Close to a century of charitable support in Brussels!
(Nearly) 100 years of the Royal British Legion in Brussels:
The people and events that shaped our story
The British Legion was created on 15 May 1921, bringing together four ex-servicemen’s associations after the First World War. Its mission today is the same as it was then: providing financial and emotional support to members and veterans of the British armed forces, their families and dependants, whenever or wherever that help is needed.
After its formation, local branches of the Legion quickly began to spring up all over Britain – but also overseas. The Brussels branch, created in May 1922, was one of eight established in Belgium (Antwerp, Ypres, Mons, Ostend, Ghent, Knokke and Alost were the others). Three – Brussels, Antwerp and Ypres – are still going strong today.
In the years since its formation, men and women from all walks of life and ages have served the Brussels branch. Come rain or shine, they have organised and attended countless commemorations to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice. They have also raised considerable sums through the Poppy Appeal to help those who came home but who in many cases faced severe economic hardship, as well as long-term physical and mental scars.
In an era when the word “hero” is all-too-easily bestowed, the Brussels branch can take pride in its association with distinguished figures such as Battle of Britain pilot Group Captain Peter Townsend CVO DSO DFC, Lieutenant Colonel George Starr DSO MC of the Special Operations Executive, globe-trotting spy Captain Norman Dewhurst MC, Colonel Jean Bloch of the Brigade Piron, Major Freddie Townsend OBE of the Royal Marines 30 Assault Unit, and Colonel François Roberti-Lintermans.
But the names that crop up most often in this history tend to belong to a more unsung variety – the hands-on members and supporters who do the unglamorous but vital organising, visiting, collecting, ferrying, phoning, minute-taking, tea-making, and more. In short, the volunteers beavering away behind the scenes and without whom a branch cannot function.
A full list of those who have served the branch with distinction is impossible but would surely include H.F. Westmacott, George Menhinick, W. McKeown, Charles Haldane, Ernest-William Briscoe, William Parker Wrathall, Lionel Grigson-Page, Léon Gyssels, J.R. Calastreme, Roger Galère, the Reverend Philip Moore, Dr Paul Maurice, Kenneth H. Ross, Albert Harris, V.L.J. Snutsel, Douglas Cooper, Peter Ashburner, Michael Hunter, Alan Thorniley, Mike Craster, George Lapthorn, Kerry Woodrow, Earle Nicoll, Douglas Harrison, Harry More, Reg Whitburn, Peter Allen, John Chotteau, Daphne Chotteau, Alf Woodward, Claire Whitfield, Dédée Cooper, Yvonne Sayer, Maureen Van Tiggelen, Simone Nossent, Monette Johnson, Len Oddie, Andrew Fisher, Ed Read Cutting, Paul Boorman, Arthur Empringham, Michael Rose, Fernand Delcourt, Myriam Wraith, Colin and Brenda Puplett, Alan Puplett, Mark Thomas, Ron Aston, Andrée Ferrant, Jean-Pierre Pede, Kate Andrews and Darren Bone.
Perhaps no-one better typifies the spirit of dedication than Normandy veteran Eric Johnson, who served as the branch’s Standard Bearer for a remarkable 56 years.
This is the story of the people who shaped the Brussels branch over the course of a century.
We will remember them.
Founding of the Brussels branch
After the end of the First World War, the British community in booming Brussels rapidly expanded. Inspired by the launch of Legion branches in Antwerp and Paris, a group of serving British officers including Major W.D. Saxon, Captain H.F. Westmacott, Captain Needham, Captain Robson, Captain Butler and Captain Gladwin Baillie formed the Brussels branch on 17 May 1922. Captain Westmacott was elected as the branch’s first President.
On 2 December 1922, the branch opened its first premises at 13 Rue du Berger with a reception attended by British Ambassador and Honorary President Sir George Grahame, the tallest man in the Diplomatic Service. Other guests included Adolphe Buyl, Mayor of Ixelles, Colonel F. Lyon, British Military Attaché, Colonel Maltèse, Italian Military Attaché, George Vaxelaire, Polish Consul-General, and Colonel Aerts of the Ypres League. The Ambassador wished the branch “long life and prosperity”, with the members responding with three cheers and a rousing rendition of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”. Le Soir reported that the inauguration was “simple, rapid and cordial, as all English ceremonies”. In the evening the branch held what it called a “smoking concert”.
Captain H.F. Westmacott, the branch's first President picture left in La Nation Belge on 4 September 1923 and (right) with British Legion members paying their respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Le Soir on 5 November 1923
Visit of the Prince of Wales
The Prince of Wales and future Edward VIII met Brussels branch members on 28 April 1923. The Prince, who had earlier unveiled the British Monument in Rue de Quatre Bras, visited the branch HQ in Rue du Berger, accompanied by Field Marshal Earl Haig, Rear-Admiral Sir Lionel Helsey, British Ambassador Sir George Grahame, Général André de Jonghe d’Ardoye and British Military Attaché Colonel (later Major General) Henry Needham. Newspaper reports recount that 200 members were present and the Prince greeted each with a “vigorous handshake”. The members shouted “Hip Hip Hurrah” and, spotting a photographer present, the Prince gathered them around him to capture the memorable moment. Afterwards, the Prince of Wales met Prince Victor Napoleon and his wife Princess Clémentine of Belgium. Earl Haig, British commander at the Battle of the Somme and Passchendaele, was one of the founders of the British Legion and its President until his death in 1928.
Branch President Capt H.F. Westmacott and member Captain Appleby attended the second annual congress of FIDAC(Fédération Interalliée Des Anciens Combattants / Interallied Veterans’ Federation), which took place in Brussels from 1-8 September 1923. The British delegation was led by Colonel George R. Crosfield DSO TD, Vice-President of FIDAC and Vice-President of the British Legion. Col Crosfield commanded the 14th South Lancashire Regiment, the 2nd Suffolk Regiment and the 10th Royal Welsh Fusiliers in the First World War. Despite losing a leg at the Battle of St Eloi Craters, he went on to command the 7th Reserve Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment before being commissioned as an observer in the Royal Air Force in 1918. After the Armistice, he joined the Comrades of the Great War but, recognising the need for a national ex-servicemen’s league, helped persuade the members to merge with the British Legion. He was President of FIDAC from 1925-26. The British delegation to the congress also included Major General Arthur Sandbachand Liverpool MP Major Brunel Cohen. Severely wounded at the Third Battle of Ypres, Cohen had a long association with the Legion, serving as national Honorary Treasurer from 1921-30, Vice-Chairman from 1930-1932, and again as Honorary Treasurer until 1946.
What Every Woman Knows
The branch organised a performance of J.M. Barrie’s play What Every Woman Knows at the Théâtre du Marais on 3 March 1924. Held under the patronage of Queen Elisabeth, the evening raised funds for charitable works by the Queen and the British community. Tickets were available from W.H. Smith & Son, 78 rue du Marché aux Herbes, the Westminster Foreign Bank, 2-4 rue Treurenberg, and the British Chamber of Commerce, 440 rue du Trône.
Household Cavalry memorial
Capt H.F. Westmacott represented the branch at the inauguration of the Household Cavalry memorial at Zandvoorde on 4 May 1924. Nearly 300 men from the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, as well as the Horse Guards, fought to the last man as they were over-powered during a fierce German attack on the village on 30 October 1914. The monument was unveiled by Field Marshal Earl Haig. Baron Léon Janssens de Bisthoven, Governor of West Flanders, Général-Major O. Préaux, Commandant of West Flanders, René Colaert, Mayor of Ypres, and Col Henry Needham, British Military Attaché, also attended the ceremony.
On 5 March 1925, Belgian King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth attended a gala evening organised by the branch’s drama club at the Théâtre Royal du Parc. The highlight was a performance of Secrete, a play by Rudolf Besier and May Edginton. Prime Minister Georges Theunis attended the second performance on 6 March.
Vive la France
Branch President Major H.F. Westmacott took part in a banquet held by the Society of French officers in Belgium on 28 March 1925. Toasting his hosts, Maj Westmacott said British officers would always be proud to fight alongside their French counterparts. The guests included Colonel (later General and Baron) Victor van Strydonck, who commanded the last cavalry charge in western Europe on 19 October 1918 and formed the Free Belgian Forces in Britain in 1940.
Veterans of the 16th (Irish) Division gathered in Brussels on 24 August 1926 after the inauguration of a monument commemorating their capture of Wytschaete during the Battle of Messines in 1917. Major H.F. Westmacott represented the branch at a reception organised by Le Cercle Gaulois. The Irish delegation included Colonel Sir Robert Tate, a Professor at Trinity College, and Colonel Sir William Taylor CB KBE, chair of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.
Visit of ‘Old Contemptibles’
Major H.F. Westmacott and Freddy Vandewiele, President of the Fédération Nationale des Combattants (F.N.C.), greeted 225 British veterans at Gare du Nord on 10 November 1927. The group of Old Contemptibles, as members of the 1914 British Expeditionary Force were known (Kaiser Wilhelm II described them as a “contemptible little army”), were visiting Belgium for a battlefield pilgrimage. The party included three recipients of the Victoria Cross.
The first sounding of Last Post took place on 1 July 1928 at the Menin Gate in Ypres (Ieper), a year after the inauguration of the memorial commemorating 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were lost with no known grave in western Flanders. A daily ceremony took place for four months and the ceremony was reinstated in spring 1929 when four silver bugles were donated by the Brussels and Antwerp branches of the Legion.
From 11 November 1929, the Last Post has been sounded every night except during the German occupation in the Second World War. The bugles were replaced in 1992. Eight new bugles were presented to the Last Post Association by the Royal British Legion in July 2007. During the Covid lockdowns in 2020-21, a lone bugler sounded the Last Post.
On 4 August 1928, Major Brunel Cohen MP laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Tombeau du Soldat Inconnu) in Brussels. Welcomed by members of the branch, Major Cohen was in Belgium to take part in a battlefield pilgrimage. He was joined at the ceremony by Dame Florence Simpson, the senior female British Army officer during the First World War, Major General Sir William Hickie, and Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen, counsellor (and future Ambassador) at the British Embassy.
Major Brunel Cohen laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in August 1928. Reproduced with kind permission from the Royal Library of Belgium.
On 14 March 1929 Le Soir carried an advertisement from the British Legion for a barman at its headquarters (“connaissance anglaise nécessaire”), with references to be sent to L.R. Gyssels, 100 ave Ducpétiaux.
New President Lieutenant George Menhinick RNVR represented the branch at the first annual meeting of the commercial circle of ex-officers on 7 December 1929. L’Indépendance Belge commented that the same spirit of comradeship and brotherhood among those who were officers and now occupied positions in the business world was evident to all at the event in the garrison officers’ mess.
Mac in charge
Captain W. McKeown took over as President in 1930 and was invited to represent the branch at the second annual meeting of the commercial circle of ex-officers on 3 December 1930. Guests at the event, hosted by Henri de Saedeleer, included Lieutenant General Baron Herman Baltia and Roger Marie d’Avigneau, Secretary-General of FIDAC.
The Brussels branch was incorporated by Belgian Royal Charter (No. 0408.497.187) as a non-profit association on 26 August 1931. The official document was signed by new branch President Lieutenant Colonel Charles Haldane CMG DSO, former commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Gurkha Rifles, George Menhinick, company director and former President, Ernest Cuthbert, newsagent, and James Edward Watson, accountant.
Haldane was awarded the CMG (Companionship of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George) for leading a lightning raid on 12 February 1915 against Turkish forces at Tor on the Sinai Peninsula. The enemy lost nearly 100 men in the dawn attack and Haldane’s men returned with more than 100 prisoners, including a major, and 20 camels. Haldane’s war record was blemished, however, by a costly defeat at the first Battle of Ramadi (8-13 July 1917) during the Mesopotamian campaign in what is now Iraq.
Lt Col Charles Haldane represented the branch at the annual meeting of the commercial circle of ex-officers on 2 December 1931. The attendees included Count Charles de Romrée de Vichenet, envoy representing the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Belgian Defence Minister Léon Dens – who was sadly killed in 1940 during the Blitz when the Belgian government in exile was based in London.
A framed photograph offered to the branch by King Albert was erected at the headquarters during a ceremony hosted by Lt Col Charles Haldane on 23 February 1932. Among those present were General Raoul Pontus, chairman of the Belgian section of FIDAC, and British military attaché Major William Fraser DSO MC.
Captain W. McKeown represented the branch at a reception organised by the National Federation of War Volunteers on 3 July 1932 to honour the sacrifice of Belgians who joined up in 1914. Some 13,000 fell on the “field of honour”. Capt McKeown’s speech was greeted with a spontaneous rendition of “God Save The King”.
The Amicale des officiers de la campagne 1914-18 held their annual Armistice dinner on 11 November 1932, hosted by Count Adrien Vander Burch. Branch President Lieutenant Colonel Charles Haldane represented the Legion.
Mars et Mercure
Lt Col Charles Haldane was a guest at the annual banquet of the ex-officers’ business association, now known as “Mars et Mercure”, on 7 December 1932.
British and Belgian veterans played a keenly contested football match at Anderlecht’s stadium on 17 December 1932, in front of a large crowd. A wreath was laid before kick-off in memory of the Anderlecht players who did not return from the war. The game ended in a 2-1 victory for the “home” team. British Ambassador Lord Granville GCMG GCVO PC and branch President Lt Col Charles Haldane were among the spectators.
President Lt Col Charles Haldane and his predecessor Capt W. McKeown took part in a ceremony at Uccle on 26 March 1933 to honour the dedication of nursing staff during the First World War. A marble memorial was unveiled at the Institut de Deux Alice by
Baron de Rosée, President of the 13th Field Artillery Regiment veterans, and Countess Maria van den Steen de Jehay, who ran the “Elisabeth Hospital” in the château D'Hondt at Poperinge. By the end of the war, the hospital was so badly damaged it had to be demolished.
Following an appeal by the British Legion, the Belgian government agreed to preserve First World War battlefield sites. According to a report in Le Soir on 7 April 1933, the sites would include Essex Farm, the craters left by mines detonated at Wytschaete-Messines, Triangle Farm (Battle of Langemarck), and Ploegsteert Wood, as well various pill-boxes, bunkers and other positions from which the British troops displayed “bravery without equal”.
The annual cricket match between the British Legion and Brussels British Sports Club took place at the Royal Racing Club in Uccle on 21 July 1934. We’re stumped for the result!
Meeting with Hitler
The Legion’s role in diplomatic efforts to promote peace and internationalism in the 1930s received considerable attention at the time. For example, Belgian media reported on a visit to Berlin on 15 July 1935 by national Chairman Major (later Brigadier) Francis Fetherston-Godley OBE and a delegation including Colonel George Crosfield, Major Brunel Cohen and Captain M.A. Hawes, former Naval Attaché in Berlin. They met Adolf Hitler, his deputy Rudolf Hess, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring, SS chief Heinrich Himmler, and Reich Ambassador Joachim Van Ribbentrop (video). They also visited Dachau concentration camp. The contacts were endorsed by the Legion’s patron, the Prince of Wales, who told its annual conference in June: “There could be no more suitable body or organisation of men to stretch forth the hand of friendship to the Germans than we ex-servicemen who fought them in the Great War.”
Return of FIDAC
In September 1935 the branch was represented when Brussels again hosted the annual congress of FIDAC (Interallied Veterans’ Federation). A British Legion proposal to allow former enemies to join the body was rejected. FIDAC hosted an annual shooting contest at the Tir National range in Brussels and erected a memorial in Liège in 1938. The organisation folded after the outbreak of the Second World War but its work was continued by the World Veterans Federation, founded in 1950. The Royal British Legion is a member of the WVF.
New branch President Captain Ernest-William Briscoe joined British Ambassador Sir Esmond Ovey, Field Marshal Lord Milne, former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Colonel Frank Higginson, Deputy Controller of the Imperial War Graves Commission in central Europe, at a commemoration ceremony in Mons on 3 November 1935. The event was attended by Prince Charles, Count of Flanders, brother of King Leopold III, and Albert Devèze, Belgium’s Minister of Defence.
Farewell to Cavell’s friend
The Brussels branch was strongly represented on 10 February 1936 at the funeral of Ada Bodart, who helped smuggle British soldiers out of Belgium during the First World War. Court-martialed with her friends, the British nurse Edith Cavell and Brussels architect Philippe Baucq, Bodart was initially condemned to death but her sentence was later commuted to penal servitude. Bodart portrayed herself in Dawn, a 1928 film featuring Sybil Thorndike as Cavell. Austen Chamberlain, then British foreign minister, felt the film promoted anti-German sentiment and refused to see it, prompting Bodart to return her OBE and give up her British pension.
Return of ‘Old Contemptibles’
Captain Ernest-William Briscoe greeted 36 British veterans at Gare du Nord on 9 November 1936. The “Old Contemptibles” paid their respects at the grave of their patron Ada Bodart in Evere and left flowers in memory of Edith Cavell at St Gilles Prison. They were hosted at the British Garrison officers’ mess. A banquet in the veterans’ honour was attended by members of the branch including Capt Briscoe, Major William Parker Wrathall, Capt Charles Collins and Capt Drew Clifton
Major W.P. Wrathall
Meeting with Mussolini
La Libre Belgique reported on a meeting in Rome on 15 April 1937 between Benito Mussolini and Legion national Chairman Major Francis Fetherstone-Godley, who urged the Italian leader to overcome strains in the relationship between Britain and its Great War ally.
Captain Ernest-William Briscoe and Major William Parker Wrathall led a delegation of branch members welcoming British veterans on a visit to Brussels on 8 November 1937. Julia Lemonnier, widow of Baron Maurice Lemonnier, the former MP and Mayor of Brussels deported to Germany in the First World War, hosted a dinner for the veterans. On 9 November, Sgt Major Larmer, leading the group, laid a poppy wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The party visited the Tir National, site of Edith Cavell’s execution, and the Royal Crypt at Laeken to pay their respects at the tombs of King Albert and Queen Astrid.
The British Legion team won the annual shooting competition at the Tir National for veterans from countries affiliated to FIDAC on 13 November 1937. The American Legion came second, with the Belgian veterans third.
Cercle Royal Gaulois
The branch hosted its traditional visit from members of the Cercle Royal Gaulois on 5 April 1938. The branch was represented by President Capt Ernest-William Briscoe, Major William Parker Wrathall, Capt Charles Battersby (secretary), the Reverend Philip Moore (chaplain), the Reverend F. Devereux and Capt Charles Collins. The visiting delegation was led by Louis Lagasse de Locht, Director-General of the Belgian Ministry of Labour.
Red card in Brussels
Efforts to promote peaceful relations with Hitler’s Germany were not restricted to military associations. On 14 May 1938 some 115,000 spectators packed into Berlin’s Olympic Stadium for an international friendly between Germany and England. The home team gave the Nazi salute – and the England players followed suit, on the orders of the Football Association and Foreign Office. Stanley Matthews, the Cristiano Ronaldo of his day, later claimed that “all the England players were livid and totally opposed to this”. England won the match 6-3. During the Second World War, Matthews served in the Royal Air Force. While famously never booked on the pitch, Matthews got the red card from the RAF’s Special Investigation Branch when he was caught trying to sell black market coffee during a visit to Brussels for a friendly match in March 1945. He was arrested with his accomplice, fellow England international Stan Mortensen, but the matter was quietly kept under wraps until 2010.
Sir Stanley Matthews's monument in Stoke-On-Trent. Image by Basher Eyre / Creative Commons
General at Berchtesgaden
The Brussels media featured extensive coverage of a meeting at Berchtesgaden on 5 August 1938 between Adolf Hitler and General Ian Hamilton, President of the Legion’s Scottish section, accompanied by several veterans. The mission sought to promote peace among the “brotherhood of the trenches”.
Legion police force
Following the “peace for our time” Munich Agreement on 30 September 1938, allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proposed the creation of a British Legion Volunteer Police Force to help keep peace in the Czech region, where a referendum was due to be held. The 1,000 strong unarmed force, commanded by national Chairman Major Sir Francis Fetherston-Godley, was formed on 6 October 1935 but disbanded 10 days later when the referendum was cancelled. Only three members of the force travelled to Prague in an advance party that flew via Brussels.
Reception for ‘Old Contemptibles’
Brussels hosted a third visit by veterans from the “Old Contemptibles on 8-9 November 1938. Major William Parker Wrathall and the Rev Philip Moore represented the British Legion at a dinner hosted by Major-aviateur Marchal and Louis Lagasse de Locht, chair of the reception committee. 9 November 1938 would later be remembered for the infamous Nazi Kristallnacht when scores of Jews were murdered during attacks on homes, stores and synagogues across Germany.
The branch welcomed a 150-strong delegation of the Grenadier Guards Comrades Association to Brussels on 8 April 1939. The guards, cheered by large numbers of the public and described in Le Soir as “tous de grands et beaux types”, paid their respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and British memorial, executing the commands “avec la minutie et la précision caractéristique des Tommies”. Lieutenant Colonel C.R. Britten, commanding officer of the Grenadier Guards, also laid a poppy wreath at the Prince Albert Barracks. Branch President Major William Parker Wrathall DSO MC (also President of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium), Capt Ernest-William Briscoe, former branch President, Mr Lloyd Evans and Mr Deeks represented the British Legion. Colonel André Van Sprang, commanding officer of the Belgian 1st Regiment of Grenadiers, hosted a “lunch of honour” at the barracks for the visitors, who included British Military Attaché Lieutenant Colonel Blake.
Image from La Libre Belgique, published on 27 January 1939
Branch members took part in a ceremony organised by Belgian veterans from the Army of the Rhine (F.A.A.R) on the Place Du Roi Vainqueur, Etterbeek, on 11 June 1939. The British Legion was represented by Major William Parker Wrathall, who was joined by his French counterpart, Maxime Gaston.
Branch members took part in a ceremony on 20 August 1939 at Casteau-lez-Mons to mark where the first artillery shell was fired in the First World War by the British Expeditionary Force, 25 years earlier. Corporal Ernest Thomas MM of the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards was reported to be the first British soldier to fire his weapon in anger against an enemy on the European continent since 1815. The British contingent at the ceremony was led by Brigadier General R.L. Mullens CB DSO, who was in overall command of the attack, Major Charles Hornby DSO, who led a cavalry charge against German lancers, and British Military Attaché Lieutenant Colonel Blake. General Louis-Henri-Paul Termonia, head of Belgium’s civil defence, represented King Leopold III. Within a fortnight, Britain was at war with Germany again.
Death of President
The branch was sad to learn of the untimely death of former President and Chairman Captain Ernest-William Briscoe in Uccle on 17 February 1940. Aged just 51, Briscoe was also President of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium and Director of the Lloyds and National Provincial Foreign Bank in Brussels.
La Libre Belgique reported on 17 April 1940 that British Legion members and scouts in Britain were joining forces to collect old newspapers and books for recycling. Proof that the Legion was a green pioneer!
The hidden standard
Belgium was forced to surrender on 28 May 1940 after 18 days of bitter fighting ended in the country’s occupation by enemy forces and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk. The Brussels branch – all Belgian nationals by then – kept the British Legion standard safely under wraps for more than four years.
Support for Jewish refugees
Several Belgian newspapers published a controversial interview on 18 March 1941 with Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Lane, author of The Alien Menace and a member of the Imperial Fascist League. In the piece, entitled “Les Juifs s’enrichissent de l’argent de la British Légion”, Lane alleged that funds raised by the Legion’s Poppy Appeal were being used to support Jewish refugees. Today, the Legion’s prescient action, at a time when most were unaware of the unfolding horror of the Holocaust, would be a cause for congratulation.
The Brussels branch has a long association with the Brigade Piron, the lynchpin of the Free Belgian Forces in Britain. 2,200 members of the Brigade, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Baptiste Piron, landed at Courseulles in Normandy on 7 August 1944 and fought their first action at Sallenelles at the start of “Operation Paddle” to clear the Channel Coast. Aged 20, Édouard Gérard was killed by mortar fire during the battle at Sallenelles – the youngest Belgian volunteer to lose his life.
Brigade Piron flash
Advance sections of the British Guards Armoured Division entered Brussels via the Avenue de Tervuren around 8pm on 3 September 1944, after covering more than 120km in a day. The Division, commanded by Major General Allan Adair, was joined soon after by the 1st Infantry Brigade of the Free Belgian Forces, commanded by Lt Col Jean-Baptiste Piron. The British and Belgian troops took part in a liberation parade in the city the following day amid scenes of huge jubilation.
La Dernière Heure reported – in English – about an “informal house-warming” on 3 October 1944 in the new headquarters of the British Legion at 82A rue Veydt, Ixelles. “Old Legionnaires now in Brussels are desired to get in touch either with Mr L.R. Gyssels, chairman of the Brussels branch of the B.L. or with Captain J.F. Davis,” said the notice. The same report also stated that British Ambassador Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen would open the “Wesley House” canteen and reading room in the Methodist Church at 5 rue du Champ de Mars, Porte de Namur, on 5 October.
Tir National memorial
Members of the branch, accompanied by British and US officers, took part in a ceremony on 8 October 1944 to pay their respects to civilians executed during the occupation. Cardinal Archbishop Jozef-Ernest van Roey, a steadfast opponent of Nazism, conducted a service at the Tir National, in front of an altar where the monument to Edith Cavell had stood until the Germans ordered its removal. The ceremony was attended by Charles, the Prince Regent, Queen Elisabeth, Colonel Louis Louveau, President of the Union des Fraternelles (U.F.A.C.), and Arthur Dejase, Mayor of Schaerbeek.
Standard flies again
A photograph published on the front pages of Le Soir and La Dernière Heure on 19 October 1944 showed committee members proudly showing their British Legion standard which had been kept hidden during the occupation. Branch President Léon Gyssels MC, who served with the 28th County of London Battalion (Artists’ Rifles) in the First World War, and Vice-President Captain J. F. Davis, 13th Gloucestershire Regiment, welcomed British Ambassador Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen to the branch’s new premises, and he accepted their invitation to become patron. The members thanked him by singing “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”.
The 'Hidden' Standard
Coupe British Legion
A football match on 28 October 1944 between Royal Léopold and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) ended in a 2-1 victory for the “visitors” who lifted the “Coupe British Legion”.
For the first time since the start of the war, Belgian boy scouts and guides took part in the Poppy Day appeal on 11 November 1944. “By wearing a poppy, Belgians will express their gratitude to their liberators,” reported La Dernière Heure.
Festival of Remembrance
The Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force organised a Festival of Remembrance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts on 11 November 1944, which took place at the same time as the ceremony in London. Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth was among the dignitaries at the event, which was opened by members of the British Legion and Chelsea Pensioners, wearing their famous scarlet tunics and tricorn hats. To the accompaniment of marches played by the band of the Life Guards and Scots’ pipers, the Legion delegation was followed on stage by detachments from the Royal Navy, including Belgian and Dutch sections, the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and nurses. The Army was represented by infantry, cavalry, paras, nurses and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). It was then the turn of the RAF to parade. Instead of music, they played a recording of a squadron commander giving orders over his radio during a raid on Berlin. The large audience cheered all the detachments at length. The moving occasion ended with hymn singing led by the chaplains of the three services.
The branch hosted a gala under the patronage of the British Ambassador at the Palais des Beaux-Arts on 16 December 1944. Proceeds from the event were shared between the branch, the Red Cross and 1st Belgian Brigade. Music was provided by the 1st Battalion East Lancashire Regiment dance band, opera singer Yetty Martens and Le Cercle Musicale des Amateurs with M. Barbier.
In the months after the liberation, hundreds of British servicemen were based in Brussels – and no small number ended up marrying local women and joined the branch. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Carrington MC, later Professor of History at Cambridge University, captured the atmosphere in his book Soldier At Bomber Command: “Brussels is less gloomy than Paris: there are trams, dim street lights, and cafes. In the brasseries, hundreds of Tommies, Belgian girls and bon-bourgeois families enjoy the singing. The girls have better stockings and worse shoes than English girls. They talk broken English better than the soldiers talk broken French.”
Eric Johnson (left) and friend in 1944. Eric would go on to become one of the branch legends
Love at the 21
Branch member Claire Whitfield (née Stroobant) was 18 when she met her husband-to-be, Flight Sgt Stanley Whitfield. She was out walking her dog near the Prince Baudouin barracks in Schaerbeek when she spotted the handsome young RAF man climbing down from a truck. “It was love at first sight,” she recalled. In the days after the liberation “young people had a lot of catching up to do”. Stanley would take Claire to the 21 Club, a British forces dance venue in Rue d’Assaut. The couple married at Holy Trinity in Rue Crespel on 18 May 1946.
(Image left) An 18 year old Claire with Stanley Whitfield who met after the liberation of Brussels in 1944. (Image right) Claire and Stanley at their wedding on 18 May 1946 at Holy Trinity, Rue Capitaine Crespel
Charge it to Churchill!
Mary Blood (née Pettit), of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), captured the heady atmosphere in Brussels in early 1945 for the BBC WW2 People's War archive. The city was packed with Allied troops on leave from the front. Their priorities were “a haircut, a bath, good meal, a pint, and evening entertainment – so the city was lively indeed”. While Mary’s billet at the Prince Baudouin barracks in Schaerbeek was “very unwelcoming”, Brussels offered no shortage of compensations for Allied personnel. “Entrance to clubs, theatres, concerts, opera house, etc. was free, as were the trams and trains. ‘Charge it to Churchill!’ was the cry. Meals in the clubs were cheap, and there were things we in England had never seen for years – thanks to Americans. My first visit to the A.E.F. [Allied Expeditionary Force] Club got me a cream tea – scones, cream, jam, tea, for 1/- (5p/5 cents).”
Mary was in Brussels when Germany’s surrender was announced. The news was greeted with an outpouring of excitement and emotion. “The whole city was lit up by searchlights, rockets, flares, Verey lights everywhere. British, Belgian and American flags were flying; crowds were in the streets singing and laughing; car horns were sounding” (source: WW2 People's War archive). The scenes in the city were captured in this remarkable film footage by Paul Castaing.
La Bal de La Victoire
Branch members took part in the spectacular Bal de La Victoire in Brussels on 8 September 1945. A huge outdoor dance floor was laid in the Place de la Monnaie, allowing thousands of “indefatigable” couples to dance the night away. The event, organized by La Dernière Heure and Le Soir, was hosted by Captain Richard Evans of the BBC and Marcel Antoine. Live music was provided by Yvon de Bie and his all-Belgian Band, the US 433rd Army Services Dance Band, the US 107th Army Ground Forces Band, British Army Lowlanders Dance Band, as well as Bobby Naret and his orchestra. Detachments of honour from the British Armoured Guards Division, liberators of Brussels, the US 101st Airborne Division, the Division Leclerc, Brigade Piron, and 52nd Highland Division received an emotional reception from the crowd.
La Bal de la Victoire as reported in September 1945 in Le Soir. Reproduced with kind permission of the Royal Library of Belgium
Old soldiers never die!
La Dernière Heure and La Nation Belge reported on a reception held on 25 September 1945 to mark the first anniversary of the re-formation of the branch. The event was hosted by President Lieutenant Léon Gyssels, Vice-President Captain J. Davis and Captain Drummond-Murray. Among others present were General Willems, Arthur Aveling CBE, British chargé d'affaires, Major S. Stevenson, representing Brigadier Gerald Tarleton MC DSO of the British Garrison, M. Pettitt, Embassy Secretary, M. Joint, commercial counsellor, M. Stephens, Consul, M. Foulon, President of the French Chamber of Commerce, Captains Mitchell and Thibodeau of the Canadian Army, as well as the presidents of veterans’ federations. The toast was “old soldiers never die!”
Reginald and Germaine Whitburn in 1946, a couple who would be part of the lifeblood of the branch
Relais sacré aérien
President Léon Gyssels represented the branch at a reception held at the Hôtel de Ville on 25 May 1946 for amputee veterans from Britain, Belgium and France. The veterans had spent the day on a relais sacré aérien, flying from Brussels to Paris to London and back to Brussels. In London, the veterans were greeted by Colonel George R. Crosfield, former Chairman of the British Legion, and Major Sir Brunel Cohen, the Legion’s Honorary Treasurer, both of them war amputees.
British Ambassador Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen was greeted by a delegation from the branch led by new President Lionel Grigson-Page on 13 April 1947, after a special service conducted by branch Honorary Chaplain the Rev Philip Moore at the Church of England in rue de Stassart.
Lionel Grigson-Page, a veteran of both world wars, led a branch delegation taking part in commemorations at Gembloux and Marche-les-Dames on 10 August 1947. Other members of the delegation included Vice-President the Rev Philip Moore, former President Léon Gyssels, former Vice-President J. Davis, and Treasurer Major Athelstan Willoughby. A wreath was laid on the graves of British airmen in Gembloux cemetery and also at the “Rocher Tragique” in Marche-les-Dames, where King Albert I met his death.
The branch held a summer ball on 26 June 1948 at the premises of the Royal Veterans Union (Union des Fraternelles de l’Armée de Campagne, UFAC). Performers included the Billy Bacon Jazz Orchestra and Claude Alix (the stage name of Paula Vandebroek) who sang popular British songs “with brio”. Branch President Lionel Grigson-Page, Vice-President the Rev Philip Moore, and Director of Entertainment R. E. Higgins were in attendance.
The branch opened new premises at 102 Rue de la Loi (now a European Commission building) on 22 July 1948 in the presence of British Ambassador Sir George Rendel and British Military Attaché Colonel A. Fabin. President Lionel Grigson-Page, Vice-President the Rev Philip Moore, and Entertainments Director R.E. Higgins represented the branch. Léopold Ros, President of the National Confederation of Political Prisoners (Confédération nationale des prisonniers politiques, CNPPA), also attended. He would later become an outspoken critic of Belgium’s controversial King Leopold III, calling for him to abdicate.
On 7 October 1948 the branch published a notice in Le Soir announcing the death of former Treasurer Major Athelstan Willoughby, who served in the Durham Light Infantry and was an Honorary Doctor of Laws at Durham University.
The branch’s annual ball on 30 October 1948 at the premises of the Royal Veterans Union drew a large and appreciative audience. Performers included the Billy Bacon Orchestra, troops’ favourite Marie Nell (the stage name of Nénette Langlois), dancer Jacqueline Gaspar, and British composer John Cook, a Legion member. Miss J. Daniels of the English Comedy Club recited Major John McCrae’s poignant First World War poem In Flanders Fields. Branch President Lionel Grigson-Page, R.E. Higgins and the Rev Philip Moore were in attendance.
The branch, represented by Colonel Chapman, Major Williams and Lieutenant James, took part in a commemoration ceremony at Heverlee war cemetery on 1 November 1948.
Claire and Stanley Whitfield dancing the night away at the RAF Club in Brussels on 11 December 1948.
The branch was represented at the unveiling of a memorial at 2 rue de la Brasserie, Ixelles, marking the place where Resistance hero Walthère Dewé (code-name “Muraille”) was killed. Dewé founded two Resistance networks, “La Dame Blanche” in 1916, and “Clarence” in 1940. He was shot dead by a Luftwaffe officer after leaping from a tram while trying to flee from Gestapo agents. The ceremony took place on 3 July 1949.
Madame Verbaet represented the branch at the unveiling of a plaque in Parc Parmentier, Woluwe St Pierre, in memory of Suzanne Van Durme, a revered figure in the Resistance who was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. Van Durme, a mother of two, was closely associated with the Stations de Plein-Air community association founded by Father Édouard Froidure, who was liberated from Dachau at the end of the war. Some 2,000 children attended the ceremony on 23 July 1949.
Some 36 cadets from the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover arrived in Brussels on 26 July 1949 during a visit to Belgium organised by the British Legion. The cadets stayed with families in Leuven.
Squadron Leader Colonel H.C. Wilson represented the Legion at the inauguration of a memorial on 28 August 1949 at Wilsele Churchyard, near Leuven. The monument commemorates 44 British servicemen who lie in the CWGC plot, as well as 82 civilians who died during a bombardment on 12 May 1944.
The Brussels branch announced the formation of a new committee on 5 February 1950. President: Lieutenant Colonel George Starr DSO MC, Vice-President: Lieutenant Colonel Ackroyd, Secretary: Major A. T. Denyer, Treasurer: Captain J. R. Calastreme. Members: E.J. Bacon, R.E. Cameron, C.M. Cooper, J. Hamilton, D.A. Hardy, Dr P. Maurice, J. McCracken, H.N. Mills, Rev P. Moore, H. Powell, K.H. Ross, V.L.J. Snutsel.
The “continental” section of the British Legion opened premises in Avenue Louise on 15 February 1950 in the presence of British Ambassador Sir George Rendel, Major General John Roberts, commander of the Dieppe Raid, General Victor Strydonck de Burkel, former Commander in Chief of the Free Belgian Forces and President of the Union des Fraternelles de l’Armée de Campagne (UFAC) 1940-45, Lieutenant Colonel George Starr, President of Brussels branch, and Count Adrien van der Burch. The guests were received by Squadron Leader H.C. Wilson, head of the Legion’s continental branch, and his deputy Montague Janes.
De Gaulle Appeal
Vice-President Lt Col Ackroyd represented the branch at a ceremony organised by the Free French Forces Association at Notre-Dame in Laeken on 18 June 1950 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Appeal by General Charles de Gaulle. In his famous 1940 speech, broadcast from London by the BBC, the future French President urged his compatriots not to give up the fight, declaring: “The flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished!”
Branch President Lt Col George Starr hosted a gala film premiere of La Nuit Commence A L'Aube (Morning Departure) at the Cinema Metropole on 14 September 1950. British Ambassador Sir John le Rougetel MC and two of the film’s stars, Nigel Patrick and Helen Cherry (the wife of Trevor Howard), attended the event. The branch was also represented by the Rev Philip Moore, Kenneth H. Ross, and former SOE wireless operator Yvonne Cormeau. Ahead of the screening, the Belgian Naval Force band gave a performance in the city centre. Seats cost from 20-100 Belgian francs.
Lieutenant Colonel George Starr in his service dress
Death of President
Le Soir published a notice announcing the death of former branch President Lionel Grigson-Page in Brussels on 21 October 1950.
Lt Col George Starr represented the branch at a ceremony on 29 October 1950 to commemorate 56 members of the “Mars et Mercure” business association who lost their lives during the Second World War. The ceremony took place at the Palais des Académies.
The Brussels branch of the Legion and their counterparts from the Poilus de France jointly hosted a ball at the Concert Noble in Brussels on 2 December 1950 in aid of Belgian children orphaned in the war. The event was held in the presence of British Ambassador Sir John le Rougetel and India’s Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg, N. Raghavan. Colonel Baron Henry d’Aleyrac Contaud de Coulanges represented the French Embassy. Music was provided by France’s 43rdinfantry regiment band and the Belgian Naval Force. Royal Scots Fusiliers wearing traditional kilts danced to the sound of the bagpipes. A detachment of honour was provided by the 7th regiment of Algerian spahis. President Lt Col George Starr represented the branch with Yvonne Cormeau and E.J. Bacon.
Squadron Leader H.C. Wilson, head of the Legion’s Brussels-based continental branch, attended the inauguration of a monument in Laeken commemorating Marshal Ferdinand Foch on 20 January 1952 – close to the centenary of his birth. Foch was the Supreme Allied Commander in 1918. He died on 20 March 1929, and was interred at Les Invalides in Paris, close to Napoleon.
Death of George VI
The branch organised a memorial service at the Church of England in rue de Stassart on 15 February 1952 to mark the passing of King George VI. The service was conducted by the Rev Philip Moore. Branch President Lt Col George Starr led the branch delegation which included C.M. Cooper, J.R. Calastreme, E.N. Ackroyd, A. Stimpson, V.L.J. Snutsel, K.H. Ross, G. Donnelly, D. Hardy, G. Mclean, J. Hamilton, and M. Lansdowne, as well as Sqn Ldr H.C. Wilson, head of the Legion’s continental section. The military attachés of Britain, France, the US, the Netherlands, and Poland attended, as well as a Belgian contingent including General Victor Strydonck de Burkel, former Commander of the Free Belgian Forces, Colonel Louis Louveau, President of the U.F.A.C. 14-18, and Captain Raymond Moos, President of the Brigade Piron veterans.
Vice-Chairman C.M. Cooper represented the branch at a ceremony organised by the Croix de guerre federation on 3 August 1952 to pay homage to Belgian regiments based in Liège during the First World War.
Sir Ian Fraser CBE, the Legion’s national President, laid a wreath at Mons on 11 October 1952 at the inauguration of a memorial to British and Canadian troops in the First World War. The commemoration was led by King Baudouin. Addressing those present, British Defence Minister Field Marshal Lord Alexander of Tunis recalled that his first action as a young Lieutenant in the Irish Guards – “a baptism of fire” on 23 August 1914 – took place at Mons. He returned to the same battlefield four years later in the final days of the conflict. Other VIPs present included Belgian Prime Minister Jean Van Houtte, Major General Sir Edward Spears, British Ambassador Sir Christopher Warner, Canadian Ambassador Lieutenant General Maurice Pope and Victor Maistriau, the Mayor of Mons, who was imprisoned by the German occupiers during the First World War.
The Brussels branch announced the formation of a new committee on 10 October 1952. President: Lieutenant Colonel George Starr DSO MC, Vice-President: C.M. Cooper, Treasurer: J.R. Calastreme. Secretary: R. Galère, Members: A. Stimpson, V.L.J. Snutsel, K.H. Ross, Rev P. Moore, Dr P. Maurice, G. Donnelly, D. Hardy, E.N. Ackroyd, G.E. McClean, A.F.J. Harris, Wood, Robins.
Death of Queen Mary
The branch was represented at a memorial service at Christ Church (29 rue Crespel) on 31 March 1953 to mark the passing of Queen Mary, the widow of George V. Attendees included Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth and the Ambassadors of Britain, Canada, South Africa and Pakistan. King Baudouin paid his respects at a service in the Chapel Royal, Windsor.
A Queen is Crowned
The Brussels branch hosted an “unforgettable” premiere of the film A Queen is Crowned at the Cinema Vendome on 11 June 1953, in the presence of Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth, Prime Minister Jean Baron Van Houtte, British Ambassador Sir Christopher Warner, Canadian Ambassador General Maurice Pope, and Indian Ambassador P.A. Menon. The colour film, with a commentary by Laurence Olivier, was watched by a packed house in almost religious silence, punctuated by frequent applause. A guard of honour was provided by the Coldstream Guards, resplendent in their red tunics and bearskins. The guards earlier took part in a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with Lt Col George Starr and Kenneth H. Ross representing the branch. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on 2 June at Westminster Abbey.
Le Soir reporting on the Belgian Queen Elisabeth's attendance at the screening of A Queen is Crowned with Ambassador Sir Christopher Warner in June 1953. Reproduced with kind permission of the Royal Library of Belgium
Copyright The Royal Collection Trust
Townsend joins the branch
The branch gained a high-profile member with the arrival in Brussels of Battle of Britain ace Group Captain Peter Townsend, following his appointment as Air Attaché on 15 July 1953. A former equerry to His Majesty King George VI and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, divorced Townsend was headline news at the time thanks to his controversial relationship with the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret. He quickly threw himself into the life of the branch, enthusiastically attending many social occasions and frequently riding in equestrian events.
Drawing of Peter Townsend by Clementine Verheyden, original held by the Royal Library of Belgium
The Brussels branch announced the formation of a new committee on 14 October 1953. President: Lieutenant Colonel George Starr DSO MC, Vice-President: A.F.J. Harris, Treasurer: J.R. Calastreme. Secretary: R. Galère, Members: E.M. Haskins, V.L.J. Snutsel, A. Stimpson, G.E. McClean, E.P. Warner, G. Donnelly, K.H Ross.
Night at the opera
Lieutenant Colonel George Starr represented the branch at the premiere of L'Opéra du gueux (Beggar’s Opera) at Cinéma L’Écuyer on 26 October 1953. The film musical, directed by Peter Brook and starring Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Tutinand Stanley Holloway, was a hit with the audience. It was one of a series of films screened, under the patronage of British Ambassador Sir Christopher Warner, to honour Sir Alexander Korda. The others were L’Homme de Berlin (The Man Between), directed by Carol Reed and starring James Mason, Claire Bloom and Hildegard Knef, Le Paradis du Capitaine(The Captain’s Paradise), starring Alec Guinness, Yvonne de Carlo and Celia Johnston, and Conquest of Everest. Funds raised from the screenings were shared between the Brussels branch, the British Charitable Fund and Royal Air Forces Association among others.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Lady Hillary attended the film premiere Conquest of Everest in Brussels on 29 October 1953. Lt Col George Starr represented the branch at a reception for the mountaineer. Other guests included India’s Ambassador P.A. Menon, the actress Celia Johnston, star of Brief Encounter, and Group Captain Peter Townsend.
Le Soir published an appeal on 7 November 1953 by Lieutenant Colonel George Starr for the public to support La Journee des Coquelicots (Poppy Day). Under the title “Ne les oublions pas” (Do not forget them), he wrote: “I know that you will not forget the sacrifice of our sailors, soldiers and airmen to make the world free. Many veterans are living in Belgium, having married Belgian women, and we address this appeal to help them, their widows and children.”
Albert Harris and Monette Johnson dancing the night away at the 1953 Poppy Ball
Branch President Lt Col George Starr, committee member Gp Capt Peter Townsend and patron Ambassador Sir Christopher Warner attended a dinner on 25 March 1954 in honour of Lord Selborne, Britain’s former Minister of Economic Warfare responsible for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
The event was hosted by hosted by Colonel Adelin Marissal MC, President of La Fraternelle des Agents Parachutistes, a veteran of both world wars and former undercover agent in the SoE’s T (Belgian) Section. After escaping to Britain, Marissal served as a pilot in the RAF and worked alongside his brother, Colonel Jean Marissal CBE, head of military planning for the Belgian government-in-exile’s 2e direction. On 23 July 1943, Adelin parachuted into Belgium on an undercover mission code-named Stanley and made links with resistance cells which would later form the nucleus of the country’s Secret Army (Armée Secrète). The operation’s success resulted in SoE launching a fully-fledged sabotage network in Belgium, code-named Hotton and led by Albéric Maistriau, a former boxing champion and civil engineer responsible for drilling the tunnel under the under the Scheldt in Antwerp. The Belgian resistance targeted industrial plants supporting Germany’s war machine and the enemy’s communications system.
Branch members Col Louis Medlam (Military Attaché), Gp Capt Peter Townsend (Air Attaché), and Wing Commander Edgar “Wally” Wurtele (Canadian Military Attaché) were among a dozen NATO experts invited on a fact-finding trip to the Congo by the Belgian government. They arrived in Léopoldville (later renamed Kinshasa) on a Fairchild Packet cargo plane named Vilde Beeste on 17 April 1954.
Death of Chaplain
The funeral of branch Chaplain the Reverend Philip Moore took place on 12 July 1954. Le Soir paid tribute to him as a “striking member of the British community where he was particularly appreciated”.
Committee member Gp Capt Peter Townsend attended a dinner hosted by Colonel Adelin Marissal on 3 September 1954 in honour of British Ambassador Sir Christopher Warner and marking the 10th anniversary of the liberation.
Bal de l’amitié
The branch jointly hosted a bal de l’amitié with veterans of the Brigade Piron on 5 March 1955. Music was provided by Harry Miller and his Bop Cats.
Branch President Lt Col George Starr, together with Vice-Presidents Col Louis Medlam and Wg Cdr Edgar “Wally” Wurtele, joined veterans from the Returned Soldiers League of Australia for a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on 15 May 1955. The Australian delegation included Sir George Holland, President of the League, and Sir Frank Beaurepaire, the former world champion swimmer and ex-Lord Mayor of Melbourne. Music was provided by the Royal Scots Greys.
Honorary life member Olivier Delville hosted a cocktail to celebrate the opening of the branch’s new club-house in Schaerbeek on 29 June 1955. Among those attending were British Ambassador Sir Christopher Warner, Mayor of Saint-Josse Guy Cudell, branch President Lt Col George Starr, Chairman Albert Harris, and members Col Louis Medlam, Gp Capt Peter Townsend, Roger Galère, J.R. Calastreme, Kenneth H. Ross, and V.L.J. Snutsel.
Chairman Albert Harris represented the branch at the inauguration of an equestrian statue in Namur commemorating Albert I. The ceremony on 25 September 1955 was led by King Baudouin and Prime Minister Achille Van Acke.
The Brussels branch announced the formation of a new committee on 11 December 1955. President: Lt Col G. Starr, Vice-President: Lt Col J. Gerard, Honorary Vice-Presidents: Col W.L. Medlam, Capt F.J. Cartwright, Gp Capt P. Townsend, Wg Cdr E.L. Wurtele, Chairman: A.F.J. Harris, Vice-Chairman: V.L.J. Snutsel, Hon Secretary: R. Galère, Hon Treasurer: J.R. Calastreme, Hon Archivist: A. Stimpson. Members: G.H. Lavender, Capt H. Reed, J.P. Brown, G. Gaiger, K.H. Ross, H. Heilbron, N. Dewhurst, F.A. Bullock, A.J. Pierarts, E. Johnson, J. Moore, A.J. Thorniley.
Brussels Branch represented at a parade in Bastogne in 1956. From left bearing the standard, Albert Harris and Eric Johnson
Honorary Vice-President Gp Capt Peter Townsend represented the Embassy and branch at a reception hosted by Colonel Adelin Marissal in honour of Ambassador Sir George Labouchere on 27 January 1956.
The branch held a grand ball at the Concert Noble on 4 February 1956 to mark the 25th anniversary of its incorporation by Royal Charter. The ball, featuring the first appearance in Belgium by London’s Victor Silvester Orchestra, was attended by British Ambassador Sir George Labouchere, US Ambassador Frederick Alger Jr and Canadian Ambassador Charles-Pierre Hebert.
The 1956 Poppy Ball, not an inch of dance floor to spare
Good luck, Peter
A farewell dinner was held by the branch for Honorary Vice-President Gp Capt Peter Townsend at the Prince Albert Barracks on 25 September 1956. British Ambassador Sir George Labouchere was among those present. Townsend revealed his plans for a solo round-the-world trip in his Land Rover. The itinerary would take him from Belgium through Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Malaya, Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, South Africa, Congo, Libya, Spain, France, and finally back to Belgium. Townsend retired from the RAF after 23 years’ service on 15 October 1956 and set off on his epic adventure less than a week later. Le Soir published regular articles throughout the tour written by Townsend, who told branch members he also planned to write a book when he returned to Brussels.
Lt Col Starr and Yvonne Cormeau in Essen
Marissal honours Starr
Colonel Adelin Marissal hosted a dinner on 14 December 1956 to honour the wartime exploits of Lt Col George Starr and his former wireless operator Yvonne Cormeau. He hailed Starr as the “patron” of the French Resistance network in Gascony and congratulated him for “always escaping the Gestapo’s traps”. Attendees included Count Hubert Pierlot, Belgium’s wartime Prime Minister in exile.
Colonel-aviateur Marissal would become mired in controversy in 1960 when his “Mission Marissal” recruited mercenaries from Belgium, France, Britain and South Africa to support Moïse Tshombe, the pro-Western leader of the mineral-rich territory of Katanga, which had seceded from the newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tshombe and two Belgian mercenaries, Colonel Charles Carlos Huyghe and Captain Julien Gat, were implicated in the execution of Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first Prime Minister, alongside two of his ministers, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo, on 17 January 1961. Tshombe, said to be the inspiration for Julius Limbani’s character in 1978 film The Wild Geese, became Prime Minister in 1964. He too was deposed and died of heart failure in 1969. Marissal died on 17 February 1963.
The Brussels branch announced the formation of a new committee on 2 January 1957. President: Lt Col George Starr, Vice-President: Col J. Gerard, Chairman: A.F.J. Harris, Vice-Chairman: V.L.J. Snutsel, Hon Secretary: K.H. Ross, Hon Treasurer: J.R. Calastreme, Registrar: R. Galère. Members: N. Dewhurst, T.L. Ferguson, J.P. Brown, J. Donelly, J. Moore, Mrs J. Moore, A.J. Pierarts, A.J. Thorniley.
Lt Col George Starr represented the branch at the annual banquet of the British Chamber of Commerce at the Hotel Metropole on 14 February 1957. Guests included Jean Rey, Belgium’s Minister for Economic Affairs (and future President of the European Commission), Derek Walker-Smith, British Minister of State at the Board of Trade, and the Ambassadors of Great Britain, Canada, India and Pakistan.
Lt Col George Starr represented the branch at a dinner on 16 October 1957 hosted by the Mars and Mercure business association in honour of British Ambassador Sir George Labouchere. The Ambassador said Britain was in favour of stronger economic ties with its European neighbours but increased cooperation would need to be balanced with its duties towards the Commonwealth. (The Treaty of Rome, making Brussels the de facto capital of the new European Economic Community, was signed on 25 March 1957).
Former Honorary Vice-President Gp Capt Peter Townsend returned to Brussels on 25 March 1958 after completing a 90,000 km solo world trip. He arrived in the city in the early hours at the wheel of the same Land Rover in which he set off 17 months earlier. It was a brief stopover – Townsend was invited for tea with Princess Margaret at Clarence House the following day, leading to an avalanche of coverage about a possible marriage. Despite two further tête-à-têtes with the Princess, Townsend returned to Brussels on 24 May 1958 to write a book about his travels.
Branch Chairman Albert Harris took part in a ceremony on 20 July 1958 to mark the new location of the Anglo-Belgian memorial in Place Poelaert. The memorial was moved due to the redevelopment of Rue des Quatre Bras. Among the attendees was General Villier, British Military Attaché, General Louis Louveau, President of the U.F.A.C. 14-18, and Lucien Cooremans, the Mayor of Brussels.
On 26 August 1958 Gp Capt Peter Townsend bade the branch farewell once again when he set off to make a documentary about his world tour. The filming took place in Algiers, Yugoslavia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and India. Townsend was accompanied by director Victor Stoloff, photographer (and future wife) Marie-Luce Jamagne, and secretary Marguerite Gerard (sister of the actress Danièle Delorme). Barrymaine’s book was serialized in Le Soir.
President Lieutenant Lt Col George Starr represented the branch at the Interallied Congress of Reserve Officers (Congres Interallié des Officiers de Réserve) on 30 August 1958. The congress, attended by Belgium’s future King Albert II, was part of the Expo 58. Branch Chairman Albert Harris attended the annual meeting of the Brigade Piron veterans at the Expo, from 1-3 September, where former combatants discussed how they could help to advance “peaceful humanity”.
Dr Paul Maurice, branch honorary doctor since 1946, was presented with life membership of the Legion on 16 February 1959 in recognition of the care he had provided to veterans and their families. Captain David Coffer, the Legion’s Deputy Secretary General, made the presentation to Dr Maurice.
Former Honorary Vice-President Gp Capt Peter Townsend returned to Brussels on 12-13 June 1959 to promote his book Earth My Friend (Terre mon amie) and film Passport to the World (Passeport pour le Monde). Soon after he announced his engagement to Marie-Luce Jamagne (video). The couple married in Watermael-Boitfort on 21 December 1959.
Peter Townsend with son Pierre, daughters Isabelle and Marie-Françoise (on horse), and wife Marie-Luce at the family home in Saint-Léger en Yvelines, France, in the mid-70s
Peter Townsend with, from left, wife Marie-Luce and daughters Marie-Françoise and Isabelle at the Christian Dior ball held at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1985. Both images kindly provided by Isabelle Townsend
The Last Post was sounded at the Menin Gate in Ypres (Ieper) for the 10,000th time on 8 October 1960. The silver bugles provided by the Brussels and Antwerp branches in 1929 would continue to be in daily use for another 32 years. British Ambassador Sir John Nicholls and his Commonwealth counterparts were in Ypres for the milestone.
The membership of the branch committee was as follows in 1961. President: Col Peter R. Ashburner, Chairman: B.R. Reynolds, Hon Secretary: Madame A.T. Lorge. Members: P.I. Lake MC, J.W.B. Macready, Mrs J.W.B. Macready, Dr A. Jordens (Hon Dentist), Dr P. Maurice (Hon Doctor), Mrs M. Warr, R. Galère, K.O. Kenneth (Vice-Consul). Chaplain: Rev H. Isherwood MVO, OBE.
Guards on parade
The six branches of the Legion in Belgium took part in commemorations in Brussels on 1-2 September 1962 to mark the 18th anniversary of the city’s liberation by the Guards Armoured Division. Cheered by large crowds, detachments from the Welsh Guards and Irish Guards marched from the Le Petit-Château barracks to the Grand Place, where they were received by the Mayor of Brussels, Lucien Cooremans. Lieutenant-Colonel Vivian Wallace, commanding officer of the 1stBattalion of the Welsh Guards, laid a poppy wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the evening, the detachments performed an open-air concert. The Manneken-Pis was dressed in the uniform of the Welsh Guards for the occasion.
La Fleur du Souvenir
The branch hosted a reception at Centre Rogier on 21 March 1963 to mark its publication of a collection of poems by Georges Springael entitled La Fleur du Souvenir, inspired by the British Legion poppy. One of the poems was a tribute to the poet’s brother Albert, killed in Battle of the Yser, aged 17. He had no known grave.
The branch was represented at the inauguration of a monument to King Albert I in Avenue Macau, Ixelles, on 19 May 1963. The ceremony was led by General André van Sprang and General André de Meeûs d'Argenteuil, representing Queen Elisabeth.
British Ambassador Sir Roderick Barclay and Lady Barclay were among the guests at the branch’s annual ball at the Hotel Metropole on 8 November 1963. They were greeted by branch President Colonel Peter Ashburner MC, British Military Attaché. Music was provided by the Luc Marcy Orchestra.
The Great Escape
The Brussels branch, Royal Air Force Association, Fonds des Barbelés (national federation of former prisoners of war) and la Saint-Nicolas des petits déshérités were the beneficiaries of a fund-raising premiere of The Great Escape (La grande évasion), starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough, at the Eldorado on 20 November 1963. The Women’s RAF Central Band, who flew in specially for the event from London, performed the film’s theme tune, Hey High and Airborne and the RAF March. The branch was represented by President Colonel Peter Ashburner MC, Chairman Albert Harris, Honorary Secretary Major Douglas Cooper, and Kenneth H. Ross. Lady Jean Barclay led the British Embassy delegation.
A glorious gala fundraiser to mark the release of The Great Escape, covered in Le Soir
Honorary Secretary Major Douglas Cooper represented the branch at a meeting of the Group of Combined Branches in Belgium in Ghent on 4 April 1964. Major Rivers from London HQ briefed branch representatives on a planned pilgrimage to the battlefields of Belgium and France in September to mark the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War
Brigadier Peter Ashburner and the Legion committee hosted a dinner on 29 April 1964 to honour Madeleine Bihet, directrice of the Institut Edith Cavell, for the “extreme devotion” she had shown to British veterans. He also thanked Dr Armand Colard for the care he provided to British airmen during the war.
Alan Thorniley MBE
Long-standing branch member (and future Chairman) Alan G. Thorniley was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours on 13 June 1964. Major Thorniley served in the Royal Armoured Corps.
Brigadier Peter Ashburner represented the branch and British Embassy at the inauguration of the Brigade Piron monument in Molenbeek-St-Jean on 6 September 1964, during commemorations to mark the 20th anniversary of the liberation. The memorial was unveiled by the Brigade’s former commander, General Jean-Baptiste Piron. Detachments from Britain, the US, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and a Belgian “Liberation Battalion” paraded. The VIP delegation included Colonel Georges Danloy, wartime commander of No.10 (Inter-Allied) Commando’s Belgian troop, representing King Baudouin, and Edmond Machtens, Mayor of Molenbeek, as well as the ambassadors of Israel, China, Luxembourg and the military attachés of the US, Canada, the USSR, France, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia.Members of the Brussels branch continue to attend the annual commemoration at the monument in Parc des Muses.
President Brigadier Peter Ashburner and Chairman Albert Harris represented the branch at the Belgian film premiere of The Train at the Eldorado on 30 September 1964. One of the film’s stars, Michel Simon (Papa Boule), attended the screening. Other VIPs at the screening included British Ambassador Sir Roderick Barclay, French Ambassador Henry Spitzmuller, and Lieutenant-General Jean-Baptiste Piron. The box-office raised funds for charitable works by the Brigade Piron and associations of Belgian veterans who served with the British forces.
Tribute to Churchill
Branch representatives took part in a ceremony to commemorate the life of Winston Churchill at the Anglo-Belgian monument in Place Poelaert on 30 January 1965. General Jean-Baptiste Piron and Brussels Mayor Lucien Cooremans attended the event, which was held at the same time as the state funeral for Britain’s wartime Prime Minister in London.
A delegation from the branch was invited to take part in a ceremony at Hougoumont on 18 June 1965 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Also present were the Duke of Kent, representing Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, British Ambassador Sir Roderick Barclay, Dutch General Schoemaeker, and the Mayors of Waterloo and Braine-l’Alleud. Poppy wreaths were also laid at the French, Prussian and Belgian memorials on the battlefield and the Chapel Royal in Waterloo. The Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards and German troops successfully defended Hougoumont from repeated assaults by Napoleon’s infantry throughout the battle.
President Michael’s tribute
New branch President Brigadier Michael Hunter CVO DSO MBE and Mayor of Forest Léon Wielemans laid wreaths on the Pont de la 2me Armée Britannique during a commemoration on 4 September 1965 to mark the 21st anniversary of the liberation of Brussels.
Albert Harris MBE
British Ambassador Sir Roderick Barclay presented the MBE insignia to branch Chairman Albert Harris on 29 October 1965. Harris had chaired the Brussels branch for 11 years.
Sacha sings for Legion
US star Dionne Warwick and French singer Sacha Distel performed at a fundraising gala for the branch and Brigade Piron in front of a 2,700-strong audience at the Eldorado on 2 March 1966. The singers were serenaded by pipers from the Black Watch and introduced to British Ambassador Sir Roderick Barclay, branch Chairman Albert Harris, General Jean-Baptiste Piron and Raymond Moos, President of the Brigade Piron veterans. Other attendees from the branch included President Brigadier Michael Hunter, Vice-Chairman Alan G. Thorniley and Honorary Vice-President R.E. Higgins. The gala, organised by Le Soir, also featured a screening of the Louis Malle film Viva Maria starring Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau.
The Brussels tourist office hosted a festival of Anglo-Belgian military music at the Palais des Sports on 4 May 1966. Proceeds from the event, organised as a prelude to a visit by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, were shared between the branch and Belgian military charities. British Ambassador Sir Roderick Barclay, Mayor of Brussels Lucien Cooremans and Mayor of Schaerbeek Gaston Williot were among those watching from the tribune d’honneur.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip paid an official visit to Belgium from 9-12 May 1966. After landing at Brussels Airport, the Royal party, accompanied by King Baudouin, began their visit by paying their respects at the Anglo-Belgian Memorial in Brussels’ Place Poelaert, where some 86 veterans provided a guard of honour. In his capacity as British Military Attaché, branch President Brigadier Michael Hunter CVO DSO MBE laid a wreath on behalf of Her Majesty. Other members of the branch and the RAF Association also laid poppy wreaths. A similar ceremony took place at the Colonne de Congrès, where the Queen and Prince Philip signed the livre d’or. The main welcome for the Queen took place in the Grand Place, where Her Majesty, accompanied by King Baudouin and Mayor of Brussels Lucien Cooremans, inspected a guard of honour composed of British and Belgian veterans. Among those representing the branch were Vice-President Albert Harris, Jack Brett and Standard Bearer Eric Johnson. The Queen paid tribute to the Belgians who had crossed the Channel to fight alongside its ally during the Second World War, “distinguishing themselves on land, sea and air”. Britain would never forget those who risked all to serve the common cause of freedom, she said. During their four-day visit, Her Majesty and Prince Philip also visited Antwerp, Liège, Bruges, Tyne Cot, Poperinge, Ypres and Ostend, before departing by plane from Middelkerke (later re-named Ostend-Bruges Airport).
The Queen on her official visit to Belgium in 1966. Albert Harris and Eric Johnson proudly look on
Battle of the Bulge
The Théâtre des Varietés-Cinérama hosted a fund-raising screening of the Battle of the Bulge (Bataille des Ardennes) on 13 September 1966. The show opened with a concert by French singer and actress Corinne Marchand. The audience included US Ambassador Ridgway B. Knight, General Jean-Baptiste Piron, branch member Colonel Jean Bloch (who was captured in the battle but later escaped from a PoW camp in Bavaria back to Allied lines), Louis Olivier, Mayor of Bastogne, and branch Chairman Albert Harris.
The branch committee in 1967 was constituted as follows. President: Brigadier H.M.A. Hunter CVO DSO MBE. Vice-Presidents: N. Dewhurst MC, R.E. Higgins, V.L.J. Snutsel, A.F.J. Harris MBE, D.C.V. Cooper. Chairman: A.G. Thorniley MBE, Hon Secretary: P.M. Allen, Hon Treasurer: R. Slingo, Standard Bearers: E. Johnson and J. Brett. Members: A.H. Bradley, J. Brett, J.P. Brown, H.J. Edmonds, A. Empringham, R. Galère, A.T. Kane, A.O. Smith, R. Stappaerts, H.V. Whenham.
Service Committee 1967
Chairman: R. Galère, Hon Secretary: A.T. Lorge MBE, Hon. Treasurer: R. Slingo. Members: L.E. Ahlberg (representing British Charitable Fund), Rev H. Isherwood MVO, OBE, C. Jordens, T. Hennessy (Royal Air Forces Association), Dr P. Maurice OBE (Hon Doctor), S.E. Laurenson (Vice-Consul), H. More (Pro Consul). Delegates for Liège area: G. De Ville OBE, U. Hurard. Hon Social Adviser: J. Christophe, Institut Edith Cavell. Hon Dentist: Dr A. Jordens. Hon Lawyer: Maître P. Lauwers.
Prince Albert and Lord Snowdon, husband of Princess Margaret, opened “British Week” in Brussels on 29 September 1967. Lord Snowdon was accompanied by Anthony Crosland, President of the Board of Trade, and British Ambassador Sir Roderick Barclay. Sir Robert Bellinger, Lord Mayor of London and his Belgian-born wife Lady Christine, were hosted by the Ommegang at the Maison du Cygne before the finale of the week – a magnificent spectacle of martial music in the Grand Place on 7 October. Among those taking part were The Life Guards, Coldstream Guards, Black Watch, Irish Guards, Duke of Wellington’s Royal Regiment, and Duke of Edinburgh’s Regiment. The Life Guards took part in a ceremony with representatives of the branch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
General Jean-Baptiste Piron, commander of the Free Belgian Forces in the Second World War, was made an honorary member of the branch on 18 October 1967.
Stamp of approval
Terence Stamp made a personal appearance at the premiere of Far From The Madding Crowd (Loin de la foule déchaînée) at the Palais des Beaux Arts on 28 March 1968. The screening, organised by Le Soir, was in aid of branch funds, the Brigade Piron veterans and the newspaper’s charity. Among the attendees were British Ambassador Sir Roderick Barclay, South African Ambassador M. Stern and Israelian Ambassador Amiel E. Najar, who were welcomed by branch Chairman Albert Harris and General Jean-Baptiste Piron. The guard of honour was provided by the Royal Engineers.
Branch Chairman Albert Harris and branch member Colonel Jean Bloch paid their respects at the funeral of Commandant Raymond Moos, former President of the Brigade Piron veterans, on 21 February 1969.
Real-life James Bond
A notice published in Le Soir on 27 February 1969 announced the death of former branch Vice-President Captain Norman Dewhurst MC. A reference to two of his decorations – the Serbian White Eagle with Swords and Greek Order of the Redeemer – was the only hint that his was not a typical military career. Capt Dewhurst was in fact a globe-trotting spy, who worked undercover in both world wars. His life story reads like a James Bond novel. Lucky to survive at Gallipoli, he served with T.E. Lawrence in Cairo and Compton Mackenzie in the Aegean. His butler in Riga had worked for the Russian Tsar and Dewhurst was almost caught spying for MI6 in Nazi Germany. Cheating death when he was bombed in Brussels, he moved to Belgium after the war and joined the branch, serving on the same committee as Lt Col George Starr and Gp Capt Peter Townsend.
2Lt Dewhurst in 1914 after his commission into the Royal Munster Rifles
The branch committee in 1969 was constituted as follows. President: Brigadier A.I. Hulton MBE. Vice-Presidents: R.E. Higgins, V.L.J. Snutsel, A.F.J. Harris MBE. Chairman: A.G. Thorniley MBE, Vice-Chairman: D.C.V. Cooper, Hon Secretary: P.M. Allen,
Hon Treasurer: R. Slingo, Standard Bearers: E. Johnson and J. Brett. Members: J.P. Brown, A. Empringham, C.R. Reed, H.J. Edmonds, R. Galère, J. Reynolds, A.T. Kane, R. Stappaerts.
Long-serving committee member Roger Galère represented the branch at a reception hosted by Mme Van Leynseele at the Hôtel de Ville to mark the 24th anniversary of the liberation. The delegation, including Georges Courmont, national president of the Brigade Piron association, later greeted the “oldest bourgeois” in Brussels, the Manneken-Pis, dressed for the occasion in the uniform of a sergeant in the Brigade.
The branch organised a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on 14 June 1970 to mark the 25thanniversary of the end of the Second World War. The event was attended by veterans “from all corners of Europe”. Music was provided by the band of the 1st Kings Regiment, stationed in Germany. The standard bearer was Eric Johnson.
Coverage in Le Soir on the 25th anniversary of VE Day
Royal British Legion
While the British Legion had royal patronage from its founding in 1921, members were delighted when it was granted permission by the Crown to add “Royal” to its name on 29 May 1971, the 50th anniversary of its creation. The change of name also had a more prosaic impact – it meant the Brussels branch needed to order new stationery.
Speaking at a meeting of the Group of Combined Branches in Belgium on 18 March 1972, Brussels Chairman Albert Harris warned of the increasing difficulty of collecting sufficient funds to meet its obligations. Brussels had not sent back any money raised from the Poppy Appeal to London HQ as it was all needed for supporting beneficiaries in Brussels, he said.
Eric wins the Cup
Eric Johnson from Brussels branch won the Standard Bearer’s Competition at the Combined Branches annual rally held in Antwerp on 3 September 1972. Marks for each competitor were based on the drill, dress and procedure rules set out in the Legion’s Ceremonial and Services pamphlet. These cover neatness of dress and general bearing, maintenance of standard, sling and gauntlets, the order, movement and position, dipping for the National Anthem, carrying at quick march, dipping for Act of Homage and dipping in wet or muddy conditions. The trophy was presented by K.C.B. Chambers.
Eric Johnson pictured with his trophy, and close family and friends in 1973 at a parade in Oostend. From left: Viviane Pede-Moffat, Jean-Pierre Pede Moffatt, Eric Johnson, Monette Johnson, Jackie Harris, Andrée Cooper, Marieka Moffatt, Paul Lintz
The branch committee in 1972 was constituted as follows. President: Colonel John F. Kenyon OBE MC. Vice-Presidents: R.E. Higgins, A.F.J. Harris MBE, A.G. Thorniley MBE, V.L.J. Snutsel. Chairman: D.C.V. Cooper, Vice-Chairman: R. Galère, Hon Secretary: P.M Allen, Hon Treasurer: A.T. Lorge MBE, Hon Registrar: Lt Col D.J.T. Stewart, Chaplain: Rev P. Duplock, Standard Bearers: E. Johnson and J. Brett. Members: A. Empringham, M.B. Evans, Major M. J. Reynolds, J.N. Higgins, M. D’Hondt, M. Nossent.
Sub-Committee Entertainment 1972
Chairman: A. Empringham. Members: F. Empringham, M. D’Hondt, M. Evans, E. Thompson, H. Moffatt, M. Nossent.
We’ll Meet Again
Forces’ sweetheart Vera Lynn, best known for her 1939 hit We’ll Meet Again, was guest of honour at the annual Poppy Ball at the Metropole Hotel in November 1973. As well as singing her most popular songs, branch member Fleur Empringham later recalled how down-to-earth Lynn also brought “stacks” of records to sell for the benefit of the Legion. Lynn, accompanied by her husband Harry Lewis, was invited to Brussels by branch Chairman Douglas Cooper and Fleur’s husband, head of entertainment Arthur Empringham.
Dame Vera Lynn with Fleur Empringham at the 1973 Poppy Ball
Death of Piron
The branch was saddened to learn of the death of honorary member General Jean-Baptiste Piron, former commander of the Brigade Piron and post-war head of the Belgian Army, on 4 September 1974. The general, who attended many branch events over the years, died of a heart attack in his home in Uccle after participating in commemorations to mark the 30th anniversary of the liberation. He was 78. General Piron’s final resting place is in the “pelouse d’honneur” at Molenbeek-Saint-Jean’s cemetery.
Brussels hosts rally
Brussels hosted the annual rally for the Group of Combined Branches in Belgium from 25-27 April 1975. The programme included a Beating Retreat by the Band of the Royal Marines in the Grand Place and a commemoration service at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. British Ambassador Sir David Muirhead had been “much pleased” to join the parade, said Chairman Albert Harris.
Branch Chairman Albert Harris was awarded the OBE and Vice-Chairman Roger Galère the MBE in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee and Birthday Honours List, announced on 11 June 1977. The awards were for their services to British veterans in Belgium for over 20 years.
The branch committee in 1977 was constituted as follows. President: Colonel E.W. Nicoll MVO. Vice-Presidents: A.F.J. Harris OBE, R.E. Higgins, V.L.J. Snutsel, G.D. Staple MBE TD, A.G. Thorniley MBE. Chairman: D.C.V. Cooper MBE, Vice-Chairman: R. Galère MBE,
Hon Treasurer: G. Lapthorn, Chaplain: Rev P. Duplock OBE, Standard Bearer: E. Johnson, Reserve: J. Brett. Members: P. Allen, M. D’Hondt, M.B. Evans, A. Empringham, H. Moffatt, M. Nossent, P. Sinnott.
The branch committee in 1978 was unchanged apart from three new members: D.S. Harrison, A. Lloyd Thomas and W.E. Warner. The Rev P. Duplock OBE joined the Service Committee as a co-opted member.
Figures for 1979 show that Brussels had the second highest membership in the country with 415 members – including 170 ordinary members (those who had served in the British forces) and 245 associate members. Ypres had the highest number with 582 members, split between 110 ordinary members and 472 associate members.
Friends for life, Eric Johnson and Harold Moffat stood together in Liberty Square, Brussels in 1979
The branch hosted the annual rally of the Group of Combined Branches in Belgium, together with representatives from the UK, France, the Netherlands and Germany, on 15 June 1980. The meeting celebrated Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday, the 35th anniversary of Victory in Europe and 150th anniversary of Belgium’s independence. In a message from Buckingham Palace to Brussels branch Chairman Douglas Cooper, the Queen sent “very best wishes for all concerned for an enjoyable and successful day”.
Branch Vice-President Albert Harris attended the inauguration of a statue of Field Marshal Montgomery on 7 September 1980. The work near the roundabout at Square Maréchal Montgomery was created by Croatian sculptor Oscar Nemon and commemorated the liberation of Brussels on 3 September 1944 by forces under Montgomery’s command. The statue has a “twin” in London.
The unveiling of Field Marshal Montgomery's statue in 1980, well attended by the Brussels Branch. Eric Johnson carries the standard with (from left) Albert Harris and Doug Cooper on parade!
In the phone book
The branch meeting on 10 September 1984 was informed that a telephone was now installed in the branch club-house at 153 Avenue Eugène Plasky, Schaerbeek. The phone number was 736 8529. Vice-President Gordon Staple kindly offered to meet the installation cost. A letter from national Chairman General Sir Patrick Howard-Dobson thanked the branch for its hospitality during his recent visit to Brussels.
Colonel Colin Eaton OBE, the new British Defence Attaché, was unanimously elected as President on 20 September 1985, succeeding Colonel Ken Marchant. Sadly, his tenure was very brief. Branch Chairman Douglas Cooper informed the committee on 2 December 1985 that he had received news of the sudden and unexpected death of Colonel Eaton. The members stood in silent tribute.
Price of success
The annual Poppy Dance at the Brussels Europa Hotel on 23 November 1985 was deemed a great success, both socially and financially. But the branch Chairman regretted that publicity about it in Le Soir had resulted in a demand for 5,000 Belgian francs (€125) from the Société des Auteurs Belges/Belgische Auteurs Maatschappij (SABAM). He suggested that newspaper publicity should be avoided in future.
Vice-President Albert Harris proposed that the branch send loyal greetings to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the occasion of her 60th official birthday on 14 June 1986. (The Queen actually celebrates her real birthday on 21 April, but it is customary for British sovereigns whose birthday falls in colder months to have an official birthday in the summer in the hope of good weather for their birthday parade, known as Trooping the Colour).
Committee member Serge Dauchat (Liaison Officer, 2ème Brigade “Yser”) informed members on 3 November 1986 that he had secured a heater for the club-house from a former comrade for 6,000 Belgian francs (€150), plus fitting costs. The club recently acquired 15 chairs from the same source for 400 Belgian francs (€10) each, as well as the gift of a new counter for the bar from Mr Dauchat. The committee agreed to buy a plaque engraved with a suitable inscription to recognise his generosity. Committee member Roger Galère also provided a second-hand fan for the window in the bar and a small heater for the ladies’ lavatory (both free of charge).
Addressing the committee on 14 September 1987, Chairman Douglas Cooper spoke of the sad loss of three members who had contributed much to the branch. George Lapthorn, a member for nearly 40 years, was Honorary Treasurer from 1976-86. “His service to the Legion and Brussels branch was an example to everyone,” said the Chairman. Simone Nossent, wife of Honorary Registrar Marcel Nossent, had provided “enthusiastic support in all our activities”; John Latz, an ex-paratrooper, veteran of the Battle of Arnhem and member for the past four years, had only recently retired. Their funerals were well attended by members and friends from the branch.
Former branch President and Defence Attaché Colonel John F. Kenyon joined members to commemorate Armistice Day on 11 November 1988.
Lieutenant Commander Allen Hardcastle was a visitor to the club-house on 13 October 1989. A Lieutenant Engineer on HMS Glamorgan during the Falklands War, his ship was hit by an Exocet missile on 12 June 1982, leaving 14 dead and many wounded.
Standard Bearer Eric Johnson was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s 1990 Honours List in recognition of his services to British interests in Belgium. He was presented with the medal on 9 March by Ambassador Robin O’Neill during a special investiture in Brussels.
Eric Johnson BEM
The annual poppy dance was held at the Brussels Europa Hotel on 17 November 1990. According to the branch minutes, some members thought that the evening, however enjoyable, was becoming too expensive. The event raised 5,486 Belgian Francs (€136).
A new committee was elected at the AGM held at the club premises on 7 January 1991. President: Col K. Woodrow. Vice-President: A.F.J. Harris OBE, Chairman: Col W. Nicoll CBE LVO; Vice-Chairman: H.T. More; Treasurer: P.T. Allen; Benevolent Care officer: Mrs Y. Sayer; Membership Officer: Mrs D. Cooper; Entertainments Officer: D.S. Harrison; Standard Bearer: E. Johnson BEM; Liaison Officer: W. Woodward. The position of Secretary was later accepted by Len Oddie.
President Colonel Kerry Woodrow stepped down in September 1991 to become President of the Ostend branch. He was succeeded by Colonel Mike Craster, the British Defence Attaché.
Admiral Richard Thomas, UK Military Representative at NATO (also uncle of actress Kristin Scott Thomas and later Black Rod in Britain’s House of Lords), joined Léon Weustenraad, Mayor of Schaerbeek, for a VIP evening held at the club-house on 27 September 1991.
Douglas Harrison was presented with the RBL Golden Badge of merit on 30 March 1992 in recognition of his 18 years of service to the branch. Vice-President Albert Harris thanked him for carrying out his work “with the utmost courtesy and loyalty to one and all”. At the same meeting, Mr Harrison said it was proving difficult to secure a band for the Annual Poppy Dance and suggested the possibility of a “disco”. Alf Woodward, the new club manager, said the price of beer had increased.
Albert Harris was unanimously elected as new branch President at the AGM on 25 January 1993 after Colonel Mike Craster had to relinquish the post due to increased workload. The remaining committee members were re-elected.
HQ ‘too expensive’
An extraordinary general meeting was called on 5 April 1993 to discuss the future of the club-house at 153 Avenue Eugène Plasky. It emerged that the annual rent and running costs had been subsidised, with the committee’s agreement, to the tune of 400,000 Belgian Francs (€10,000) for nearly a decade. Chairman Colonel Nicoll felt that this breached Legion rules. It was agreed that the committee look for alternative, less expensive premises.
Embassy to the rescue
Former President Colonel Mike Craster offered the branch use of the conference room at the British Embassy at 85 rue d’Arlon for its meeting on 13 September 1993, following the end of its lease on the club-house in July. Col Craster also agreed to temporarily store RBL property in the Embassy’s basement. The branch rented a new venue for social activities at 13 rue du Cultes.
A new committee was elected at the AGM on 31 January 1994, with Colonel Earle “Nick” Nicoll CBE LVO elected President, Harry More as Chairman, Reg Whitburn as Vice-Chairman and Claire Whitfield as a new member. Len Oddie (Honorary Secretary), Peter Allen (Treasurer) and other committee members were re-elected.
50th anniversary of liberation
The branch was well represented during three days of commemorations to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Brussels from 2-4 September 1994. Advised by the authorities that ladies would not be permitted to sit in the Tribune at the Royal Palace and Grand Place, the branch had this decision reversed after pointing out that four female members had served in uniform during the 1939-45 war!
British Ambassador Sir John Gray sent a letter congratulating the branch for its role in the commemorations and President Col Nicoll said he was “extremely pleased” by the public’s warm reaction to the veterans on parade. More than 900 British servicemen and women, including many from the UK, took part in the commemorations.
The AGM on 8 February 1994 saw Len Oddie OBE elected as Vice-Chairman, succeeding Reg Whitburn. John Chotteau was elected Treasurer, succeeding Peter Allen, who stepped down after 10 years in the role. Freddie Townsend OBE was elected branch Secretary, succeeding Len Oddie.
Death of Townsend
The branch was saddened to learn of the death in France of former Honorary Vice-President Gp Capt Peter Townsend on 19 June 1995. The funeral service took place four days later in St Leger-en-Yvelines, the village near Paris where he had lived for many years. Townsend’s coffin was draped in the Union Jack and RAF flag. The British Ambassador to France, Sir Christopher Mallaby, represented Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and Battle of Britain pilot Air Commodore Sir Archie Windskill represented the Queen Mother. Princess Margaret was not represented but was thought to have sent a private message to the Group Captain’s widow, Marie-Luce, who led mourners at the ceremony. Standard bearers from the Royal British Legion, the Royal Air Force Association, and French veterans' associations also attended. Obituaries were published in the UK, Belgium and across the world.
Major Jack Watson MC, who led the 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion operations during the Battle of Bure, was a guest at the branch dinner held at Maison des Ailes on 18 September 1995. He presented the branch with plaques from the battalion and 6th Airborne Division.
Addressing the branch AGM on 11 December 1995, National Council Member for Overseas Branches Michael Tidnam highlighted that the RBL now had 70 overseas branches with 11,400 members.
D-Day piper’s visit
Bill Millin, the Scotsman famous for playing the bagpipes on Sword Beach and Pegasus Bridge while under fire on D-Day, was a guest of the branch in January 1996.
Sir John Gray
The branch hosted a farewell dinner at NATO headquarters on 25 June 1996 for British Ambassador Sir John Gray to mark his retirement.
No wives, please
Branch veterans paraded at “British Week” in Bastogne on 7 October 1996. Following a reception at the Hôtel de Ville, the veterans were invited to lunch at the Officers’ Mess. Branch minutes note that “wives would have to eat separately in a local restaurant, but it was thought that this would be acceptable”.
Welcome back, Sir
The branch hosted a dinner at NATO headquarters on 14 April 1997 in honour of the new British Ambassador David Colvin CMG, who previously served as spokesman for the UK Permanent Representation to the European Community in 1977-82.
Veterans for Europe?
Graham Downing, National Chairman of the RBL, met committee members at the British Embassy on 7 July 1997 to outline plans for a “Veterans in Europe” association which the Legion hoped might be eligible for EU funding. Michael Tidnam, National Council Member for Overseas Branches, also sought feedback on the possible formation of a Benelux District. Both proposals received a lukewarm reception. After the meeting, members retired to the Red Herring Club, where Downing awarded life membership for outstanding service to Standard Bearer Eric Johnson and committee member Douglas Harrison.
The committee was pleased to learn that a British ex-serviceman who had been living in social housing in Louvain-la-Neuve had, thanks to support from the branch, moved into an RBL home in Ripon, Yorkshire. The news brought spontaneous applause from all present at the branch meeting on 6 October 1997. “It’s the best thing I’ve heard since joining,” said President Colonel Nicoll.
Harry steps down
Harry More surprised the committee on 4 November 1997 by announcing he would be stepping down as Chairman after four years at the helm. He also served for four years as Vice-Chairman and chaired the Service Committee. President Colonel Nicoll spoke for all when he said Harry had been “a great chairman, one of the best we’ve had”.
Major Freddie Townsend OBE was unanimously elected Chairman at the AGM on 1 December 1997. Vice-Chairman Len Oddie MBE, Honorary Treasurer John Chotteau, and committee members Doug Harrison, Harry Shaw MBE, Reg Whitburn, Alf Woodward, Dédée Cooper, Yvonne Sayer, Maureen Van Tiggelen and Claire Whitfield were elected en-bloc, together with a new nominee, Ray Paton. Harry More was presented with a framed certificate in recognition of his outstanding service and appointed Vice-President. Gp Capt David Hencken, Honorary President of the RBL in Belgium and British Defence Attaché since 1993, retired from the committee. Members were told that Col Tim Hall CBE, a former military representative at NATO, had been named as his successor.
Members marked the 75th anniversary of the branch’s formation with a sold-out dinner dance on 13 December 1997 at NATO headquarters. Entertainment officer Doug Harrison said the tombola raised 19,000 Belgian francs (€475).
Addressing the branch meeting on 2 February 1998, Vice-President Harry More called for the renewal of the annual commemoration at the CWGC cemetery in Evere, noting that this had not taken place for some years.
Alf and Harry honoured
Committee member Alf Woodward was presented with a Gold Badge on 30 March 1998 in recognition of his service over many years. Harry Shaw MBE also received a branch certificate at the presentation, held in the Red Herring Club at the British Embassy.
The committee was informed on 25 May 1998 that national HQ had decided not to pursue the idea of forming a “Veterans in Europe” association. It would instead place the full weight of its support behind the World Veterans Federation and its committee on European affairs.
Tribute to Margaret
The branch lost one of its most fondly remembered members with the passing of Margaret d’Hondt in West Malling, Kent, on 30 August 1999. Arthur Empringham paid tribute to Margaret’s “unstinting service” to the Brussels community, recalling how she and her husband Tony would provide coffee and “stronger drinks” in the church hall at Holy Trinity after the service on Sundays. “We will always cherish the smile, even in adversity, and her London accent which she kept over the years, always reminding we old patriots of ‘Blighty’.”
The branch was saddened to learn of the unexpected passing of former President Colonel Earle William “Nick” Nicoll on 1 October 1999. Col Nicoll, who also served as Chairman of RBL Belgium, was a former commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, the Black Watch, and Defence Attaché in Brussels. His funeral, attended by many friends and members of the branch, took place at Sint Antonius Church in Grez-Doiceau on 9 October. A memorial service was also held on 2 December at Perth in Scotland, the home of the Black Watch.
Paying tribute at the AGM on 29 November, Chairman Freddie Townsend said the Colonel had been a President in much more than name, rarely failing to attend meetings and always ready to give advice if needed.
Tributes were also paid at the AGM to long-standing committee member Serge Dauchat, who also recently passed away.
Armistice Day in 1999 was marked with due solemnity in Brussels and throughout the country. As in previous years, branch member Arsène Davreux – “Raymond” to his comrades in the Armée Secrète in 1944 and President of the 2ème Brigade “Yser” Section Luxembourg – laid wreaths and crosses on lonely graves and memorials in Belgium’s southernmost province. Vice-President Harry More MBE represented the branch at a Remembrance ceremony in Overijse on 6 November which also marked the 55th anniversary of the founding of the town’s veterans’ association, the Koninklijke vereniging van oudstrijdersverbroederingen (KVOV).
Harry More MBE was elected branch President at the AGM on 29 November 1999. One of his first duties was to present branch certificates of esteem and appreciation to Honorary Treasurer John Chotteau and committee member Claire Whitfield. Defence Attaché Colonel Tim Hall thanked the branch for the support given to the ceremonies at La Roche-en-Ardenne and Mouscron. He highlighted the success of the Battle of Britain service in September, held for the first time at the Basilique de Koekelberg.
The branch announced the formation of a new committee at the AGM. President: Harry More. Chairman: Freddie Townsend, Vice-Chairman: Reg Whitburn, Hon Treasurer: John Chotteau, Hon Secretary: Ray Paton. General committee members: Doug Harrison, Andrée Cooper, Claire Whitfield, Maureen Van Tiggelen, André Mayne, Fernand Delcourt.
Marie Nelly Rose, a widow cared for by the branch’s service committee for many years, passed away on 13 December 1999. Marie’s working life started at the age of eight, when she was employed in service. She later qualified as a nurse and continued working until she was 75. Her husband, a member of the branch, was a PoW in Germany during the Second World War and died in 1967. Marie, who died aged 96, also outlived their son, who passed away in 1992.
Party like it’s 1999
The branch prepared for the millennium in style with a Christmas party and cabaret at the NATO Staff Centre on 11 December 1999. British Ambassador David Colvin and Defence Attaché Colonel Tim Hall were among the guests. The Brussels Light Opera Company provided the entertainment with a cabaret featuring a Belgian belly dancer. The branch distributed 13 Christmas hampers to beneficiaries in and around Brussels, as well as in Charleroi, Mons and Namur.
Chairman Freddie Townsend, associate member Arsène Davreux and Standard Bearer Eric Johnson represented the branch at the unveiling of a statue of Belgian King Albert II in Liège on 8 April 2000.
Bike to Brussels
Members were out in force at the Parc du Cinquentenaire on 3 June 2000 to welcome riders taking part in the Bike to Brussels 2000 fund-raising ride. The team included RBL General Secretary Brigadier Ian Townsend. British Ambassador David Colvin presented each rider with a medal and praised the branch for its support.
Queen Mother’s 100th
Branch President Harry More attended a reception given by the Ostend branch in honour of the 100thbirthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, on 4 August 2000.
Honorary Treasurer John Chotteau was presented with a Gold Badge by British Ambassador David Colvin during the branch Christmas party at NATO on 16 December 2000. Among those signing the livre d’or was Daphne Chotteau, with these words: “Perhaps only his wife knows how richly deserved.”
Chairman Freddie Townsend informed the committee on 8 January 2001 that he was “as usual” seeking to retain funds raised during the Poppy Appeal in Brussels for the branch’s welfare work. London HQ, as previously, had stated all funds should be remitted to the UK. A discussion that would be continued …
The committee was sad to learn that “Billy” Bacon, an RAF veteran and long-serving member, had passed away. Reg Whitburn, chairman of the Welfare Committee, informed the branch meeting on 12 February 2001 that he had attended the funeral with President Harry More, and committee members Claire Whitfield and Doug Harrison.
The committee paid silent tribute at their meeting on 28 May 2001 following the death of George Nicholls. At 15, Nicholls took part in undercover operations against the occupying forces in Belgium during the Second World War. Captured and interrogated in the fortress of Namur, he was held in a concentration camp until May 1945. He later enlisted in the RAF.
Return of Eric
Eric Johnson BEM, who “retired” as standard bearer in March 2001, was back on duty at the Evere commemoration on 30 June after his would-be successor was unfortunately hospitalised.
A two-minute silence was held at the committee meeting on 17 September 2001 in memory of the 3,000 people killed in the 9/11 al-Qaeda terror attacks on the US. Branch President Harry More sent a letter of condolence to the US Embassy.
Hello to the €
The branch accounts appeared in euros for the first time on 22 October 2001. “The figures are difficult to come to terms with but will come easier as the euro comes into general use,” the minutes note. (The euro was in general circulation from 1 January 2002).
Freddie Townsend stepped down as Chairman at the AGM on 27 November 2001, agreeing to act as Honorary Secretary until a “suitable relief” was found. Former Vice-Chairman Reg Whitburn was elected to succeed Freddie, with Honorary Secretary Ray Paton taking the reins as Vice-Chairman. John Chotteau continued as Honorary Treasurer and Eric Johnson as Standard Bearer.
The committee was addressed on 27 November 2001 by the new British Defence Attaché, Group Captain Jeffrey Bullen OBE, former station commander at RAF Lyneham. Gp Capt Bullen assured members that he and Ambassador Gavin Hewitt would seek to attend as many commemorations as possible, while cautioning that the role of Attaché had expanded considerably and “we have to look forward as well as to the past”.
Chairman Reg Whitburn paid tribute to long-term member Baron Jean Bloch CBE, who passed away on 2 March 2002. Colonel Bloch helped reorganise the Free Belgian Forces in Britain during the Second World War and served with the Brigade Piron during the Normandy campaign. He was among the first troops to enter Brussels when it was liberated. Taken prisoner at Bastogne, he escaped from Bavaria back to Allied lines and served in the 14th US Armoured Divison. “He was a fine example of courage and devotion to duty,” said Mr Whitburn.
Friends of the Fallen
The chairman announced plans on 13 May 2002 to launch a volunteer “Friends of the Fallen” group to look after the many isolated graves of servicemen in Belgium. The idea quickly took off: within months, Welfare Committee Secretary Claire Whitfield reported members were already caring for graves in 37 cemeteries.
Branch members took part in a “friendship and reconciliation” gathering at Neustadt an der Weinstraase in Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, from 3-6 July 2002. The event, bringing together groups from Britain, Belgium, France, and Germany, followed the success of a similar initiative in 2000 in Mâcon, France.
Tribute to Douglas
Members were greatly saddened to learn of the death of Douglas Harrison, who served on the committee for 25 years and as a branch member for nearly half a century. “With the help of Suzanne, his wife, he did much for the life of the branch,” said Chairman Reg Whitburn. More than 30 members and friends were present at the funeral for Douglas, who passed away on 15 August 2002.
There was happier news regarding committee member Maureen Van Tiggelen, who had awoken from her coma asking for champagne.
Addressing the AGM on 25 November 2002, Chairman Reg Whitburn warned the branch faced an “age-related dilemma” with many members now in their eighties. “Our problem is one of fewer active members, compounded in our case with the age factor, which prevents ‘willing’ members from becoming active members,” he said. With a view to attracting new members, he was in touch with a liaison officer at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons to encourage recently retired servicemen and women to join.
The current committee was voted en-bloc at the AGM. President: Harry More MBE, Chairman: Reg Whitburn, Vice-Chairman: Ray Paton, Hon Secretary: Freddie Townsend, Hon Treasurer: John Chotteau, Standard Bearer: Eric Johnson. General committee members: Albert Bove, Pierre Campion, Andrée Cooper, Fernand Delcourt, Freddy Lepeer, Claire Whitfield. Two new members were also elected: Jean Morel and Vivienne Smith.
Counting the Poppy Appeal in 2003 with Chair Reg at the head of the table, Germaine and Claire Whitfield and John Chotteau
End of distinction?
The committee was informed on 7 April 2003 that a motion would be tabled at the RBL’s annual conference to end the distinction between ordinary and associate members. This was apparently necessary to comply with European law.
Honoured at Embassy
Two awards were made at the committee meeting at the British Embassy on 1 September 2003. Honorary Consul Kathie Armstrong presented Ray Paton with a certificate of merit for his work as Vice-Chairman and branch events manager, while Michael Brereton received the Gold Badge for facilitating an excellent relationship between the branch and British Embassy for many years.
Risk of closure
Speaking at the AGM on 24 November 2003, Chairman Reg Whitburn once again raised his concerns about the branch’s future. “Brussels branch RBL was founded over 80 years ago and it seems unbelievable that we should think of its closure, and yet today that possibility is facing us. The officers and President are all octogenarian and will not carry on much longer. If we are to continue, we must find a solution,” he warned.
New British Ambassador Richard Kinchen, accompanied by Defence Attaché Gp Capt Jeffrey Bullen, met committee members on 12 January 2004. He reassured members that the Embassy would continue to support ceremonial and commemorative events, but that resources were under increasing pressure.
The Brussels branch took its turn in hosting a friendship and reconciliation visit with representatives of veterans’ organisations from Mâcon, France, and Neustadt an der Weinstraase, Germany, from 7-9 July 2004.
The branch took part in a ceremony in Bruges on 27 July 2004 in honour of Merchant Navy Captain Charles Fryatt, who was executed on 27 July 1916 for trying to ram a U-boat. The sentence received international condemnation. In a statement to the House of Commons at the time, British Prime Minister Albert Asquith said Captain Fryatt was murdered.
On the brink
Addressing the committee on 5 July 2004, Chairman Reg Whitburn said the branch would have to close within a year or substantially reduce its activities. While every effort would be made to keep the branch afloat, in the absence of new officers he would propose its closure at the next AGM.
Chairman Reg Whitburn had positive news at the AGM on 22 November 2004. Myriam Wraith, a retired English teacher, and Paul Boorman, a retired Royal Engineer and practising accountant, had joined the branch and were nominated as acting Honorary Secretary and acting Honorary Treasurer respectively. Both were duly elected. The Chairman paid tribute to former Honorary Secretary Freddie Townsend, who had been forced to retire after 10 years’ service due to ill-health, and to John Chotteau, whose integrity “was an example to all” during a decade as Treasurer. John agreed to stay on for a few months to ensure a smooth handover. Eric Johnson, Standard Bearer for over 50 years, agreed to continue.
But the Chairman had sad news to convey too.
He reported that long-serving committee member Dédé Cooper, widow of former branch Chairman Major Douglas Cooper, had passed away and paid tribute to her dedicated service.
He also announced he would stand down as Chairman in the coming months, as well as relinquishing his role on the Welfare Committee and as Poppy Appeal organiser.
Members were saddened to learn of the passing of Ray Paton, a former branch Vice-Chairman and Honorary Secretary. President Harry More MBE gave the eulogy at Ray’s funeral, held in Mechelen on 26 March 2005.
Harry recalled how Ray had escaped from France to join the British forces and saw action in Italy and Normandy with the Durham Light Infantry and Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. After his demobilization, Ray settled in Belgium with wife Marie-Louise. “He organised many commemorative and social events with enthusiasm and dedication .. and carried out his tasks in an exemplary manner,” said Harry.
Branch members Harry More, Reg Whitburn, Eric Johnson, Harry Shaw, Ken Bowring, Tom Egan, Freddy Lepeer, and Jack Whittle were presented with veterans’ badges during the annual commemorations at Hotton and La Roche-en-Ardenne on 8 May 2005 – the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Branch member Guy Blockmans brought a special cake, on behalf of the Office de Promotion du Tourisme Wallonie-Bruxelles (OPT), to mark the occasion.
More than 30 members attended the commemoration ceremonies, which were conducted by the Reverend Canon Ray Jones of St George’s Church in Ypres. Captain Ian Jeffrey RN represented the British Embassy and Eric Johnson was the Standard Bearer.
The April 2005 issue of the branch’s quarterly newsletter featured a special article about Private Johnson Gideon Beharry– the first recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration for valour in the British and Commonwealth armed forces, in more than 20 years. Showing supreme courage, he saved members of his unit, the 1st Battalion Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, when their Warrior armoured vehicle column was caught in an ambush on 1 May 2004 at Al-Amarah in Iraq. Six weeks later, on 11 June 2004, he sustained head injuries in a second ambush but managed to reverse his Warrior out of danger until he fell unconscious and other troops were able to pull him out. Beharry was invested with the Victoria Cross by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 27 April 2005.
Ed Read Cutting was elected branch Chairman in June 2005, succeeding Reg Whitburn. A former officer in the Royal Regiment of Wales from 1985-92, Ed served in Britain, Germany, Northern Ireland and Hong Kong. Writing in the branch’s quarterly newsletter, Ed recalled that when he heard the branch was actively seeking to recruit younger members, he had no hesitation in getting in touch. “To be referred to as a young member is always refreshing so please keep it up,” he added.
His aim was to rejuvenate the branch – and he succeeded with the support of an excellent team. A former President of the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium, Ed had good contacts with the British Embassy and sought to develop this relationship. One of the features of Ed’s time at the helm was a greater emphasis on social gatherings for members and friends.
HMS St Albans
To mark Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday, branch members were invited to visit the Royal Navy’s frigate HMS St Albans in Antwerp on 11 June 2005. The guests, who included Marie-Louise Paton, the widow of much-missed former branch Vice-Chairman and Honorary Secretary Ray Paton, were taken round the ship in groups and enjoyed light refreshments. The branch newsletter was pleased to note that “among the crew there are 26 ladies and some of them are even officers”.
Welfare a priority
Colin Puplett was elected Secretary of the Welfare Committee in July 2005 and its Chairman the following December when Harry More stepped down. Colin’s wife Brenda in turn took his place as Secretary. Together with the other team members, they ensured that Legion pensioners, known as protégés, received regular visits, as well as flowers and cards on special occasions. The Welfare Committee was responsible for distributing Christmas hampers and helping the British Charitable Fund to organise short breaks for RBL, Royal Air Force Association and Royal Naval Association pensioners. “These actions are greatly appreciated,” said Colin.
The Welfare Committee in 2005. Putting people first.
Branch members joined forces with their friends from the Royal Naval Association to celebrate Trafalgar Day with a delicious lunch at the NATO Staff Centre on 22 October 2005. Rule Britannia was sung with gusto. Vice-Admiral Glenn Davidson CMM CD gave a presentation on the Canadian Navy.
British Ambassador Richard Kinchen hosted a cocktail party reception at the Residence in Uccle on 15 November 2005. Despite terrible weather, members came from far and wide to attend the event. It was also an opportunity to say goodbye to Sgt Julie Knapman, a strong supporter of the branch during her time at the Embassy. “We will surely miss your smile, efficiency and kindness,” stated Myriam Wraith in the branch newsletter.
Brigadier Andrew Fisher was elected branch President at the AGM on 21 November 2005. Andrew brought immense experience to the role having served for 36 years in the British infantry, Catering Corps and Royal Logistics Corps. He also had experience with veterans, having spent six years as Director of Communications at the Army Benevolent Fund. Looking back, he said: “At the time I was living in Eupen [a town near the German border] and enjoyed coming over each month for our meetings. I remember the strong sense of comradeship among the members. They were very close to each other and a very efficient group who did a great job looking after the British veterans. I was proud to represent the branch.”
Brigadier Andrew Fisher, Branch President
New Membership Secretary
Michael Rose was elected Membership Secretary at the AGM.
British Ambassador Richard Kinchen joined members for the annual commemoration at Hotton on 7 May 2006. President Brigadier Andrew Fisher reminded those present of the heavy losses sustained in counter-attacks by the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division and 51st (Highland) Division in January 1945. A fuller account of the Allied actions by branch member Guy Blockmans is available on the Battle of the Bulge memories website with information about the gun turret Welsh memorial in Hotton, 51st Highland memorial at La Roche-en-Ardenne, and Belgian SAS memorial at nearby Bure.
Junior Standard Bearer
Thanks to some on-the-spot training from long-serving Standard Bearer Eric Johnson, Chairman Ed Read Cutting’s son Bruno had the privilege of acting as his junior during the traditional commemoration at the CWGC cemetery in Evere on 1 July 2006. The service was conducted by Padre Bob Mitchell of the UK Support Unit Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (UKSU SHAPE). Tuomas Tiainen from the British School once again brilliantly played the trumpet during the ceremony at Hotton.
The branch was well represented at a reception for veterans’ organisations hosted by British Ambassador Richard Kinchen at the Residence in Uccle on 8 November 2006. The arrangements were diligently handled by the Ambassador’s social secretary Andrée Ferrant.
Membership Secretary Michael Rose updated the committee on 24 November 2006 with the current branch membership figures which showed a welcome increase over the past two years, rising from 117 to 132. However, with the average age of members also increasing, Michael stressed the need for active recruitment of younger members.
The branch announced the formation of a new committee on 24 November 2006. President: Brigadier Andrew Fisher. Chairman: Ed Read Cutting, Hon Treasurer: Paul Boorman, Hon Secretary: Myriam Wraith, Membership Secretary: Michael Rose, Welfare Committee Chairman: Colin Puplett, Welfare Secretary: Brenda Puplett, Poppy Appeal Coordinator: Rhoda Grant, Communications: Andy Johnson, Events Officer: Harry More, Ceremony Representation: Giovanni Bove, Friends of the Fallen: Pierre Campion, Belgian PR: Freddy Lepeer. Standard Bearer: Eric Johnson.
Ed Read Cutting and his wife, Georgia at Hotton with their children (from left) Tom, Bruno and Frankie
There were two new additions to the committee with Michael Brown succeeding Rhoda Grant as Poppy Appeal Coordinator, and Greg Ruthven succeeding Andy Johnson as Events Coordinator.
The (new) Wipers Times
The branch newsletter was published in a digital format for the first time in October 2008. Events coordinator Greg Ruthven, then working at the British Embassy, was key to this development and re-branded the newsletter as The Wipers Times – a tribute to the soldiers who produced the original Wipers Times during the First World War (“Wipers” was how they pronounced Ypres). An ex-RAF regular and serving reservist, Greg later became the branch historian and webmaster, a role he held until 2018. In addition to his RBL activities, Greg has written extensively about the Artists Rifles Association and was a prime mover in a project to create a memorial on the site of a camp in Romford, Essex, where artists including Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Paul Nash, and Noel Coward were trained as officers. The memorial, depicting a First World War painting by Nash called Over the Top, was unveiled on 13 July 2020. Greg’s wife Nicola Ruthven, who also worked for the British Embassy, was an active member of the Brussels branch, too. The grand-daughter of a British serviceman who took part in the liberation of Athens in October 1944, Nicola had a special mission when the Embassy moved from Rue d’Arlon to Avenue d’Auderghem in 2010: ensuring that a new home was found for the RBL’s archives and other materials. The solution? A designated Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Poppy Room”.
Greg Ruthven (centre) with Standard Bearer Eric Johnson (left), Vice-Chair Michael Rose (right) and friends before a commemoration at Evere. (Picture kindly provided by Greg Ruthven).
Medal for Eric
British Ambassador Rachel Aron presented the Voluntary Service Medal to Standard Bearer Eric Johnson in November 2008 in recognition of his more than 50 years of service to the branch. The citation read: “Eric sets an example to us all with his enthusiasm, immaculate turn-out, and charming spirit. He always makes time to chat to everyone. In fact he makes it his job to get to know them, whether a new member, an old member, or even children who turn up to events from time to time. A better representative we couldn’t and indeed do not have.”
Club Prince Albert
After a long period without a proper venue for social events, the branch was offered use of the Club Prince Albert from 9 February 2009. Based in the former Prince Albert barracks, close to the Petit Sablon and Egmont Palace, the building was home to the Belgian Régiment des Grenadiers from 1907-1939, although it was briefly “loaned” to Germany during the First World War. After the Second World War the barracks was home to the Belgian Military Police and provided the Officers’ Mess for the British Garrison, before becoming a military club.
Andrée Ferrant became branch Honorary Secretary in September 2009, succeeding Myriam Wraith who stepped down after five years of service as secretary, newsletter editor and events’ organiser.
Myriam Wraith receives a token of appreciation from Brigadier Fisher
The branch said farewell to Poppy Appeal Coordinator Michael Brown in January 2010. Michael, who took over the role in 2008, re-invigorated the Appeal network which resulted in annual collections and donations doubling to around €12,000 a year. The branch wished Michael and his wife Wiebke well in their new rolein Berlin. Michael’s successor was Janet Morley.
Let’s do lunch!
The branch inaugurated a series of monthly lunches, starting from 18 January 2010, with the aim of bringing members together more often. The venue was Les Brasseries Rustiques in Evere.
Mark steps in
Welfare Committee member Mark Thomas acted as Standard Bearer at the Evere Memorial Day on 26 June 2010, held in the presence of the new British Ambassador and branch patron Jonathan Brenton. Wreaths were laid in the CWGC cemetery and at the Waterloo Memorial.
The branch committee in 2010 was constituted as follows. President: Brigadier Andrew Fisher, Vice-President: Harry More MBE, Chairman: Ed Read Cutting, Vice-Chairman: Michael Rose, Hon Treasurer: Paul Boorman, Hon Secretary: Andrée Ferrant, Membership Secretary: Paulina Robijns van Rijn, Poppy Appeal coordinator: Janet Morley and Ann Morley, Welfare Committee Chairman: Colin Puplett, Newsletter Coordinator: Helen Heywood.
The branch was represented at the funeral of former member Jimmy Foster OBE on 9 September 2010. Jimmy, a founder of the Belgium branch of the Royal Naval Association, lived in Belgium for more than 40 years. “He was a great bloke who loved a laugh, but did not suffer fools gladly,” said a friend.
Brigade Piron veteran Maurice Mirowski was profiled in the September 2010 edition of The Wipers Times. Born in Poland and brought up in Belgium, Maurice was studying in France when the country surrendered. He set out for North Africa to join the Allies but was captured and held in the notorious Miranda del Ebro jail near Burgos. Released in 1943, he made it to Lisbon where he was sheltered by the Belgian Embassy until his brother, who had escaped to Britain in 1940, arranged for him to be flown out. He joined the Brigade Piron and took part in the liberation of Brussels on 4 September 1944.
Eric is back
Standard Bearer Eric Johnson was back on duty for the annual Remembrance Service at the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity Brussels on 14 November 2010. Standards were presented for the Royal Naval Association by Freddy Roiseux and the Royal Air Forces Association by Jean-Pierre Blanckaert. Vice-Chairman Michael Rose read the Laurence Binyon poem For The Fallen, from which the Legion’s Exhortation is taken. Reverend Canon Dr Robert Innes led the service.
Tribute to Arthur
The December 2010 edition of The Wipers Times had a tribute to Arthur Empringham, who recently passed away. A branch member since the 1960s and former head of entertainment, Arthur was a veteran of the Normandy campaign, serving with a tank division. He met his wife Fleur on leave in Brussels in 1945. In 2005, at the instigation of his grandson David, Arthur returned to Gold Beach for the first time since he landed there 61 years earlier.
A young Arthur Empringham
New British Ambassador Jonathan Brenton welcomed branch members to a reception at the Residence in Rue Ducale on 3 November 2010.
Tribute to Freddie
The March 2011 edition of The Wipers Times included a tribute by Pat Wiegele-Dajani following the death of her father, Major Freddie Townsend OBE, a former branch Chairman and Secretary. Freddie served in Normandy in 1944 with 30 Assault Unit, the Commando outfit formed by Commander Ian Fleming. Writing in the Royal Marines journal The Globe and Laurel, Freddie described 30 AU’s role in the capture of the German commandant of Cherbourg, General Karl-Wilhelm Von Schleiben, who surrendered with Admiral Walter Henneke, 20 other officers and 500 enemy troops. He also recalled the “Aladdin's Cave atmosphere” of the tunnels in the commandant’s huge subterranean bunker which “housed a wine cellar which would have been the envy of the present-day hypermarket”. Freddie’s comrades in 30 AU included Captain Charles Wheeler, later a distinguished BBC journalist and father-in-law of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In the same newsletter, Michael Whitburn proudly looked back on the life of his father, Reg Whitburn MBE, who passed away in December 2010. Reg served in the Household Cavalry in 1945-47 and met his wife Germaine at the famous 21 Club in Brussels. A member of the Brussels branch since 1991, he was Chairman from 1995-2006, Vice-Chairman of the Welfare Committee from 1993-1997 and Poppy Appeal organiser. From 1956-1965, trilingual Reg was Chairman of the Brussels branch of Toc H, the charity linked to Talbot House in Poperinge, the home-from-home where soldiers could get a break from the horror of the trenches in the First World War. Toc H comes from the abbreviation for Talbot House (“Toc Aitch”) in the signallers’ alphabet. Reg was awarded his MBE in 2003 for services to veterans with the RBL and Toc H.
The dynamite behind the 2011 Poppy Appeal! Front row, from left: Helen Haywood, Brenda Puplett, Ann Morley, Simon Robbins. Back row: Colin Puplett, Paulina van Rijn, Alan Puplett, Rainer Hiltermann
Noemie “Cookie” Bowring paid an affectionate tribute to her grandfather, branch member Ken Bowring, who died on 18 February 2012. London-born Ken served with the 1st and 2nd Middlesex Regiments and saw action in Normandy and on the Polish border. He never forgot the terrible sights he witnessed in the concentration camps liberated by his unit.
The April 2012 edition of The Wipers Times paid tribute to former Vice-Chairman and Honorary Secretary Len Oddie MBE, who died aged 87. Len served in the Household Cavalry during the Second World War, with the Royal Horse Guards in Windsor and later in Menden and Iserlohn, Germany, in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). His wife Josie sadly passed away in 1989 and Len spent his later years with his partner Yvonne.
Vice Chairman Michael Rose and acting Standard Bearer Freddy Roiseux attended the inauguration of a memorial at Oostmalle-Zoersel on 4 May 2012, honouring the crew of a Lancaster which crashed on 12May 1944. A Belgian Air Force piper played Flowers of the Forest and a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster, accompanied by two Belgian F-16s, made a flypast. Wing Commander H.R. Goodman (SAAF), Navigator G. Agar (RAF), Bomb Aimer W. Vander-Dasson (RAF), Radio Operator C. Finighan (RAF), Tail Gunner R. McLeod (RCAF), Flight Engineer Ph. Vickers (RAF) and Midupper Gunner R. White (RAF) were laid to rest in the CWGC section of Schoonselhof Cemetery near Antwerp.
Eric set the standard
After 56 years of making the job his own, Eric Johnson made what would be his final appearance as Standard Bearer during the annual commemoration at the CWGC cemetery in Evere on 23 June 2012. He was seconded by Mark Thomas.
Poppy Appeal boost
Five new locations were added for the 2011 Poppy Appeal “campaign”, helping to boost the amount raised by the branch: €10,695 was raised from collecting tins, compared with the previous year’s total of €8,922. Additional contributions from wristbands, enamel Brussels branch brooches, poppy pins and personal contributions boosted the overall total for 2011 to €11,196. The excellent results were due in no small part to the energy and enthusiasm of Poppy Appeal Coordinator Janet Morley and her team.
Duchess of Richmond’s Ball
More than 200 guests attended the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball at the Château Ste Anne on 23 June 2012. Named after the famous ball held in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, the event raised over €26,600, shared between the branch and four other charities.
The July 2012 edition of The Wipers Times paid tribute to member Harry Shaw, who died aged 91. A former miner, Harry served in the Sherwood Foresters and 148th Royal Armoured Corps as a gunner-radio operator. He landed in Normandy on a floating Sherman tank and fought through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Harry was a former Vice Chairman of the Normandy Veterans Association. In 1995 he was awarded the MBE and later the Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Couronne de Belgique for services to British and Belgian veterans.
Branch members marked the 60th anniversary of the accession of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, enjoying a Jubilee lunch with friends from the British Charitable Fund, the Wednesday Club and Royal Air Forces Association.
Ann steps up
Ann Morley, a committee member and Events Coordinator since early 2010, took up the reins as Poppy Appeal Coordinator on 18 September 2012, succeeding her namesake (but no relation) Janet Morley, who had returned to the UK.
Michael steps down
Popular Vice-Chairman Michael Rose stepped down at the AGM on 22 October 2012. Michael also served as Membership Secretary during his eight years on the committee. President Andrew Fisher paid tribute to Michael as “a man of the old school with a sharp sense of humour. Life won’t be the same without this colourful, irascible Scot in our midst”, he said.
New Standard Bearer
Former Royal Naval Association (RNA) Standard Bearer Freddy Roiseux officially took up the gauntlets as new branch Standard Bearer on 5 May 2013 during the annual commemorations at Hotton and La Roche-en-Ardenne.
The branch was saddened to learn of the death in May 2013 of Simone “Monette” Kemps Johnson, who supported branch events for more than 40 years with her husband Eric, the former Standard Bearer. She had a great memory, especially for Second World War songs. At an anniversary gathering of US and British veterans, the Americans were singing popular American tunes when Monette showed them how it was done, launching with fervour into Rule Britannia.
Branch member Fleur Empringham told her story in the July 2013 edition of The Wipers Times, from her life as a teenager in Brussels under Nazi occupation, to meeting her British husband Arthur and moving to Germany after the war. “We were not the liberators, but the enemy occupiers and the German civilians were understandably very hostile,” she recalled.
The branch paid its respects to Hugh Oxley CBE following his death aged 95. Hugh served in the Royal Navy Reserve on HMS Birmingham and HMS Kent in the Second World War, covering 400,000 miles in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and icy waters of Greenland and Iceland. He had a distinguished career in banking and was a former President of the British Chamber of Commerce.
Change of editor
With her return to the UK, Helen Haywood stepped down after more than three years as editor of The Wipers Times in July 2013. “I have been privileged to record the moving stories of some of our members,” she said. Alan Puplett took over the mantle.
Jean-Pierre Pede (First World War Centenary Coordinator), Ian Youd (Events Coordinator), and Jacqueline Daugnaix-Whitfield (Friends of the Fallen) were elected to the committee at the AGM on 22 October 2013.
Branch members expressed their condolences after the passing of Albert Bove on 24 November 2013. Albert, also known as Joe and John, had the name Giovanni Alberto on his birth certificate when he was born in the north of England. Conscripted into the Durham Light Infantry, he served in the British Expeditionary Force and was a stretcher bearer at Dunkirk before being evacuated himself. He later fought with the Royal Artillery and Guards Armoured Division, taking part in the Normandy campaign and liberation of Brussels. It was during the celebrations that he met Octavie Jacobs, the teenage daughter of a restaurant owner. They married in 1946 and stayed in Brussels. It is thought Albert was the last branch member who was a veteran of both Dunkirk and Normandy.
Tributes to Myriam
Branch President Andrew Fisher led tributes to former branch Secretary Myriam Wraith following her unexpected death on 26 February 2014. “It was largely through her hard work and devotion to others that the Brussels branch kept going for as long as it has. She took on everything that was thrown her way and she particularly cared for those who needed help and assistance,” he said. “A wonderful lady, never complaining, always ready to help and smiling despite her serious health problems,” added her successor, Andrée Ferrant.
The branch committee in 2014 was constituted as follows. President: Brigadier Andrew Fisher. Vice-President: Harry More MBE, Chairman: Ed Read Cutting, Hon Treasurer: Paul Boorman, Hon Secretary: Andrée Ferrant, Membership Secretary: Jean-Pierre Pede, Poppy Appeal organiser: Ann Morley, Hon Membership Secretary: Paulina Robijns van Rijn, Welfare Committee Chairman: Colin Puplett, Welfare Secretary: Brenda Puplett, Events Coordinator: Ian Youd, Newsletter and Communication Coordinator: Alan Puplett, Historian & Website: Greg Ruthven, Friends of the Fallen: Jacqueline Daugnaix Whitfield, Standard Bearers: Freddy Roiseux and Mark Thomas.
In the presence of branch members and pupils from the British School of Brussels, UK Minister Mark Simmonds, Ambassador Jonathan Brenton, and Paul Breyne, Belgian Federal Commissioner-General for the Centenary of the First World War, laid a wreath and sowed poppy seeds at the Edith Cavell-Marie Depage Memorial on 4 April 2014.
Branch member Alan Puplett and George Bowring, son of sadly departed veteran Ken Bowring, took part in the D-Day 70th anniversary Remembrance Service in Bayeux on 6 June 2014. The event, organised by the Legion and Normandy Veterans Association, was honoured by the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales.
Good luck, Robert
The Reverend Canon Dr Robert Innes, Senior Chaplain of the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity Brussels, who for nine years led the annual Remembrance Service, as well as the commemorations at Hotton, La Roche-en-Ardenne and Evere, took up his new role as Bishop of Gibraltar and Europe on 20 July 2014. Rev Innes, who was also Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the EU Institutions, talked about his new post in a video interview. The Reverend Canon John Wilkinson, Associate Chaplain and Canon Pastor at the Pro-Cathedral of Holy Trinity Brussels, has led the branch’s Remembrance ceremonies since 2014 and is an observer on the committee.
By Royal appointment
Standard Bearer Freddy Roisieux was in the guard of honour at a memorable ceremony held at Saint Symphoriencemetery near Mons on 4 August 2014. The event was attended by Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, with Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, his wife Kate (“very pretty” in Freddy’s words) and Prince Harry, who spoke to Freddy and the other standard bearers. Other VIPs included British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Presidents of France and Germany, François Hollande and Joachim Gauck. Over 500 men, most killed during the battle of Mons, lie in the cemetery: 283 German soldiers and 229 British. The cemetery contains the graves of the first and last British soldiers who killed in the First World War: John Parr, aged 16, and George Ellison, shot an hour and a half before the Armistice.
Arc de Triomphe ceremony
The Brussels branch teamed up with RBL Paris for a special commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe on 4 August 2014. With the traffic stopped, hundreds of Parisiens and tourists watched as the combined delegations, together with members of the French veterans’ association, formed up on the Champs Elysées. President Andrew Fisher's wife Edith laid a wreath next to the Eternal Flame, under the watch of a guard of honour and band in full dress uniform. The ceremony was followed by a reception at the Paris RBL’s club-house. The President thanked Poppy Appeal organiser Ann Morley and partner Dave Lees for their work on the memorable event.
Branch Secretary Andrée Ferrant attended the unveiling of a new monument in Marcq-lez-Enghien on 23 August 2014, dedicated to the two first British airmen killed during the First World War. Pilot LieutenantVincent Waterfall of the East Yorkshire Regiment and Observer Lieutenant Charles Bayly of the Royal Engineers, both 23, were shot down almost 100 years to the day earlier. Relatives of both men were present at the ceremony. The memorial was initiated by the late Myriam Wraith, former branch Secretary, branch member Guy Blockmans and historian Louis Darbé. The ceremony ended with a fly-past dropping poppies from a plane similar to the airmen’s AVRO 504. Andrée later joined RBL London representatives at the Planting of the Centenary Tree, commemorating the Battle of Mons. The ceremony was led by the city’s Mayor and former Belgian Prime Minister Elio du Rupo, in the presence of new British Ambassador Alison Rose and her German, French, and Irish counterparts.
Poppy Appeal record
A record €15,000 was raised from collections and donations in Brussels and its surroundings during the Poppy Appeal in November 2014, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The amount was €3,200 higher than in the previous year – which was also a record.
Torch of Remembrance
The British Torch of Remembrance, carried by ex-service personnel from Westminster Abbey to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Brussels and Menin Gate in Ypres, made its annual visit to Belgium on 7 November 2014. British Ambassador Alison Rose, Air Chief Marshal Sir Joe French and Belgian Minister of Defence Steven Vandeput laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on behalf of the branch, which was represented by Fernand Delcourt, Alan Puplett and Andrée Ferrant.
The idea of a torch as a symbol of remembrance originated in Belgium in 1926 when the National Veterans Federation (FNC) carried torches from the country’s nine provinces to the memorial at the Colonne du Congrès.
The branch was saddened to learn of the death of former President and Chairman Harry More MBE on 13 February 2015. Harry’s story is told in The Wipers Times. He served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corpsand took part in the Normandy campaign in June 1944. After the war, he settled in Belgium, married Denise and worked for the British Embassy and EuroControl. Colin Puplett spoke for all in his tribute to Harry: “The image that will remain in our memories will be that of a man of great integrity; upright, discreet, cheerful and generous. He was nice man, a great man, a real gentleman.”
The branch expressed its condolences following the death of ex-Falklands RAF veteran Mark Thomas, who passed away on 26 March 2015 aged 53. Known as “Tommo”, Mark joined the branch in 2010. He was an active member of the Welfare Committee and Chairman of the British United Football Club. Paying tribute in The Wipers Times, Brenda Puplett wrote: “His strength of character during the last few months of his life, when he was putting up a brave fight against cancer, which he knew to be terminal, was an example for us all.”
Ceremony at fort
Branch President Andrew Fisher and member Fenton Wiffen took part in a ceremony at the Fort d’Aubin Neufchateau on 8 May 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Fenton and two schoolchildren laid the branch’s wreath. Part of the Fortified Position of Liège, the fort held out for 11 days after the German invasion of Belgium. Without this defence, Germany may have thwarted the Dunkirk evacuation.
Tribute to aircrew
At the invitation of branch member Wilfred Burie, Standard Bearer Freddy Roiseux and Alan Puplett attended a ceremony on 27 May 2015 at the Rebecq memorial which honours five aircrew killed when their Lancaster was shot down on 28 May 1944. The memorial also commemorates members of the Belgian resistance who helped one crew member evade capture and provided medical assistance to another. Guests at the commemoration included Wing Commander Jack Harris DFC, who flew 37 raids with 550 Squadron in 1944-45.
Salute to Pierre
Pierre Campion, a member of the branch committee for 10 years who served in the Royal Navy during the Normandy landings, passed away on 22 May 2015. Pierre, who lived in Oostduinkerke, also ran the Friends of the Fallen team and every November would place over a 100 poppy crosses in war cemeterieson the Belgian coast from De Panne to Knokke. Alan Puplett paid tribute to him in The Wipers Times.
Alan Puplett, in his capacity as trainee Standard Bearer, attended the D-Day commemorations on 6 June 2015 at Caen Memorial, Bayeux Cathedral and the CWGC cemetery.
Kennith Schrijvers told his story in the October 2015 edition of The Wipers Times, recalling his childhood in Ypres in the aftermath of the First World War, his time in the Belgian Army, as a PoW in Poland, and serving as a medic in the US 7th Armoured Division in the Ardennes. After the war Kennith became a police officer. He died on 31 March 2016 (obituary).
Edward Hearn DFC
The branch paid tribute to Squadron Leader Edward Hearn DFC, who died on 29 August 2015, aged 93. He was Chairman of the RAF Escaping Society (RAFES) in Belgium and President of the Brussels branch of the Royal Air Forces Association.
Musician David Cage, son of member Rosemary Pallett, gave a moving interpretation of We’ll Meet Againat the branch Christmas lunch on 14 December 2015 at Le St Hubert, the new venue for branch socials since the closure of Les Brasseries Rustiques.
The branch committee in 2016 was constituted as follows. President: Brigadier Andrew Fisher. Chairman: Ed Read Cutting, Vice-Chairman: Colin Puplett, Hon Treasurer: Paul Boorman, Hon Secretary: Andrée Ferrant, Welfare Secretary: Brenda Puplett, Membership Secretary: Jean-Pierre Pede, Events Coordinator: Kate Andrews, Poppy Appeal organiser: Ann Morley, History & Website: Greg Ruthven, Newsletter: Michael Whitburn, Friends of the Fallen: Jacqueline Daugnaix-Whitfield, Public Relations: Paulina Robijns van Rijn, Standard Bearers: Freddy Roiseux and Alan Puplett, Chaplain: the Reverend Ann Babb.
Tea in a tank
The development of a new armoured vehicle designed to break the deadlock of trench warfare – the tank – was the focus of an article by Colonel François Roberti-Lintermans in the April 2016 edition of The Wipers Times. The Mark I tank first went into action at Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. Each tank had an indispensable piece of equipment, a tin attached to the exhaust which was filled with water to make tea. “Dans l’armée Britannique, on ne part pas au combat sans thé,” explained François.
Branch member Claire Whitfield looked back on her life following the liberation and her marriage to RAF Flight Sgt Stanley Whitfield. The couple lived initially with Stanley’s family in Durham where Claire picked up a North-East accent she never lost. “It was so cold there I’d always sit as close to the fire as possible,” she laughed. Work was scarce after the war and the couple returned to Belgium so that Stanley could take a job working for Claire’s father. Their twin daughters, Patricia and Jacqueline, were born at this time. They were forced to move back to Britain, however, when the factory Stanley was working in burnt down. Sadly, Stanley died in 1963, aged just 43, from a brain tumour. Claire later married her widowed brother-in-law Billy Charlton, who was a wireless operator on Halifax bombers during the war. She was widowed a second time when he died in 1977. Claire returned to Brussels in 1982 and worked as a buyer for Procter & Gamble. After retiring in 1985, a friend introduced her to the British Legion club in Schaerbeek and she quickly became involved as an enthusiastic committee member. She had particularly fond memories of Reg Whitburn and Freddie Townsend. “They were real gentlemen – I miss them so much,” said Claire.
A fabulous 80th birthday celebration for Claire Whitfield with her twin daughters, Jacqueline (left) and Patricia
The branch was represented at the unveiling of new memorials at Jalhay and Bérinzenne on 9 April 2016. Both memorials commemorate RAF aircrews shot down in 1944.
Fleur Empringham, Claire Whitfield and Roger Ellis were three of the older branch members visited by students from the International School of Brussels (ISB) as part of their creativity, action and service project. Fleur recalled her experience: “Gradually it became a habit to have traditional English tea at 5pm. He could have been another grandson to me and I was told I was like an extra grandma. This has been an enriching experience for both of us.”
Alan Puplett represented the branch as Standard Bearer at Pegasus Bridge, Ranville and Arromanches at the 72nd anniversary D-Day commemorations on 5-6 June 2016. “My own thoughts were especially with Harry Shaw MBE, Jack Whittle, Reg Whitburn MBE, Ken Bowring, Albert Bove, Arthur Empringham, Harry More MBE, Freddy Townsend OBE, Pierre Campion and other past members,” he recalled.
Escapes and scrapes
Long-standing member Fernand Delcourt told his story in the October 2016 edition of The Wipers Times. Serving in the Belgian tank squadron in May 1940, he recalled how it was heavily out-numbered and no match for the enemy. Fernand’s tank was hit and, although wounded, he managed to get to Montpellier in unoccupied France. He returned to Belgium in August 1941 but was forced to go into hiding again, sheltered by the monks at Orval Abbey, before escaping to Britain thanks to the Comète resistance line.
Ethel Pede-Moffat, Fernand Delcourt and Andrée Ferrant representing Brussels Branch at the 72nd Liberation of Brussels
Swiss in the RAF
Léon Rubin was the subject of the All About Me feature in the January 2017 edition of The Wipers Times. When Belgium was invaded, he wanted to join the Belgian forces in Britain even though he was Swiss and only 15. In 1943, Léon crossed the border into Spain but was arrested soon after. Claiming to be British, he was freed and eventually reached Britain via Gibraltar, serving in the Belgian section of the RAF. He made his second parachute drop at the age of 90 (updated biography).
Branch members attended a ceremony on 27 January 2017 at the Edmond Thieffry Monument commemorating the First World War air ace and aviation pioneer.
Link with youth
Belgian Air Force veteran and branch member Peter van den Broeck wrote about Laakdal’s 11 November Remembrance Committee in the April 2017 edition of The Wipers Times. The commune works closely with schools, sponsoring visits to the battlefields and former concentration camp at Breendonk, where the visit is guided by an ex-prisoner. Serving Belgian military personnel also volunteer for classroom Q&As to explain the link between past and present.
The branch received the sad news that Normandy veteran Fred Hobbs had passed away on 2 March 2017. A holder of the Legion d' Honneur, he served with the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment), the Royal Artillery and Middlesex Regiment. Fred, who took part in the liberation of Antwerp and the Ardennes campaign, told his story in January 2016 edition of The Wipers Times.
Envoys at Hotton
British Ambassador Alison Rose and Canadian Ambassador Olivier Nicoloff joined branch members for the annual commemoration ceremony at Hotton on 7 May 2017. After a service at the Church Notre Dame des Constellations conducted by Père Herman Kusola and branch Chaplain the Reverend Canon John Wilkinson, wreaths were laid at the CWGC cemetery, where branch member Francois Roberti-Lintermans made a poignant speech about peace.
Reverend Canon John Wilkinson, François Roberti-Lintermans and Ambassador Alison Rose at Hotton in 2015
British Day in Boom
The branch was well represented at the “British Day at Boom” celebrations on 2 September 2017, commemorating the town’s liberation on 4 September 1944 by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (Normandy footage). British food, whisky and gin tasting, 1940s music, British classic cars, board games, and London taxis were all part of the fun. The Brits were in Boom for two weeks in 1944 – and clearly made an impression because 21 local girls went on to marry British soldiers. Sadly, Lieutenant Colonel David Silvertop DSO MC who led the liberation, was killed soon after in Sint Anthonis during Operation Market Garden.
The branch was represented at Belgian Memorial Day on 22 September 2017, when the accent was on the role of women during the First World War. Women representing civil society in Belgium and other countries read out the names of civilian and military victims as well as deportees in 1917. Anne Coppieters 't Wallant read the poignant last letter sent home by Léonie Rammeloo, a 27-year-old passeur, just before she and her friend Emilie Schatteman were executed by firing squad.
Honour for Roger, 99
Branch member Roger Ellis, 99, was invested with the Légion d'Honneur in a ceremony conducted by Capitaine de Frégate Lamour de Caslou at the French Ambassador's Residence in October 2017. Roger was 25 when he landed on Sword Beach. He served in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Hewas joined at the ceremony by his daughter and two sons, as well as members of the Brussels branch. Asked for the secret of his longevity, he replied: “Never tell lies.”
Paul Boorman, branch Treasurer for 13 years, stepped down in October 2017. “He kept us on the financial straight and narrow year in and year out, producing flawless annual accounts and providing us with advice and guidance when we needed it. His presence on the committee, his highly qualified guidance and ready wit will be much missed,” said President Andrew Fisher. Sally Baxter was announced as his successor.
Cream of the crop
The welfare committee held its first-ever cream tea on 23 October 2017, which proved an instant hit with members. Thanks to Ron Aston’s contacts, a venue was secured at St. Anthony's Church Hall in Kraainemand the Military Wives’ Choir Belgium gave a recital.
Jacqueline Daugnaix-Whitfield (daughter of Claire Whitfield) laid a wreath on behalf of the branch on 12 November 2017 at a memorial near Thynes honouring 14 Australian and French airmen killed when two Halifax bombers crashed in bad weather on 21 November 1944.
Thank you, Ed
Ed Read Cutting, branch Chairman since 2006, stepped down in December 2017. Now based in Kent, he remains an active member of the RBL at its Goudhurst branch.
Change of the guard
Brigadier Andrew Fisher, branch President since 2006, stood down in March 2018. Andrew participated in many events and commemorations, memorably representing the branch in the First World WarRemembrance ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe. Andrew was also an accomplished cartoonist whose works often appeared in The Wipers Times.
Commodore Darren Bone was elected as the branch’s new Chairman in March 2018. Secretary to the NATO Military Committee since July 2017, Darren was previously Commander British Forces South Atlantic Islands, based in the Falkland Islands. He also served in the Ministry of Defence, the UK’s Joint Headquarters, Afghanistan, and deployed worldwide on maritime operations. Among his career highlights was navigating the Royal Yacht Britannia
Commodore Darren Bone, Branch Chair
The branch committee in 2018 was constituted as follows. President: Brigadier Andrew Fisher. Chairman: Commodore Darren Bone, Hon Treasurer: Sally Baxter, Hon Secretary: Andrée Ferrant, Membership Coordinator: Jean-Pierre Pede, Welfare Chairman: Colin Puplett, Welfare Secretary: Brenda Puplett, Poppy Appeal organiser: Ann Morley, Newsletter Coordinator: Michael Whitburn, Electronic Communications: Alan Puplett, Friends of the Fallen: Jacqueline Daugnaix-Whitfield, Events Coordinator: Kate Andrews, Chaplain: Rev Canon John Wilkinson, Standard Bearers: Freddy Roiseux, Jean-Pierre Blanckaert, 2nd Standard Bearer: Alan Puplett, Website and Historian: Greg Ruthven.
Chairman Darren Bone laid a wreath to mark the centenary of the Zeebrugge Raid (23 April 1918). TheRoyal Navy lost nearly 600 dead and wounded in the operation led by HMS Vindictive against a U-boat base in the port. A smokescreen intended to conceal the attackers was blown offshore, exposing them to heavy casualties. On 9 May 1918, the Navy conducted a second raid on Ostend which was hampered byunexpected sea fog. Despite the heavy losses and questionable gains, both raids demonstrated courage and daring, with the award of eight Victoria Crosses (VCs) at Zeebrugge and three at Ostend as testament to the fact.
Tributes to Michael Rose
Branch members paid warm tributes to Michael Rose, former Membership Secretary and Vice-Chairman, who passed away in Béziers, France, on 19 July 2018. In 2013, he was awarded the RBL Golden Badge by British Ambassador Jonathan Brenton for services to the branch for over 30 years. Despite being a Scot, Michael enlisted in Belgium’s Para-Commandos and served in Rwanda-Burundi with fellow branch member Erich d'Hulster. “He was an intelligent, courteous, meticulous person, with a great sense of fun. He will always remain in our hearts,” said Erich in tribute. A keen sailor, Michael was also Vice-Commodore of the Brussels Yacht Club.
The branch was also saddened by news of the death of Brenda Ghislain Knight on 26 July 2018, at the age of 101. Brenda served in the Women’s Auxiliary Royal Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War.On the occasion of her centenary, Brenda received a signed photograph from the King and Queen of the Belgians, and a telegram and photograph from Buckingham Palace.
The branch committee in 2019 was constituted as follows. Chairman: Commodore Darren Bone, Vice-Chairman: Jean-Pierre Pede, Hon Secretary: Andrée Ferrant, Hon Treasurer: Sally Baxter, Membership Secretary: Jean-Pierre Pede, Poppy Appeal organiser: Ann Morley, Events Coordinator: Kate Andrews. Members: Zoe White MBE, Dennis Abbott. Chaplain: Rev Canon John Wilkinson, Standard Bearer: Freddy Roiseux.
At the invitation of Chairman Commodore Darren Bone, the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines, Plymouth, performed an open-air concert in the Grand Place on 3 June 2019 to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The band also played at NATO headquarters in the presence of American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad. The Legion’s new national President, Lieutenant General James Bashall, made his first overseas visit on the occasion, also paying his respects at theCWGC cemetery in Heverlee with Commodore Bone and committee member Phil Hyde..
Rocking the Grand Place
New British Ambassador Martin Shearman opened the branch’s annual Remembrance service at the CWGC cemetery in Heverlee on 10 November 2019 with a heartfelt, thought-provoking reflection. Wreaths were laid by senior national military representatives from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Poland, the Royal Air Force Association and members of the scouts and guides. Lt Col Dick Ovey (bugle), Robbe Claes (trumpet) and Scott James (pipes) added a poignant touch to the occasion.
Poppy Appeal success
The November 2019 Poppy Appeal, launched at NATO headquarters, raised more than €11,000. One of the biggest single fundraisers was Liège-based retired teacher Jackie Farbridge, who collected €825 with the support of pupils from Lycée de Waha and other local schools. Roger George of Stonemanor British Shop in Everberg collected more than €1,000, taking his store’s contribution to more than €13,000 over the past decade.
On 5 January 2020, branch members took part in the annual Pegasus Remembrance Walk, organised by Michel Bourland. A ceremony was held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the three-day Battle of Bure, in which the 13th(Lancashire) Parachute Battalion and 2nd Battalion Oxford and Bucks sustained heavy losses in hand-to-hand fighting to drive out the German defenders. A commemoration was also held at the nearby Belgian SAS monument, marking the place where three members of the special forces regiment were killed under enemy fire.
Honorary Secretary Andrée Ferrant addresses the crowd at Bure
Resistance hero dies
Former branch member Arsène Davreux – “Raymond” to his comrades in the Armée Secrète, former President of the 2ème Brigade “Yser” Section Luxembourg and former President of the Fraternelle des Anciens Combattants de la Province de Luxembourg – passed away in Rochefort on 23 January 2020. He was 96. Arsène was one of the branch’s most decorated members: his honours included Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold I, Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Couronne, Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold II, Médaille d'honneur avec Palme d’Or, Médaille de Volontaire de Guerre, Médaille de la Résistance, and Médaille du militaire Combattant de la guerre 40-45. Arsène’s funeral took place at the Collégiale Saint-Monon de Nassogne on 27 January followed by burial at the Cimetière de Hargimont.
The branch committee in 2020 was constituted as follows. Chairman: Commodore Darren Bone, Vice-Chairman: Jean-Pierre Pede, Hon Secretary: Andrée Ferrant, Hon Treasurer: Jean-Pierre Pede, Branch Community Support: Dennis Abbott, Poppy Appeal organiser: Ann Morley, News and Events Coordinator: Phil Hyde, Web Coordinator: Zoe White MBE, Facebook coordinator: Alain Brogniez, Chaplain: Rev Canon John Wilkinson, Standard Bearer: Freddy Roiseux, Member: Steve Grant MBE.
Commodore Darren Bone stepped down as branch Chairman in September 2020 on his retirement after 35 years in the Royal Navy. Paying tribute, his successor Zoe White recalled his “outstanding job across all areas of the branch while holding down one of the busiest roles in NATO HQ”, adding that he had worked tirelessly to raise the profile of the branch.
First female Chair
Zoe White, a member of NATO’s International Staff who served for 17 years as an officer in the Royal Signals, became the first female Chair of the branch in September 2020, succeeding Commodore Darren Bone. “It is a privilege to be a part of a strong and enthusiastic branch and to be able to work closely with an exceptionally committed and driven committee,” she said.
Zoe deployed in Afghanistan
Branch members gathered at Evere on Saturday 2 October 2020 to hold a socially-distanced Remembrance service. Usually held in June, the ceremony was postponed due to the Covid lockdown. In the presence of British Ambassador Martin Shearman and Defence Attaché Gp Capt Justin Fowler, the service was opened by branch Chair Zoe White and led by the Rev Canon John Wilkinson. Wreaths were laid by the Ambassador, Zoe White, Erik Ramakers and Nadine Clarisse from CEAC-ECOS (La Confédération Européenne des Anciens Combattants/ De Confederatie van de Europese oud-strijders), and Stephen Hanson, a retired Canadian Air Force officer, on behalf of the Royal Air Force Association.
The branch expressed deep condolences following the death of Colonel François Roberti-Lintermans on 17 November 2020. A member of the Belgian Resistance “Marathon” network in the Second World War, he helped British and Allied airmen to evade capture and helped liberate a village with US troops. He later served in the Belgian Army and was a keen amateur historian. His story is told on the website.
Colonel François Roberti-Lintermans
The branch was saddened to learn of the death of former member Mervyn Evans on 22 November 2020 in Braine-l'Alleud, aged 97. From Treforest, Pontypridd in the South Wales valleys, Mervyn was 21 when he landed with his Royal Signals unit on Juno Beach in 1944. He met his Belgian wife-to-be in Warneton and, after marrying on 30 April 1945, they decided to make their life in Belgium – though Mervyn never lost his Welsh accent. He was laid to rest in in the veterans’ lawn of honour at Sainte-Anne cemetery, Waterloo. His son Peter placed the Welsh flag in his coffin, with these words: “Thank you, Dad, for all you have done for humanity and for your family. You will remain forever in our thoughts and in our hearts.”
Pupils from the International School of Belgium in Aartselaar sent a parcel of Christmas cards and letters for the branch’s Second World War veterans – proof of the special bond that exists between the “greatest generation” and the youngest generation. The much-appreciated Christmas messages, coming at the end of a difficult year for the elderly in particular, was encouraged by Head Wayne Johnson after the success of a similar letter-writing initiative by the school to mark Remembrance.
Greetings from Isabelle
In a message to the branch on 18 January 2021, Isabelle Townsend, the eldest daughter of former Honorary Vice-President and Battle of Britain ace Peter Townsend, wished a “Happy 100th anniversary to the Royal British Legion!”. The actress and former fashion model revealed that her father’s books Duel of Eagles, Duel in the Dark (also released as The Odds Against Us), and his autobiography Time and Chance will be re-published later in 2021. A documentary on one of his other books, The Postman of Nagasaki, is also in the pipeline.
We’ll miss you, Claire
Claire Whitfield (née Stroobant), a former committee member and welfare secretary, passed away at Saint-Michel hospital in Brussels on 27 February 2021. She was 94. Paying tribute, Branch Secretary Andrée Ferrant said: “Claire was very present and active in all the events our branch organised. She loved parties, meeting people, and sharing experiences. Claire was always smiling and happy to help. She was a pearl whom we will miss very much.”
Chair Zoe White was delighted to announce on 25 March 2021 that three dedicated members had been selected to receive RBL Centenary Awards in recognition of their outstanding contribution to the branch: Eric Johnson, Standard Bearer for 56 years, from 1956 to 2012; Andrée Ferrant, Honorary Secretary since September 2009; and Ann Morley, who served as Events Coordinator from 2010 to 2012 and Poppy Appeal Coordinator since September 2012.
Life member and Normandy veteran Eric received news of his award on 2 April – his 96th birthday – from Vice-President Jean-Pierre Pede. Eric’s daughter Kathleen and so-in-law Bob were present for the special moment. “He was surprised, but extremely touched, by this announcement,” said Jean-Pierre. “During his active life, he was devoted to the RBL and, as he says, ‘British from the head to toe and always ready to serve’. He felt very honoured to receive this award.
Commenting after receiving her certificate of recognition and centenary badge, Andrée said: “These are invaluable presents which I will always cherish. It is so much appreciated! I'm so grateful for all the good moments and friendship which I have shared with so many people during these 12 years.”
On receiving her award, Ann said: “I am so proud to have been nominated and selected. It is a great pleasure to be a part of the organisation and enjoy your support.”
Get better soon, Fleur
Fleur Empringham, a long-serving member of the branch entertainment committee chaired by her late husband Arthur in the 1970s, is recovering from a broken leg. Fleur, who will be 97 in October and whose story was told in the July 2013 edition of The Wipers Times, has been receiving physiotherapy treatment in Caen, France, where she is staying with her daughter Sonia during the Covid lockdown. Honorary Secretary Andrée Ferrant, who managed to reach Fleur by phone, said: “She is an extraordinary person, extremely positive and funny. She is very pleased with the physio, although it is tough. Fleur is unique: the phone-call made my day.”
Death of Prince Philip
The branch was deeply saddened to learn of the death of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Windsor on 9 April 2021. He was 99, two months short of his hundredth birthday. A life member of the RBL, the Prince was the devoted consort of Her Majesty the Queen, the Legion’s Patron, for 73 years. He served with distinction in the Royal Navy from 1939-52, seeing action as a sub-lieutenant on HMS Valiant during the Battle of Cape Matapan in the Mediterranean, where he earned a mention in despatches. Serving on HMS Whelp, he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945. The Prince was created Duke of Edinburgh upon his marriage to Princess Elizabeth in November 1947. He retired from the Navy after the Queen’s accession to the throne in February 1952. In May 1966, he accompanied Her Majesty on a four-day state visit to Belgium. The Prince was a strong supporter of the RBL throughout his life, regularly attending Remembrance events and commemorations. His Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme inspired millions of young people to do voluntary service and develop their skills. Born on the Greek island of Corfu on 10 June 1921, the Duke’s father was Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and his mother, Princess Alice, was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Prince Philip outlived his four older sisters, one of whom, Princess Cecilie, was tragically killed with her husband and children in an air accident near Ostend in November 1937.
Branch member François-Marie Jacobs, a veteran of the Belgian SAS, passed away on the same day as Prince Philip. He was 95. Serving with B Squadron in the final months of the Second World War, François-Marie and his unit took part in numerous operations at the forefront of the Allied push into the Netherlands and Germany. After the Nazi surrender, the Belgian SAS was involved in a major counter-intelligence mission aimed at capturing high-ranking military and SS personnel, members of the Gestapo, collaborators, concentration camp guards and other war criminals. His unit captured Joachim von Ribbentrop (Hitler’s Foreign Minister), Admiral Karl Dönitz (Hitler’s successor as head of state), General Ernst Schaumburg (former commander of Paris) and many others. François-Marie spent his civilian career of more than 40 years in the automotive world until retiring in 1990 and moving from Antwerp to settle in Champlon-Famenne. A widower – he lost his wife Gaby in 2019 – he regularly attended remembrance commemorations. He was present for the January 2020 Pegasus Remembrance Walk, marking the 75th anniversary of the three-day Battle of Bure. Paying tribute to François-Marie, branch member Michel Bourland said: “I will remember him as a warm, friendly and, above all, modest man”. Honorary Secretary Andrée Ferrant added: “He was such a brave, humble and positive friend, who never complained.”
François-Marie Jacobs (far left) with Freddy Roiseux (3rd from left), Alain Brogniez (4th from left), Andrée Ferrant (5th from left) and Michel Bourland (far right) at the Pegasus Walk in Bure, January 2020
Message to Her Majesty the Queen
The funeral of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, took place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, on 17 April 2021. Representatives of the three branches of the armed services played a prominent role in the poignant ceremony, which took place in a scaled back form due to Covid. The service was watched by millions worldwide.
Chair Zoe White sent the following message of condolence to Her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Family on behalf of the branch:
“It was with much sadness that the Royal British Legion Brussels Branch received the news of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh’s death.
Prince Philip dedicated his life to the service of his country and the Commonwealth. Energetic, industrious and a life-long moderniser, he is remembered for his drive and dedication to public service over seven decades.
A former Royal Navy officer who saw distinguished active service, he was a life-long member and supporter of the Royal British Legion. In particular, the Brussels Branch remembers Her Majesty and Prince Philip's official visit to Belgium in May 1966 where branch members were honoured to join many elements of their busy programme, including the paying of respects at the Anglo-Belgian Memorial in Brussels’ Place Poelaert and the inspection of a guard of honour, composed of British and Belgian veterans in the Grand Place.
A much-loved and respected figure, his commitment and devotion to The Queen was clear and unwavering through the good times and the bad. He was an example of enduring strength, stability and togetherness that has become even more relevant during the pandemic. On behalf of all members of the Brussels Branch, we celebrate his life and offer our deepest condolences to our Patron Her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Family. We will remember him.
Royal British Legion Brussels Branch.”
VE Day 76
Sunday 9 May finally heralded a return to a formal commemoration in Brussels with an event organised by CEAC-ECOS (European Confederation of Veterans) to mark the 76th Victory in Europe day. Under varying weather conditions (from sunshine to downpour) the full gamut of veterans associations joined at the Colonne du Congrès to lay wreathes at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Brussels Branch was represented by Chair Zoe White and Andrée Ferrant. After the ceremony, CEAC-ECOS kindly offered those on parade a drink at a local cafe and the gentle hum of social activity was a boost to all. Zoe was delighted to be able to finally meet branch members Didier Nollet who was attending with the Liberation Group and Jean-Luc Deswaene and enjoy a socially-distanced conversation!
VE Day 75 at Colonne du Congrès
Members of the branch committee, partners and family members took part in a ceremony at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Evere on 15 May 2021 to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Royal British Legion in 1921. Similar events took place across the UK and at overseas branches worldwide. Chair Zoe White laid a wreath at the Cross of Sacrifice, bearing the following inscription: “Brussels branch marks 100 years of support to our Armed Services community. We pledge to continue this sterling service for the serving, veterans and their families. We will remember them.” Also present at the event, held under Covid restrictions, were: Andrée Ferrant (Honorary Secretary), Jean-Pierre Pede (Vice-Chairman), Ethel Pede-Moffatt, Viviane Pede, Alain Brogniez (Facebook Coordinator), David Bizley, Dennis Abbott (Branch Community Support) and Laura Houlgatte-Abbott.
Zoe and Brussels Standard Bearer Freddie Roiseux later took part in a 100th anniversary commemoration at the Menin Gate in Ypres with representatives of the RBL’s other Belgian branches in Ypres and Antwerp, together with UK Ambassador to Belgium Martin Shearman.
From left: Alain Brogniez, Zoe White, Jean-Pierre Pede, Ethel Pede-Moffatt, Dennis Abbott, Laura Houlgatte-Abbott, David Bizley at CWGC Evere. Image kindly provided by Viviane Pede
Zoe and Brussels Standard Bearer Freddie Roiseux later took part in a 100th anniversary commemoration at the Menin Gate in Ypres, organised by Ypres Branch and the Last Post Association. Wreathes were laid by the UK Ambassador to Belgium, Martin Shearman, the Mayor of Ypres, Emmily Talpe, the Chairs of the Belgian RBL Branches, the Last Post Association and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The President of Ypres, Christophe Onraet and Chair, Patrick Buerms, kindly invited both Brussels Chair Zoe White and Antwerp Chair Sid Wilkins to join the event with their Standard Bearers and hosted the group superbly throughout.
The three Belgian branches finally meet at Ypres!
Standard Bearers from Brussels, Ypres and Antwerp on parade at the Menin Gate
Standard Bearer Freddy Roiseux at Ypres on the RBL's 100th birthday
Mireille Picron, Laura Houlgatte-Abbott and Dennis Abbott represented the branch at a ceremony held at the British memorial in Isières on 19 May 2021. The event was led by Mayor of Ath Bruno Lefèbvre, in the presence of veterans from the Union Picarde Commando Parachutiste, led by President Jean Paul Saussez and Deputy Secretary Benoît Crasset. Readings were given by Francis Populaire and Aimé Delmée, responsible for organising the ceremonies in the village. The British memorial, instigated by a local teacher after the Second World War, commemorates nine servicemen, eight from ‘D’ Company of the 4th Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, and a soldier from the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. They were killed in action nearby on 18/19 May 1940 in the Battle of La Cavée during operations to cover the British Expeditionary Force’s withdrawal to Dunkirk: Pte Douglas Atherton (22, from Chester), Pte Arthur Hoggett (20), Pte Thomas Johnson (20, from Wallasey), Capt Kenneth Lucking (from Rossett, Clwyd), Pte Percy McCormick (21, from Wallasey), Cpl George Nursaw (33, from Rock Ferry, married with five children), Pte Sydney Taylor (25, married, from Rock Ferry), 2nd Lt Major R. Williams (24, from Hoylake), and Pte Robert Wallis (1st Bn, Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, age 24, from Hayes, Middlesex). The inscription on Pte Atherton’s headstone is especially moving: “We oft repeat his name, what would we give to see him smile and hear his voice again.”
The remainder of ‘D’ Company reached the Channel coast on 24 May and were ordered to defend the village of Wormhout. Several members of the unit were captured and among 80 defenceless British and French PoWs executed in a barn by troops from the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler on 28 May. Hauptsturmführer (later General) Wilhelm Mohnke and Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich were blamed for ordering the massacre, but neither were ever charged with the massacre.
Sacrifice never forgotten
The branch’s annual act of remembrance at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Evere on 26 June 2021 attracted a large turnout of members, including representatives of European and Belgian associations.
After a warm welcome from Chair Zoe White, British Ambassador Martin Shearman set the tone for the commemoration, reminding those present of the enormous sacrifices made in the cause of freedom. In the First World War, 880,000 British forces gave their lives, 6% of the adult male population. In the Second World War, 384,000 British soldiers were killed, as well as 70,000 civilians.
Branch Chaplain Canon John Wilkinson unfortunately could not attend, but Padre Nia Williams from SHAPE’s European Joint Support Unit, kindly agreed to deputise.
The Military Wives Choir Belgium, conducted by Nigel Ward, sang beautifully in what was their first live appearance since the start of the Covid pandemic.
The Military Wives Choir in fine voice, conducted by Nigel Ward
Branch Secretary Andrée Ferrant read the 67th Psalm, a fitting call for “salvation among all nations” at a time when tensions are once again on the rise. Dennis Abbott, branch historian-researcher, paid tribute to two heroes buried in the cemetery, Flight Sergeant George Thompson VC and Brussels-born Major Robert Mélot MC, who served with the British Special Air Service. Vice-Chair Jean-Pierre Pede read the names of fallen including men from the Royal Army Service Corps, in which his late father-in-law, Harry Moffatt, served.
Didier Nollet, wearing a traditional bowler, paid tribute to branch member François-Marie Jacobs, who passed away in November aged 95. François-Marie served with the 5th (Belgian) Special Air Service. Didier’s moving words, delivered in English, French and Dutch, were received with spontaneous applause. Eight-year-old Oscar gave a wonderfully confident reading of Major John McCrae’s First World War poem In Flanders Fields, also receiving a well-deserved round of applause.
Didier Nollet delivered a fitting tribute to François-Marie Jacobs in English, French and Dutch
Following the Exhortation, read by Zoe, wreathes were laid by Ambassador Shearman and Defence Attaché Group Captain Justin Fowler, by Mireille Picron and Patrice Lotiquet for the branch, as well as by Nadine Clarisse for CEAC-ECOS (Confédération Européenne des Anciens Combattants) and Tibor Albert, Vice-President Western Europe of the United Nations Peacekeepers’ Association (Association Internationale des Soldats de la Paix).
Mireille Picron and Patrice Lotiquet laid the wreath on behalf of the Brussels Branch
Denise More, one of the branch’s longest serving members, passed away in Brussels on 26 June 2021. She was 92. Denise was the widow of Harry More MBE, former Chairman, Vice-President and President of the branch, who died in 2015. She leaves a daughter, Evelyn, and son Anthony, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Vice-Chair Jean-Pierre Pede wrote this tribute: “Harry and Denise joined the Brussels branch in 1960. Both were active members of the Committee. We will remember Denise as a very elegant lady, always smiling; a very positive and warm person, and always one of the first to offer to help. She was friends with all and always had a good word for people. Denise was the eternal optimist, even towards the end of her illness she did not let it get her down and expressed the positive hope that things would get better.”
Denise and Harry More
Townsend medals sold
Eleven medals and flying logbooks belonging to former branch Honorary Vice-President Gp Capt Peter Townsend fetched £260,000 (€300,000) at a London auction on 21 July 2021. The decorations included the Battle of Britain ace’s Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and Royal Victorian Order (CVO). Townsend originally decided to sell the collection and donate the proceeds to a charitable fund for vulnerable children in November 1988. They were “lying around in a bag at the bottom of a drawer ... I thought it would be sensible to put them to use”, he commented. The medals were bought for $35,200 then re-sold in 2004 for £62,000 before going under the hammer for a third time at specialist auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb. The purchaser was a private collector.
Townsend's medals and flying logbook as sold on 21 July 2021 ©Dix Noonan Webb
Tributes to Eric
Eric Johnson BEM, the branch’s Standard Bearer for a remarkable 56 years, passed away on 10 August 2021. He was 96. Tributes poured in for the Normandy veteran, who was one of the last links between the wartime generation and today’s membership.
Branch Chair Zoe White paid tribute to Eric’s “selfless commitment and incredible service to both the RBL and his country”, adding: “My thoughts go to all his close friends and family during this tough time.” Branch Vice-Chair Jean-Pierre Pede, a long-time friend of the Johnson family, said: “Eric was an incredible man, always ready to help, always singing wartime songs. But woe betide anyone touching his Standard! On parade, he was always immaculate in black waxed, highly polished shoes and white gloves – never yellowed ones. He knew and executed every detail of the Standard Bearer drill to perfection. Eric is a man you could never forget. He will always stay in my memories. He was the perfect example of a young man who proudly served his country and, later, the Royal British Legion. At the start of our meetings, he would raise a glass to the Queen. At the Poppy Ball, the British Ambassador or RBL President of the time would count on him to choose the decorations and music to entertain the members. He also very much liked to cite Winston Churchill during get-togethers with friends.”
Former President Brigadier Andrew Fisher echoed Jean-Pierre’s sentiments: “Eric was one of those individuals that one doesn’t easily forget. He bore the Legion’s Standard with great dignity and pride on many occasions and was an active and significant contributor to our branch’s work.”
For Ed Read Cutting, former branch Chair, Eric was “one of a kind who will be much missed”.
The Reverend Ann Babb, former branch Chaplain, summed him up as “a gentleman and hero”.
Several tributes highlighted Eric’s sense of fun and love of singing: “One of our first memories of him was when we went to Hotton and Eric got a coach full of veterans and wives singing songs from WWII. He was unique – they threw away the mould when Eric was born,” said Colin Puplett, former Vice-Chair, and his wife Brenda, former Welfare Committee Secretary.
For George Bowring, son of the late Ken Bowring, Eric was “a jolly good fellow”.
Michael Whitburn, ex-newsletter coordinator and son of former branch Chair Reg Whitburn, added: “Eric was a thoroughly sociable and outgoing person, who loved a sing-along and never missed an opportunity to share his enthusiasm for Vera Lynn’s hits.”
In addition to his wartime decorations, Eric was awarded the Legion’s Gold Badge in January 1982 and the British Empire Medal (BEM) in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s 1990 Honours List for his services to the RBL and British Embassy in Belgium, where he served as a driver for nearly 23 years. He was awarded life membership of the Legion in July 1997, the Voluntary Service Medal in November 2008, and the RBL Centenary Medal in March 2021.
Eric lost his beloved wife Monette in May 2013. He leaves a daughter, Kathleen, a member of the Brussels branch, son-in-law Robert Vanderbiest, grandson Stephane and two great-granddaughters, Chloe and Clara.
Eric's funeral took place at Zemst, Belgium, on 18 August. The service was conducted by branch Chaplain the Reverend Canon John Wilkinson.
A large representation from the RBL Brussels Branch Committee and its Chair Zoe White, as well as other friends, attended the funeral.
Rest in peace Eric, we will remember you.
Liberation of Brussels – 77th anniversary
The branch was well represented at the commemoration to mark the 77th anniversary of the Liberation of Brussels by the Guards Armoured Division. Wreathes were laid by Martin Shearman, the British Ambassador to Belgium, representatives of the city of Brussels, Dennis Abbott on behalf of the Brussels branch of the RBL, as well as Nadine Clarisse for CEAC-ECOS (Confédération Européenne des Anciens Combattants) and Tibor Albert, Vice-President Western Europe of the United Nations Peacekeepers’ Association (Association Internationale des Soldats de la Paix). The British Torch of Remembrance was represented by its President, Chris Russell.
Brigade Piron commemoration
The branch was strongly represented at the annual Brigade Piron commemoration held on 6 September 2021 in the presence of a large gathering including nearly 100 children at the national monument in the Parc de Muses, Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. A Belgian unit in the British Army led by Major (later General) Jean-Baptiste Piron, the Brigade liberated a swathe of Normandy coastal towns including Cabourg, Deauville and Honfleur following the D-Day landings in 1944. Dr Catherine Moureaux, bourgmestre of Molenbeek, opened the ceremony and welcomed the guests who included 96-year-old Brigade Piron veteran Henri d’Oultremont, a member of the Brussels branch, and Hélène Farnaud-Defromont, French Ambassador to Belgium. Count d’Oultremont’s moving oration was followed by the British Legion Exhortation and Kohima Epitaph read by branch Chair Zoe White.
Jack Van Sprang laid a wreath on behalf of the branch, which was also represented by its Standard Bearer Freddy Roiseux and members of the committee. Henri d’Oultremont and André Liégeois laid flowers on behalf of the Brigade Piron, of whom around 25 wartime veterans are still living according to Henri.
Other VIP guests at the ceremony included British Defence Attaché Group Captain Justin Fowler and his French counterpart, Colonel Hubert Stahl.
Battlefield Tour – Ypres
The tour takes in Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Grave Cemetry
Some 30 members and supporters of the branch took part in a very successful fund-raising battlefield tour to Ypres on 11 September 2021. Organised by committee member Steve Grant with local guide Christophe Deconinck, the tour took in sites in and around the Flemish town which was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the First World War. The visit started and ended at the iconic Menin Gate, the memorial to nearly 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were never found or identified. The next stop was Essex Farm Cemetery, the last resting place of 1,200 servicemen including 15-year-old Joe Strudwick and Thomas Barratt VC. The site was an advanced dressing station where Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps wrote the poem In Flanders Fields in May 1915 in tribute to his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. The group also visited the German cemetery at Langemarck, where more than 44,000 soldiers are buried, Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery where 12,000 lie, and Hill 60, a strategic site overlooking Ypres where mines in tunnels were detonated in June 1917 under German positions, resulting in thousands of casualties and leaving deep craters which are still clearly visible.
Christophe Deconinck talking us through Hill 60
The visit ended with the famous Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. Chair Zoe White laid a wreath on behalf of the branch, together with member Jean-François Husson and Jane Sidebottom, chief of staff to Ambassador Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, head of the UK Mission to the European Union.
Honoured to lay a wreath at the Last Post Ceremony, Menin Gate. From left, Jean-François Husson, Zoe White, Jane Sidebottom.
Sir Anthony Seldon & the Western Front Way
Renowned historian Sir Anthony Seldon was greeted by a party including British Ambassador Martin Shearman and RBL members on the final day of his 1,000 km trek along the Western Front Way. Sir Anthony arrived in Nieuwpoort on 15 September 2021, 35 days after setting out from Pfetterhouse in northeast France.
Ambassador Shearman and delegation greet Sir Anthony Seldon in Nieuwpoort, Belgium. Image by Evelien Legein
The route was inspired by Alexander Gillespie, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War. In a letter to Montagu Rendall, his old headmaster at Winchester College, he wrote: “I wish that when the peace comes, our government might combine with the French Government to make one long avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea. I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on pilgrimage along that Via Sacra, so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.”
2Lt Alexander Gillespie. Image from Winchester College
Sir Anthony discovered the letter while researching a book in 2015 and, moved by the young officer’s words, worked with a team to make his dream a reality by marking out a route from the Swiss frontier to the Belgian coast.
“I just thought ‘let’s go for it’, let’s get young people from every country, in Europe and beyond, to walk or cycle the path. Let’s do it for international cooperation, friendship and peace,” declared Sir Anthony. “I hope the path will one day be as popular as the walk to Santiago de Compostela,” he added.
Three months after sending the letter, Alexander Gillespie was killed while leading a charge during the first day of the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. His younger brother, Lieutenant Thomas Gillespie also died in action at the Battle of La Bassée on 18 October 1914. Both have no known grave.
Sir Anthony Seldon (left) and Dennis Abbott (right). Images by Evelien Legein.
The town of Nieuwpoort hosted an official lunch to mark its support for the Western Front Way and 68-year-old Sir Anthony’s achievement in completing the route. The RBL was represented by Patrick Beurms, Chair of Ypres branch, and Dennis Abbott, Brussels branch historian. In addition to the Ambassador, also present were: Group Captain Justin Fowler, British Defence Attaché, Geert Bekaert, Area Director Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Frans Lefevre, Alderman, Walter Lelièvre, Town Archivist, Eric Verdonck, Head of Reception and Protocol, Michelle Martens, Head of Tourism, Evelien Legein, Administrative Communication Specialist, Nieuwpoort) and Manon Stoffen (Communications Officer, British Embassy).
Ode à la Résistance
Secretary Andrée Ferrant represented the branch at the unveiling of a new memorial at Fort Breendonk, the infamous former SS camp at Willebroek, on 26 September 2021. Ode à la Résistance, created by Belgian artist Tom Frantzen, is in the form of a large boot, symbolizing oppression and crushing figures depicting women, children, resistance fighters and a man releasing a dove.
Andrée Ferrant next to the stirring new memorial at Fort Breendonk
The ceremony was addressed by Ludivine Dedonder, Minister of Defence, Edmond Eycken, President of the National Confederation of Political Prisoners and their Heirs (Confédération nationale des prisonniers politiques et ayants-droit - CNPPA, De Nationale Confederatie Politiek Gevangenen en Rechthebbenden - NCPGR), and Koen Palinckx, Chair of the War Heritage Institute.
Andrée said: “I spoke with a few young and less young people during the reception, intrigued by the poppy I wore.”
The Belgians Remember Them
The branch was well represented at a ceremony in Rebecq on 29 September 2021, commemorating aircrew who fell on Belgian soil during the Second World War and the Belgian Resistance who helped survivors escape. Organised by archivist Wilfred Burie and The Belgians Remember Them association, the event was attended by a large number of VIPs, local people and schoolchildren.
Mr Burie recalled the history of Rebecq’s memorial, erected in memory of the crew of an RAF 550 Squadron Lancaster, shot down on 28 May 1944. Sgt Eli Molnar, from Ontario in Canada, was the sole survivor. He was rescued, given civilian clothes and hidden until the liberation. The local Gestapo later arrested 22 villagers. Fifteen were held in Saint-Gilles prison in Brussels and released at the liberation. The remaining seven were taken to Breendonk and deported to concentration camps. Louis Deneyer, Giovanni and Giuseppe Vecchiato never returned.
The branch was represented at the ceremony by Secretary Andrée Ferrant, who laid a wreath, Standard Bearer Freddy Roiseux, Jack van Sprang, and Dennis Abbott, who joined Mr Burie in a joint reading of his poignant poem Elégie aux Héros du Silence.
Standard Bearer Freddy Roiseux and Andrée Ferrant next to the Rebecq memorial
Both Mr Burie and André Flahaut, Belgium’s former Minister of Defence, spoke during the ceremony of their concern about far-right denial and revisionism, drawing attention to a controversial “Latvian Beehive” monument, erected in 2018 at Zedelgem in tribute to 12,000 Latvian Waffen-SS troops who were PoWs in West Flanders in 1945-46.
VIPs present included the Ambassadors of Canada (Alain Gendron), New Zealand (Diana Reaich), South Africa (Tokozile Xasa), Netherlands (Pieter Jan Kleiweg de Zwaan), Czech Republic (Pavel Klucký), Norway (Per Strand Sjaastad), the Acting Ambassador of Ireland (Eddie Brannigan), and Polish Consul (Kacper Szyndlarewiczl), as well as the Defence Attachés for the UK (Group Captain Justin Fowler), the US (Colonel Edward J. Dupont), France (Colonel Hubert Stahl), Australia (Wing Commander Jesse Laroche), Canada (Lieutenant-Colonel Marie-Claude Osmond), South Africa (Colonel Andrew Mafofololo), Russia (Colonel Igor Kolodin), Netherlands (Capitaine de Frégate Patrick Bekken and Colonel Talitha Born), and New Zealand (Colonel Ryan Mckinstry). Belgium was represented by Colonel Philippe Goffin, Commander of Florennes Air base, 2nd Tactical Wing, Colonel Jean-Didier Vande Zande, Commander 1 Wing, Colonel Olivier De Groote, Military Commander of Brabant Wallon, and Lieutenant-Colonel Philippe Ramaekers, former commander, 4 Engineer Battalion. Patricia Venturelli, Mayor, and André Deschamps, Alderman, represented the municipality of Rebecq.
Battlefield Tour – Yser
The Battle of the Yser (16-31 October 1914) was the focus of the branch’s second autumn battlefield tour, aimed at raising awareness of the 100th anniversary of the RBL and the branch’s 2022 centenary. Organised by committee member Steve Grant with Flanders guide Christophe Deconinck, the visit took in sites linked to the Belgian Army’s heroic resistance against enemy forces at the tip of the Western Front. Despite being outnumbered, the Belgians stopped the German advance by opening sluice gates which flooded a large area, making it impassable for the enemy.
The tour began at the Yser Towers and Peace Gate at Duiksmuide, built to commemorate Flemish soldiers killed in the battle. The towers bear the letters AVV-VVK, which stand for Alles Voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen Voor Kristus, or All for Flanders, Flanders for Christ.
The first tower, completed in 1930, became a site of pilgrimage for the radical Flemish Movement, some of whose members were accused of collaboration during the Second World War. It was blown up in March 1946. No-one was caught. A second and bigger 84-metre tower was built near the ruins of the first and opened in 1965.
An excellent viewing platform and map at the Trench of Death museum
The visit continued to the Trench of Death (Dodengang) and museum, on the banks of the Yser Canal. The Belgians sustained hundreds of losses holding the position against the enemy, who were dug in both sides of the waterway.
Christophe explaining the Mousetrap at the end of the Belgian trench
After a brief stop at the Peace Mill, the tour continued to the Vladslo German Cemetery, which contains 25,644 soldiers and the famous statues of The Grieving Parents by Käthe Kollwitz, created in memory of her youngest son, Peter, whose remains lie just in front of the figures. At the Belgian Military Cemetery in Houthulst, Christophe Deconinck highlighted the graves of Hector Brel, related to famed Belgian singer Jacques Brel, and two footballer brothers, Adjutant Ignace Evrard, 22, and Lieutenant Joseph Evrard, 24, who played for Cercle Brugge. Both were killed on 28 September 1918 and are said to have died in each other’s arms. The cemetery is also the last resting place of a large number of Italian PoWs and Sous-Lieutenant Roger d’Udekem d’Acoz, related to Belgium’s Queen Mathilde. The tour, greatly enjoyed by around 30 enthusiastic members and supporters despite the wet conditions, ended at the ‘De Ganzepoot’ (goose foot) sluice complex and King Albert monument in Nieuwpoort.
The Grieving Parents at Vladslo German Cemetry
Thank you, Belgium
Without its dedicated Belgian members and supporters, it is doubtful that the Brussels branch would still be flourishing after nearly 100 years. The friendships it has fostered – not to mention more than a few marriages (in 1956 the Daily Express reported there had been 6,000 post-war marriages between British servicemen and Belgian women) – are a concrete expression of the close and enduring ties which have long characterised the Anglo-Belgian relationship, despite the occasional bump in the road.
Here’s to the next 100 years!
This history is intended as a contribution to the Legion 100 and Telling our Story project, which aims to celebrate the achievements of the Royal British Legion over the past 100 years and demonstrate the ongoing importance of the charity’s work.
Legion branches in Britain and all over the world have been delving into their past to discover records, artefacts, experiences, personal memories and more. The story of the Brussels branch is intended to be a “living document” that can be updated and amended with new contributions and photographs. So please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
I would particularly like to thank members of the branch committee for their ideas, help and encouragement:
Zoe White (Chair), Jean-Pierre Pede (Vice-Chairman, Membership Secretary and Treasurer), Andrée Ferrant (Hon Secretary), Ann Morley (Poppy Appeal Organiser), Alain Brogniez (Facebook Coordinator), Phil Hyde (News and Events Coordinator), Freddy Roiseux (Standard Bearer), Canon John Wilkinson (Chaplain), Steve Grant (Member).
I am also grateful for feedback I received from former members including Ed Read Cutting (especially for safeguarding branch minutes and other artefacts), Brigadier Andrew Fisher, Brenda Puplett, Greg Ruthven, Claire Whitfield and Michael Whitburn.
Thank you also to staff at the National Library of Belgium for providing access to its newspaper archives and for allowing us to re-publish some of the images featured in this history.
For patience beyond the call of duty, I also thank my wife (and fellow Brussels branch member) Laura Houlgatte Abbott.
Community Support and Researcher
Dennis serving on Operation TELIC Iraq in 2003 where he was attached to 7th Armoured Brigade then 19th Mechanized Brigade.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.