A spotlight on our veterans
Count Henri d'Oultremont
Brigade Piron: the best year of my life by Dennis Abbott
“The best year of my life.” That is how Henri d'Oultremont describes 1944-1945 when he served in Belgium’s famous Brigade Piron.
Portrait kindly provided by Henri d’Oultremont
Henri was 19 when he enlisted, eager to do his bit after enduring more than four and a half years of enemy occupation in his home city of Liège.
The Brigade, named after its commander, Major Jean-Baptiste Piron, had fought its way up the Normandy coast, liberating a swathe of towns including Cabourg, Deauville and Honfleur in August 1944, before crossing the Belgian border. On 4 September, amid scenes of huge rejoicing, it took part in the liberation of Brussels with the British Armoured Guards Division.
The Allies had the Germans on the run, but they were far from defeated.
After enlisting, Private d’Oultremont was assigned to a battery unit (soon to become a regiment) and trained with British instructors at Merchtem, north of the capital, from October 1944-April 1945.
During this time, the Germans almost succeeded in re-taking part of Belgium during the winter Ardennes counter-offensive (Battle of the Bulge), with enemy forces advancing close to Dinant before being forced to halt at Celles and Foy Notre-Dame.
The Brigade Piron, meanwhile, had pushed into the Netherlands and taken part in attacks at the Wessem canal before moving into reserve and a period of reorganization.
The Wehrmacht remained a constant threat though and, in early April 1945, Private d’Oultremont, now fully trained, received his orders to move up to the frontline with his unit, under the command of Captain Maurice Simonet and Major Bennett De Ridder.
They advanced to Waspik in Noord-Brabant, close to the River Meuse (Maas in Dutch).
“It was mostly quiet – we were on one side of the Meuse and the Germans were on the other,” recalls Henri.
The end of the war was soon in sight as the enemy were forced back into the North West of Germany. On 4 May, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in the Netherlands, Denmark and the North West of Germany at Lüneburg Heath (video footage). The final Act of Military Surrender took place on 8/9 May after the Soviet Army captured Berlin.
But this was not the end of the campaign for Henri and his unit. They were ordered to Werne, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, which was under the British Zone of Occupation.
“I always remember the date we arrived. It was the 31st May – my 20th birthday,” says Henri.
The troops stayed in Werne until October, when Henri and his comrades were demobbed. The Belgian government encouraged men returning from Germany to go to university. “It was a great idea,” says Henri. “160 out of the 180 men in our unit did so.”
Henri went to study engineering back in Liège. The city also has happy memories because it was where he would meet his wife to be, Monique de Decker de Brandeken, at a dance. The couple married in July 1950. They later acquired the historic Hof ter Cauwerschueren in Woluwé-Saint-Lambert, where Henri still lives, and where they brought up their two children, daughter Dominique, and son Juan, who would become a well-known artist, TV presenter and songwriter.
Henri spent the bulk of his career – 33 years in total – working in different roles for US multinational IBM, from salesman to press officer. He then spent six years working with his son-in-law Stanislas.
But throughout his civilian life, Henri has remained proud of his time in uniform.
Every year on the Saturday preceding Belgium's National Day, Henri participates in the annual Belgian military parade in London and lays a wreath for the Brigade Piron at the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall. The parade was inaugurated by Britain’s King George V in 1934 to honour his nephew, Belgium’s King Albert I, who tragically died in a mountaineering accident. Belgium is the only non-Commonwealth country to have the honour of bearing arms at the Cenotaph.
Although he had to miss the London parade this year due to Covid, Henri is already looking forward to next year’s parade, which will take place on 10 July 2021.
In the summer, he was among three veterans selected as guests of honour at Belgium's National Day on 21 July, marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
Comte Henri d’Oultremont, centre, at Belgium's National Day parade on 21 July 2020 with, left, Baron Ludo de Vleeschauwer, President of the Royal Navy’s Belgian veterans (who sadly died on 30 September), and Thierry Coppieters 't Wallant of the Nationale Federation of War Volunteers ©Défense/Malek Azoug
At 95, Henri remains active, with a mind that is as sharp as ever. He speaks English effortlessly. Sadly, he lost his wife Monique in 2004, but he likes to keep himself busy and, with 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, there is no time to get bored.
He joined the Brussels branch of the Royal British Legion in 2002. “It is a wonderful organization,” he says.
Médaille du Volontaire 1940–1945
Médaille Commémorative de la Guerre 1940–45
Chevalier Ordre de la Couronne