A new book titled Nations, Identities and the First World War: Shifting Loyalties to the Fatherland published on 12 Jul 2018, contains an interesting section about "The Flemish Lion" song.

The relevant chapter describes (p.163) that by the end of 1914, the Yser front* had stabilized, and the Belgian government, the king and the army had retreated behind it. Cut off from the rest of Belgium, in 1916 the Ministry of War accepted the proposal of a military chaplain, to publish a collection of national and traditional songs for the soldiers and to organize corresponding musical performances. Throughout the war, 100,000 copies of this bilingual Songbook of the Belgian Soldier (1916) would be sold. The songbook was intended not only for the Belgian soldiers but also for a broader public of exiles, the many thousands of Belgian refugees who spent the war abroad.

The chapter then continues to describe how both the circulation of popular songs during the war in Belgium and official initiatives such as the Songbook of the Belgium Soldier showed that during the war there was a need to rationalize (and make sense of) the way in which the Flemish and Walloon subidentities related to the Belgian fatherland. A united Belgian patriotism that put the sub-national symbols in the service of the Belgian fatherland was dominant in songs in Dutch as well as in French in occupied Belgium during the war. This underscores the strength of the Belgian national frame as an overarching identity for the lower and middle classes, with the king and Belgium's neutrality as dominant tropes. At the same time, the shifting loyalties of a minority of Flemings during the war clouded the connotation of national symbols such as the song "The Flemish Lion", which sparked efforts to reclaim it as Belgian patriotic.

The Flemish Lion during and after the war

De Vlaamsche Leeuw, 1847 was one of the most important Flemish National songs before the war - and therefore held a prominent place in the Songbook of the Belgian Soldier.

The text for The Flemish Lion had been written in 1847 by the Flemish doctor and playwright Hippoliet van Peene as a national song for the Flemings. Originally its combativeness was directed at the perceived threat of annexation of Belgium by France In the context of a Flemish nationalism that strived to strengthen the Flemish element as an integral part of Belgium, the song fitted perfectly well within Belgian patriotism, although it did not make any reference to the Belgian fatherland. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was officially taken up in the canon of Belgian national songs and was performed for the Belgian King and Queen on official occasions. For the dutch-speaking part of the country, it was an often-preferred alternative to the Belgian national hymn, the Brabanfonne (for various reasons, including that it was said to be more comfortable to sing.

At the same time, around the turn of the century, The Flemish Lion had also become largely accepted as the "national song of the Flemings" by the growing and radicalizing Flemish Movement. This double affiliation meant that it would be a flashpoint between Belgium and Flanders when, for a minority of Dutch speakers, Flemish and Belgian loyalties drifted apart during the war. In Flanders, singing De Vlaamsche Leeuw and the Brabanyonne during the war, first of all, served as a powerful tool of moral resistance against the German occupier in Belgium, as did the La Marseillaise and (less often) the Internationale. On numerous occasions, the occupied population used collective singing of one or more of these songs as a ritual of resistance to endure the humiliation of compulsory measures and to express national identity vis-a-vis the German occupier, notably during the deportations of forced labor from 1916 on. Moreover, wartime adaptations of The Flemish Lion and references to it in new wartime songs strongly weaved the Flemish and (royal) Belgian national element together. At the same time, however, the national connotation of The Flemish Lion became ambiguous even during the war in a context of Flemish activism. The Belgian patriotic connotation of Flemish national symbols was no longer self-evident and became strongly context-dependent. Although Flemish songs figured in the Songbook of the Belgian Soldier, singing them was increasingly regarded as suspicious by the Belgian authorities, especially at the front. The Flemish Lion had indeed become an important instrument in the struggle for more Flemish language rights in the army, where it resounded at strikes, protests and in meetings of the Front Movement (Frontpartij). After the ban of the Front Movement in February 1917, singing The Flemish Lion in the army was considered a sign of insurrection and was occasionally punished with sanctions such as transfer or withdrawing leave. The confounding of Flemish loyalty towards the Belgian fatherland by a minority of Flemish activists thus necessitated the need to reclaim The Flemish Lion as a Belgian patriotic symbol. This happened in the song "The Patriotic Flemish Lion" (De Vaderlandsche Vlaamsche Leeuw) that circulated in Brussels around the time of the liberation in 1918. Its author(s) explicitly distanced themselves from the "work of treason" of the Flemish activists.

Remarkably, this was the only song of the corpus that explicitly mentioned Flemish activism. The "treason" of a part of the Flemish Movement did not disqualify The Flemish Lion as a Belgian patriotic song in the short term, however. The victory of Belgium, "gloriously arisen from battle", was still being celebrated with the singing of The Flemish Lion: "our Belgium is now free again I and now our young sons/ will sing forever happy I the song of the flemish [sic] lion I, after all, that remains our cry knew from century to century".  Playing and singing The Flemish Lion was also part of the official ritual of liberation as troops of the Belgian Army entered cities with Dutch-speaking populations in November 1918. During the "Joyous Entry" of the Belgian King and queen in Brussels on 22 November, the army band played not only the Brabanfonne but also De Vlaamsche Leeuw, which was, reportedly, enthusiastically sung along by the crowds (Het Laatste Nieuws 1918). At the same time, however, the fact that it continued to figure in patriotic festivities did not erase its association as being boche, especially in the eyes of French speakers. When the ecstasy of unitary Belgian patriotism of November 1918 died down, the national connotation of The Flemish Lion would eventually follow the course of Flemish nationalism.

And as the chapter in the book concludes this is one of the paradoxes about the First World War and the development of Belgian nationalism. The politics of the German occupier to break up Belgian national feeling along language lines had failed to draw in the large majority of the Belgian population during the occupation, and the war itself was a climax of Belgian nationalism. Nonetheless, the divisions around the ethnic question were eventually deepened by the war experience and would continue to lead to the disintegration of the Belgian state in the long run. Multiple reasons explain this, among other things the strength of the Flemish and Walloon pre-war sub-nationalisms, the impact of the German Flandrenpolitik that radicalized a part of the Flemish Movement into anti-Belgian thought and the unwillingness of the Belgian government and king to address Flemish demands during and after the war. In the years after the war, as Flemish nationalism gained a more extensive following, the Flemish question entered the repertoires of the market and street singers in the shape of the commemoration of fallen Flemish martyrs. Without referencing to Belgium in any way, these songs paid tribute to the many who had died for Flanders and were now sleeping in Flemish soil.

 

*Today the "Yser front" (Pilgrimage of the Yser) is still remembered in an almost religious but also nationalist manner:

 

 

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