

As famine came to Belgium, following as it always does the footsteps of German armies, camps and " foyers" for undernourished children were organised, and these " afforded a personal channel to carry on Scouting on a large basis." One phenomenon was at once apparent. The numbers of Scouts rose steadily. In 1940 the three Associations, the Boy Scouts de Belgique, the Federation des Scouts Catholiques, and the Vlaamsch Verbond der Katholieke Scouts, numbered in all 17,780. In I94I this figure rose to 23,430, and in 1944, the year of the liberation, to 41,950, or more than double the figure for 1940. The reasons for this increase were the same as in other countries. Belgium was called upon almost immediately to endure a fierce and unjust persecution, and this produced the usual reaction in the hearts of the persecuted, a deep resentment and a determination to resist. An obvious outlet for the feelings was the Scout Movement; regarded in peace-time as a clean and pleasant pastime, it became in the years of occupation a vivid, and as the days went on, a dangerous manner of showing patriotism.

As a Youth Movement, Scouting inspired the confidence of all Belgian families, who saw in it a ready means whereby to form good citizens, and it naturally attracted, through the many social services it performed, boys anxious to do what they could to help the community. The disaster of two German invasions in so short a period forced the ordinary Belgian to think very carefully, to take stock of his life, as it were, and to determine that out of the grimness of the present, a better world would arise in the future. That world, however, had to be based on education and the training of character. Quid leges sine moribus ? Scouting contained both. Moreover, to join the Movement meant to hold acquaintance with danger, and what young man of spirit could resist such a lure? The largest single cause of the increase in membership was probably the attempt of the Germans to create a Youth Movement for their own purposes. This they sought to achieve through the Rexist Organisation built up by the traitor Degrelle, whose task it was to preach and practice the New Order. Their methods were as crude as their ideas, and they were the best recruiting agencies for the Scouts.

During the Occupation two leading principles guided the Scouting activities of Belgium. In the face of ever-growing material needs, the doing of good turns became of increasing importance. In each of the three Associations, therefore, Commissioners for Service were created whose duty it was to organise and co-ordinate the different ways in which Scouts could fulfil this duty. The most important of these were the "Camps des Jeunes," the camps for under-fed children already mentioned. They were organised mostly by Rovers and were attended by children between the ages of six and seventeen suffering from the effects of semi-starvation. Many of them were the sons and daughters of Belgian prisoners-of-war. The Scouts based these camps on their own experience of camping and acquitted themselves very well. Not only were the children provided with nourishment and fresh air, but also with the moral foundations of a good life. They learnt obedience, discipline and citizenship, and their religious sense was also developed. The Rovers divided the boys into Troops and set up a Patrol system. So successful were these camps in I94I that in I942 a greater effort was made. More than 350 boarding schools lent their premises and their staffs for August, and in that month 2I,OOO children were given a holiday. These were the worst cases of malnutrition. The less severe went to "open-air stations." To equip and provision the camps was a great problem, for no appeal could be made to the Germans, who were steadily tightening the screw. Through the Red Cross an agreement was concluded between the Belgian Government in exile in London and the Governments of Switzerland and Portugal, whereby a certain quantity of food for children was sent to Belgium. To enable it to reach that country the Allies lifted the blockade. The result of this timely measure of assistance, with which the Germans did not interfere, was that the weight of the average child at the camps increased by from four to six pounds.

Clothing was another difficulty. Thirty per cent of the 2I,OOO children frequenting the camps in I942 were shod only with slippers. They were provided with a kind of galosh with a wooden sole. Their discipline was bad for they were either orphans or their parents were too busy fighting the hard battle of existence to give them proper care and attention. This was provided by the Scouts, and in that year thirty-four camps were staffed wholly by them, notably those called after Prince Baudouin. In 1943 more camps were opened. Some were placed on a permanent footing, and the number of "open-air" stations was also increased. In that year fifty camps were handed over to the Scouts, and in others the proportion of Rovers in charge was very high. 1944 shewed no falling off, and in general it may be said that the efforts of the Belgian Scouts to care for the children of their country have had a permanent and most heartening effect.

Children were not the only section of the population helped by Belgian Scouts and Scouters. The Federation des Scouts Catholiques created a special sub-section of its Rover Branch called the Route des Hommes. This was not merely an association of former Scouts but was designed to attract men of all ages towards the movement and give them the moral help and succour of which they stood so much in need. The response was unexpectedly great and many men of forty and more began to adopt the Scout Law as the basis of their professional and family life. They took also to other Scouting activities, learned to cook over camp-fires and went hiking. " I myself have seen a doctor thirty-five years of age taking the Scout Oath. It was an impressive moment," writes a commissioner. A Flemish Scout Organisation paid particular attention to boys reaching puberty, for whom they made special provision.

It must not be imagined that all this work was allowed to continue unchecked or unhampered by the Germans. As has been said, they shewed the cloven hoof before 1940 was out, and on the 15th October that year they arrested all the Scoutmasters of Brussels, including the chaplain, and closed the headquarters. The chaplain, Father Schurman, was found guilty of distributing copies of Le Libre Belgique, the first of the clandestine newspapers, and was condemned to ten years’ hard labour. He was sent to a concentration camp, but survived it and returned in 1945. Having shown the iron hand, the Germans thrust it back again into the velvet glove and sought, through Leon Degrelle, head of the Walloon Fascist Movement, to win over the Scouts to their side. In an interview with Father Frencken, the Chaplain-General of the Federation des Scouts Catholique, Degrelle declared that he had the Scouts very much at heart but that they must conform to the New Order or be suppressed. On behalf of the Scouts their chaplain chose suppression. From that moment onwards it was war between the Germans and the Rexists on the one hand, and the Scouts on the other. In 1943 the Germans suppressed Scouting altogether. They forbade the wearing of uniform, the use of compass or maps, practicing the Morse Code, or walking in threes. These orders were disobeyed whenever possible, and generally the Germans appear to have been somewhat uncertain as to their course of action. In one town in Southern Belgium, for example, they arrested a number of young Scouts carrying a totem pole, which they confiscated, but a few days later gave it back. In Chimay, despite the efforts of the Rexist Burgomaster, the Scouts were able to maintain-their headquarters in the house.

The Scouts in Antwerp were always particularly active. In 1940 they had collected clothes, socks, underwear and shoes for Belgian soldiers, prisoners-of-war, their method being to go round the town in plain clothes—the Germans frowned on uniform—putting printed notices in the letter-boxes telling a householder that they would return on a certain day in the following week to collect a parcel. On collecting day handcarts were used, and "though the job was a hard one, we had a nice haul." Some weeks later they had carried out a similar operation, this time for the benefit of British prisoners-of-war. By then the Scouts of Antwerp had become determined to carry on their Scouting whatever obstacles might be placed in their way, and they sent a message to this effect to the King. That Christmas sweets and toys were collected for sick children in hospital, and it was during that winter that they began a mild form of resistance which was to culminate, before the war was ended, in full-scale operations with the Maquis. For some reason the Germans relented in I94I and the Scouts were allowed to put on their uniforms once more. Wearing these, they gained recruits, organised camps, and lying on their backs in the darkness, flashed the " V" sign in Morse to bombers of the Royal Air Force. " Our spirits rose whenever we heard the drone of R.A.F. engines." The national flag was displayed in secret—" I have seen women weeping at the sight of it." That winter their hearts were high Soon, however, the Germans became harsh again, and by then the quislings of Degrelle, known as " The Blacks" and hated even more than the Germans, were becoming a nuisance. Being forbidden to use maps or compasses, all the Antwerp Scouts could do was "to walk in the country and study flowers and plants," but nevertheless, when, with the greatest difficulty, the Association organised a national competition near Brussels, one of their Patrols, the Swallows, won the Challenge Cup.

By the end of 1943 their Troops were more than 500 strong and they had sent some hundred parcels each weighing ten pounds to prisoners-of-war, at a cost of over IO,OOO francs, no mean effort for Troops composed largely of the poorer elements of the population. They took an active part in the camps for under-nourished children, and in 1943 ran three containing 325.

On returning from them, two Patrols of Antwerp Scouts were arrested by the Blacks, beaten up, and spent some hours in gaol. This was the beginning of an intensified form of persecution and it soon became difficult for Scouts to show themselves in the streets, for the Hitler Jugend reinforced the Blacks and kept watch. Arrests became more frequent and were invariably followed by a brutal beating because the Scouts "refused to give the names of their officers." They were also offered the choice of joining the Rexist Organisation or the Hitler Jugend, and more than one, having refused to do so, was sent to a concentration camp. The Assistant Rover Leader of the 1st Antwerp Troop was especially brave and especially fortunate. One day he telephoned his Scoutmaster saying that "he had something of interest to show me. That interesting thing was a huge U.S.A. airman." The Rover had met three who had been shot down. He hid one of them for three days and put them all into touch with the organisation engaged on smuggling Allied airmen out of the country. The penalty for such work was death, and the Rover was subsequently arrested but escaped with a sentence of imprisonment. He was sent to a concentration camp and returned in July, 1945. His Scoutmaster made a practice of "going about the country to search for landing-places on which arms could be dropped." He helped seven British and U.S. airmen to safety, and his brother, the Scoutmaster of the 5th Antwerp Troop, "a champion and a hero," had sixty-five similar rescues to his credit. He was less fortunate than the others, for the Germans got wind of his activities, arrested him, and he died in a concentration camp in December, 1944. His son, a Patrol Leader, carried on his father’s work and by the time the Allies had landed, most of the elder Rovers of the Troop were in the Resistance, where "they fought like devils."

When V.E. Day came, the Scouts of Antwerp were 700 strong, with ten Troops. Their story is typical of the behaviour of Scouts in general throughout Belgium during the five years of occupation. All awaited the day of liberation, which they knew with a blind and touching faith would assuredly dawn. In the meantime there was work to be done, risks to be run. In general Scouts helping in Civil Defence were not interfered with, and they acted as fire-watchers, collected the dead, and carried messages. In this A.R.P. work they were a special source of comfort to the general population which, as the war progressed, was compelled to suffer to an increasing degree from Allied bombing attacks. "As it had conquered the children in the camps, so Scouting conquered the public during the bombing." Liege and Antwerp were the worst-bombed towns in Belgium, and after the liberation Antwerp suffered from a severe bombardment from flying bombs and rockets. By then Belgium was free and the Scouts were more active than ever. Here is an eye-witness account of how two of them behaved during Antwerp’s second ordeal.

"I saw one Scout of twelve apply a tourniquet to a person with a severed artery. A rocket had fallen a few streets away and the blast sent showers of glass down into the roadway. A woman on the opposite side of the road to where I stood fell to the ground bleeding profusely from the arm. Before I could reach her, a Scout dashed from a doorway, whipped off his scarf and in a flash had fashioned a tourniquet, using a pencil to apply the necessary pressure. Knowing the danger which can arise from keeping the pressure applied for too long a period, I questioned him on the point. He certainly knew his stuff, did that young Scout. Apart from his knowledge of first-aid, he also had grit. The casualty was not a pleasant sight, and I know many a grown man who would not have been able to tackle the job so effectively." The same witness saw two other young Scouts rescue a baby from a building so demolished by a flying bomb as to leave the " interiors exposed like the inside of a doll’s house."

In the Liege district fourteen regular members of a Rover Crew, of the average age of twenty-two, set up one of the first information sections. Under cover of their Scouting activities they spied on the enemy and sent frequent reports by radio to the Allies. As the war progressed, they became expert in picking up and hiding supplies dropped to the Resistance by parachute. All these Rovers, of whom half paid for their patriotism with their lives, lived " a tremendous adventure. " Six escaped eventually to England, and of these, five joined the parachute troops and the other became a fighter pilot. At one time or another, ten of them were in the hands of the Gestapo, and four in those of the Spanish police. Including the seven who were executed, twelve went to concentration camps. At the end of the war the Minister of National Defence awarded a special decoration to be sewn on the flag of this splendid Troop, a unique distinction of which Belgian Scouts are justly proud.

Throughout 1943 and the beginning of T944 fugitives from forced labour increased rapidly. They were hidden in the forests by groups of Scouts, which gradually formed a network all over the country. This network, spread as it was over the small but crowded country of Belgium, served not only to hide deserters but also Allied airmen, of whom the numbers increased steadily as the war progressed. The Scouts did all they could to help them. Pilots and crews of the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force, as they would be the first to admit, owe an immense debt to the Scouts of Belgium, who hid them and passed them on from one stopping-place to another till they were able to leave the country on the next stage of their long journey to freedom.

At last the great day of liberation dawned. The Guards’ armour was in Brussels, and on the 4th British tanks rolled into Antwerp. "We heard the sound of guns," writes a Scoutmaster of that city. " They were there. We could not believe it. I issued orders to every one available, ‘ Now for a fight in the open.’ I got on the road and heard a large noise far away. I rushed down the road and there is a huge Sherman tank. I ran like a madman. I climbed on to the tank and I asked ‘ American 7 ‘ I am answered, ‘ No, British."’ Soon British troops were everywhere in Brussels, in Antwerp, in Ghent, in all the lovely brick cities of Belgium, which for five long years had lain under the heel of a hated oppressor. In Antwerp they sang songs and drank wine. That night "a very merry, very drunk sergeant arrived at Scout headquarters saying he must get back to his unit but had no idea where it was. Asked if he could remember the district, he said, "If you could take me to a statue of a lady with a baby I shall know where I am." The Scouts thought for a long time, then light broke and they remembered the statue in a square of a coloured woman holding a baby in her arms, representing the fight against slavery in the Congo. So two young Scouts took an arm each and put the sergeant on his right way home. In Liege forty Scouts bethought themselves of the priceless volumes of the University library. The Germans in retreat had set fire to the central telephone exchange nearby and the firemen had only just succeeded in extinguishing the blaze. The water from their hoses must be damaging the books. They went to the University, emptied the library, working many hours to do so, and saved from grave, if not mortal injury, thousands of most valuable volumes.

But though freedom had come, the end of the war had not, and for the next eight months Belgian Scouts, wearing once more their uniforms, more than a little shabby, and in many cases ill-fitting, worked openly and proudly with their British liberators. In Brussels Rover Scouts served regularly as stretcher bearers in the hospitals for a period of six months from the middle of September, and were in charge of all movements of patients. Some were attached to the surgical wards and some to the X-ray department. They also performed many small services for the wounded, such as bringing them drinks, helping to undress, wash and shave them, and they tried "to give them some distractions." These took the form of organising games and concerts. Altogether the Rovers worked 37,000 hours in the hospitals, their day being divided into three shifts. In March, 1944, this service came to an end, for by then most of those maintaining it had entered the Belgian Army as volunteers.

Besides helping in the hospitals in Brussels, the headquarters of the Boy Scouts de Belgique became a very popular mixed club for Brussels Scouts and Guides and for their Allied guests. Entertainments took place there every night, besides folk dancing, choral singing, lectures and intensive Scout training. Here were made welcome British and Allied Scouts, Rovers and Rangers, and a special feature of the club was the camp-fire of a Saturday evening, when the traditional sing-song was held. The British found to their delight and amazement that their Belgian friends used English song-books and could sing many of the old favourites as well as, if not better than they could. Every evening closed with "Auld Lang Syne," sung in French.

Here in the great hall, with the Allied flags hanging from the roof and clothing the walls with colour, let us leave the gallant, long-suffering Scouts of Belgium singing with their friends from over the water who have come back again.

  Hilary St George Saunders, The Left Handshake, 1948
Chapter IV: Resolution. Scouting in Occupied Countries
Part One: Czechoslovakia and Poland
Part Two: Denmark and Norway
Part Three: Luxembourg
Part Four: Holland
Part Five: Belgium
Part Six: France
Part Seven: Greece, Yugoslavia and Hungary
Part Eight: Channel Islands and Countries Occupied by Japan
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