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Spotlight on.... Jack Van Sprang

Spotlight on.... Jack Van Sprang

Member, Brussels, Antwerp and Ypres branches

President d’Honneur, Fraternelle Royale Nationale des Grenadiers

By Dennis Abbott

Jack Van Sprang holds the unusual distinction of being a member of three Royal British Legion branches in Belgium – Brussels, Antwerp and Ypres – as well as the East Flanders association of Le Souvenir Français. His family has ties with the British Army dating back to the Battle of Waterloo and generations of Van Sprangs have held senior commands in the Belgian military (see below).

A family in uniform (from left) : Henri Van Sprang (father), Albert Van Sprang (grandfather), André Van Sprang (uncle), Albert Van Sprang (uncle)

Jack, whose family originates from Sprang-kapelle near Tilburg in the Netherlands, was born and raised in Gent. His father, Colonel Henri Van Sprang MC, was stationed in the city and was recently retired from the Belgian Army when Jack was born on 2 January 1948.   

Jack aged four with his father Henri, in 1952

Young Jack had three adult half-brothers, Etienne and twins Philippe and Jean-Pierre, whose mother Andrée died in 1938. Jack was the only child from his father’s second marriage, in 1943, to Geneviève Scheyven.

Jack's parents, Henri Van Sprang MC and Geneviève Scheyven

While Jack might have been expected to follow his forbears into uniform, his father asked the authorities to exempt him from military service because his three older sons had already served – and one, Etienne, had paid with his life.

Instead, at 21, Jack was sent for three months to study English in Folkestone, Kent, and returned for further studies the following year. It was the start of a lifelong connection with Britain.

Through one of his father’s contacts, Jack secured a job with the Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB), one of the oldest Antwerp ship-owners. “I was responsible for organising the loading and unloading of container ships moving between Antwerp, Hamburg, Southampton, Le Havre, Montreal and the US,” he recalls.

Jack was employed at the CMB from 1971-1988, mostly working with Dart Containerline, one of the world’s first container shipping operators. He later moved into the operations department, covering the whole CMB fleet.  

The late Eighties witnessed a period of upheaval in the industry and Jack decided to take redundancy. He then joined Plan International Belgium, a charity sponsoring children in the developing world.

In parallel with his professional career, Jack got involved with the British Legion in Belgium. “I befriended an Englishman in my office at CMB, Mike Perrett, who became Chairman of the Antwerp branch. He invited me to join and I was a committee member for 25 years.” Jack also served on the committee of the British Community Association in Antwerp for five years.

Président d’Honneur of the Fraternelle Royale Nationale des Grenadiers (Ere-Voorzitter, Koninlijke Nationale Verbroedering der Grenadiers) since 2002, Jack proudly wears the regimental beret at commemorative events across the country. In recent months, he has represented the Brussels branch at the annual ceremony to mark the liberation of city, as well as commemorations at Rebecq and at the Brigade Piron monument in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, where he laid the branch wreath.   

Jack has lived in Gent all his life. Two of his nephews, Didier and Patrick, the sons of Jack’s half-brother Philippe, are close by. Another nephew, Dimitri, son of Jean-Pierre, lives in Paris. Dimitri’s sister and Jack’s niece, Sabine, is currently based in Rome, where she is director of the Academia Belgica at the Centre pour l’Histoire, les Arts et les Sciences. 

The Van Sprangs, born to serve

Jack has traced his family tree back to the late 18th century when his great-great-great grandfather, Corneil-Abraham Van Sprang, was a merchant and broker in Middelburg, the capital of the Dutch province of Zeeland.

The family crest of Jack's mother, Geneviève Scheyven

It seems he moved to Britain after the 2nd Earl of Chatham’s ill-fated Walcheren Expedition during the War of the Fifth Coalition against France in 1809. Corneil-Abraham died in London in 1813. 

His son, Jack’s great-great grandfather Théodore-Albert Van Sprang (1796-1855), was born in Middelburg. Shortly before his father’s death, he also moved to Britain and joined the 1st Regiment of Hussars in the King’s German Legion. He saw action at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

After Belgium became part of the Netherlands, he served as a warrant officer in the Dutch Army’s 11th Infantry Division from 1816-1826, and afterwards with the Dutch customs service on the border with Germany from 1826-1830. He married Marie Anne Elias, a Liégoise, in 1821.

Following Belgium’s independence in 1830, he became maréchal des logis in the 2nd Regiment of Lancers at Namur. He took part in the campaigns of 1830-33 and 1839 against the Netherlands, whose king, William I, was unsuccessful in repeated attempts to win back control of his former territory. Théodore-Albert later held military administrative posts in Antwerp and Brussels. Promoted to Adjutant in Brussels in 1850, he was decorated for his role in organising efforts to put out a huge fire that threatened to engulf Molenbeek in 1852.

Jack’s great grandfather, Capitaine Théodore-Albert-André Van Sprang (1826-1896), and three great-great uncles, Capitaine-Commandant Pierre-Joseph Van Sprang (1822-1891), Lieutenant-Général Henri-Francois Van Sprang (1829-1910), and Capitaine Jean-François Van Sprang (1833-1911), as well as one great-uncle, Sous-officier d’artillerie Alexandre-Jules Van Sprang (1849-1909), served during the general mobilisation triggered by the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. While Belgium was not directly involved, King Leopold II feared the country would be invaded and ordered his Army to protect its fortresses and borders.

Lt Gen Henri-François Van Sprang, presented by the officers of the 2nd Regiment de Chasseurs à Cheval

Lieutenant-Général Henri-François Van Sprang, credited with inventing the ‘Selle van Sprang’ and ‘Pelisse van Sprang’ for the cavalry, was named Colonel Commandant of the 2nd Regiment de Chasseurs à Cheval in Gent in 1881, Commandant of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division in 1884, then Général-Major, commanding the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division in 1889, and finally, Lieutenant-Général of the Reserves in 1891. He was made Grand Officier de l’Ordre de Léopold and awarded the Croix Militaire (1st class).

Jack’s grandfather was Lieutenant-Général Albert Van Sprang (1848-1922), who started his military career as a Corporal in the Grenadiers at the age of 14 before entering the École Royale Militaire, where he later became Instructor of the Artillery. In 1897 he was appointed Commander of the 7th Artillery Regiment, and was named Général-Major, commanding the artillery of the fortress of Antwerp, in 1902. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Général and Commandant Superieur of the fortified position at Antwerp in 1907. He was appointed military commander of the district of the provinces of Antwerp and Limburg in 1910. After retiring in 1913, he was asked to return to his former role as Lieutenant-Général (Reserve) and adviser to the military governor of Antwerp following the outbreak of the First World War.

Lt Gen Albert François Van Sprang

His grandfather Albert’s youngest brother, Henri-Constant Van Sprang (1851-1920), was also a Lieutenant-Général and Inspecteur-Général du génie (engineers). He contributed to the development of Belgium’s first school of military aviation. During the First World War, he was held prisoner in Germany and later interned in Switzerland.

Jack’s father, Colonel Henri Van Sprang (1893-1978), served in the Belgian Army Air Corps during the First World War. He flew scores of combat and reconnaissance missions as an artillery observer with air aces Edmond Thieffry, Albert Hellemans and Robert Dhanis. He was shot down with pilot Max Vilain in July 1917 and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Germany.

He was decorated with the Military Cross for operations in support of the British Army at Ypres and the French Croix de Guerre with Palmes for providing aerial observation to direct battery fire against the enemy near Diksmuide. He also received the Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palmes and other decorations including Commandeur de l’Ordre de Léopold.

After the war, he completed his studies at the École Royale Militaire (Koninklijke Militaire School) and was appointed to the 1st Regiment of Field Artillery, whose officers still commanded on horseback, at Gent in 1920. Henri continued to serve as a commissioned officer until 1924 when he became a reserve officer.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, he served in the headquarters of the Bas-Escaut (lower Scheldt) and with Vth Corps. Following Belgium’s surrender on 28 May 1940, he was briefly held prisoner of war but later allowed to return home. He was appointed Colonel of the Reserves in 1948 – the year Jack was born – and later served as Colonel Auxiliare for a military court. In his civilian life, Henri worked in the textile industry, becoming Director-General at Cotonex in Gent before retiring in 1960. He died in 1978.

Henri’s elder brother and Jack’s uncle was Lieutenant-Général André Van Sprang (1889-1966), a former commanding officer of the Belgian 1st Regiment of Grenadiers and later Président d’honneur of the Fraternelle des Grenadiers. Wounded in action in 1915, he recovered and was attached to the Belgian mission at the French Army’s headquarters.

Lt Gen André Van Sprang

Appointed commanding officer of the 1st Regiment of Grenadiers in 1938, he hosted a ‘lunch of honour’ at the Prince Albert Barracks for the British Grenadier Guards Comrades Association during a visit to Brussels on 8 April 1939.

Lt Gen André Van Sprang meeting Queen Fabiola in 1962, at a reception marking the 125th anniversary of the 1st Grenadiers Regiment

André Van Sprang’s grenadiers fought courageously during the campaign of 10-28 May 1940 which ended with the German occupation of Belgium. Together with the regiment’s other officers, André was held as a PoW in Germany for the rest of the war.

In 1946 he was named aide-de-camp to Charles, Count of Flanders, who served as Prince Regent until his brother, Leopold III, resumed his duties as King. Towards the end of 1946, Jack’s uncle was appointed as Inspector-General of Infantry and Tanks in Germany and, later, as Quarter-Master General of the Belgian Army until his retirement in 1950.

In October 2016, at the start of the academic year at the École Royale Militaire, the new 156 all-arms promotion was named after Lieutenant-Général André Van Sprang.

Another of Jack’s uncles, brother of his mother Geneviève Scheyven (1913-1984), was Raymond Scheyven (1911-1987), who helped found the ‘Socrate’ group in the Second World War. Named after his code-name, the group raised funds from business to support resistance groups and Belgians refusing to undertake compulsory labour under the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO) in Germany. 

Scheyven was decorated with the Medaille de la Resistance, the Croix de Guerre with Palmes, and the United States Silver Star for gallantry. Britain appointed him honorary OBE (Officer, Order of the British Empire). After the war he became an MP and Senator. He was Belgium’s Minister of Economic Affairs in 1958, Minister for Development Cooperation in 1968-72, and twice President of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (1953-1954 and 1969-1970).

Jack's cabinet contains the array of decorations awarded to his family members

Jack’s mother’s other brother was Baron Louis Scheyven (1904-1979), who was Secretary-General of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Belgium’s Ambassador to the US from 1959-1969, a role in which he had regular contacts with Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. At the end of his career, he was the doyen of the diplomatic corps in Washington D.C.

Jack’s eldest half-brother Etienne, born in Gent in 1929, trained as a pilot in the US from April 1952 until June 1953. Soon after gaining his wings, he was tragically killed during a training flight at the gunnery school at Wickenburg, Arizona, in July 1953. He had been set to return to Belgium after completing his course. 

Jack with his older brother Etienne just before he departed for flying training

His other half-brothers, twins Jean-Pierre (1930-1998) and Philippe (1930-2006) both served in the Belgian Army Reserves with the rank of Capitaine-commandant d’artillerie and followed in their father’s civilian career path as directors of textile industry firms.

Jack accepting the nomination as honorary President of the Grenadiers in 2002

 

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