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Robert's Historical Miniatures and Musings (Slow Grow League)

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Monday Musings - 22nd July, The Banbridge Belgians

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Monday Musings - 22nd July, The Banbridge Belgians

Rather than a rant today, an interesting bit of local history and how my granny had a Belgian penpal due to WW2.

Sunday, 21st July, is Belgium National Day, and according to Flemish Broadcaster, VRT, it is celebrated on this day to commemorate the date of King Leopold I’s accession to the throne in 1831 following independence from the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830.  So yesterday in Brussels a large military parade took place to celebrate not only Belgium National Day but also to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Belgium from Nazi Germany. Over 100,000 watched on as members of the Belgium Army, Navy, and Veterans paraded to remember these events.  The parade also included a number of WW2 vehicles, including the much loved Beast of War favourite, the Sherman Firefly!

While not a Firefly in the video below, we have another type of cavalry that took part in the parade yesterday.

Noticing it was Belgian National Day, I remembered a conversation I had with a family member some months back and them telling me about how my maternal grandmother had a Belgian penpal, who had been a soldier in the Belgian Army and they had met during WW2.  Initially I didn’t believe this story and thought my family member was losing their marbles, but a quick bit of research covered my face in egg, and I found out they were correct!

Banbridge is a town in County Down, Northern Ireland and it sits on the River Bann, so you can guess how it got its name.  My maternal grandmother was from Banbridge and I spent many a Saturday visiting her in this little town. She was quite the character.  Loved sport, especially Manchester United and she hated Liverpool with a passion. She mothered eleven children, but how did she met a member of the Belgian army?

The story begins with Allied Troops entering Belgium on 2nd September 1944.  Most of Belgium was liberated quite quickly, but wasn’t completely liberated until February 1945 due to Hilter’s final throw of the dice and the offence in the Ardennes, which we know better as the Battle of the Bulge. 

Below is a news/propaganda video from British Pathé of British troops entering Brussels.   

In December 1944, the Belgium’s asked the British to help raise and train a new Belgian 1st Army Core.  This was to consist of 2 Infantry Divisions with 3 Infantry Brigades in each. The beginning of 1945 saw the 2nd Infantry Brigade arrive in Northern Ireland for training and by May 1945 and the end of the war in Europe, the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades would also be training in Northern Ireland.  The last Belgian soldier left Northern Ireland in December 1945.

Some of the camps these soldiers stayed and trained where located near Banbridge, home of my granny, mother and the rest of the clan.  The Wartime NI website (https://wartimeni.com) suggests that while some of the more unscrupulous shopkeepers in the area took advantage of the newly arrived Belgiums, many families took pity on the young men offering good Northern Irish hospitality and some went as far as “adopting” a young soldier.  This is how I suspect that my granny met the Belgian Soldier. The friendship lasted over the years, with letters and Christmas cards being exchanged. Marriages, births and sadder times were shared amongst these good friends. We don’t know if he ever returned to visit, or even his name,  all that history is sadly lost, but the Wartime Guilford Website (https://www.wartimegilford.com/) suggests that many soldiers did return to visit, laying wreaths at the local cenotaphs and meeting with friends made during their time in Northern Ireland.  

An amusing story also exists regarding the formation badges of these infantry brigades.  Due to training in Northern Ireland it was decided to include the shamrock on the badge.   Unfortunately the first batch of badges arrived with yellow shamrocks. An angry letter was soon sent from the top brass complaining that they could never show their faces in public without ridicule with these badges, and soon badges with green shamrocks appeared!  

Notice the yellow shamrock on this 6th Brigade Badge - source http://www.be4046.eu/Deynse.htmNotice the yellow shamrock on this 6th Brigade Badge - source http://www.be4046.eu/Deynse.htm
Now the shamrock is in green, and the Belgians can now face their Northern Irish hosts - source http://www.be4046.eu/Deynse.htm Now the shamrock is in green, and the Belgians can now face their Northern Irish hosts - source http://www.be4046.eu/Deynse.htm

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