Visiting Gouvy, Belgium: sleepy village of strategic importance in World War One
Boots by rail 100 years ago
Why would this still quiet and sleepy village in southern Belgium have been of such strategic importance in World War One?
The answer lies in the development of the rail networks over a century ago. Even today, Gouvy is on the main railroad between Liège, Belgium and Luxembourg City; its station is the last on Belgian territory before the border of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Belgium's rail network was already highly developed in the 19th century and, indeed, so was that of the Grand Duchy. In 1914, the border between Belgium and Imperial Germany lay further west of where it currently lies, and the railroad at Gouvy also had a junction with a line to Sankt-Vith (French: St.Vith), then in Germany. I have supplied a photo (above, right) which shows the former rail junction; when I lived in Belgium, I travelled the route shown many times.
Thus it came about that if Kaiser Wilhelm II's Imperial German Army was to put into practice the von Schlieffen Plan and neutralize Belgium, it seemed likely that France would attack in response by bringing her troops to eastern Belgium through the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg's well developed rail network.
As a matter of military necessity, therefore, — by perception of the Imperial German High Command — the Grand Duchy had to be occupied.
Accordingly, a short distance south of Gouvy on August1, 1914, Imperial German 'boots on the ground' at Troisvierges railroad station in the Grand Duchy marked the beginning of World War One on the Western Front, which soon developed in the broader region into a savage carnage lasting for four, terrible years.
Events took their course. On the arrival of Imperial German troops in Luxembourg City, Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaïde symbolically ordered her car to be parked in the path of approaching troops; but to no avail. Eventually, in the eyes of many of her subjects, this young head of state — already unpopular with the secularist left — became compromised when her Grand Ducal court became too closely identified with the Imperial German invaders and was compelled to abdicate in 1919 (1).
For his part, King Albert I of the Belgians, in the face of an almost total military occupation of Belgium by Imperial German troops, managed yet to remain on a small piece of Belgian territory around De Panne (French: La Panne) which was not overrun, and there maintained a symbolic resistance to the invaders.
Gouvy, in the Ardennes area of Belgium's Walloon region (Région wallonne) is still a quiet village in the Belgian province of Luxembourg (yes, Belgium also calls one of its provinces by that name!) Historical memories here, however, still linger in relation to its former, strategic significance in an age when a fast capacity to project air power had not yet replaced the slower movement of ground troops often carried out by rail.
Gouvy has various forms as a place-name, as well as this usual French form. In Létzebuergesch, the national language of the nearby Grand Duchy — also spoken in a part of Belgium — there are no less than three forms that have occurred: Gäilech, Geilech and Gellich . In German, the form is Geilich. In the local Walloon language, the form Govi is found. However, the French form strongly predominates, not least because the village is situated in a French-speaking area of Belgium.
March 12, 2014
(1) Ironically, the movement of French troops through neutral Luxembourg to Belgium via Gouvy — feared by the Imperial German High Command — would also have violated the Grand Duchy's neutrality, and, if the Grand Ducal government in 1914 had given French troops permission to do so, the Imperial German government would have chosen to regard this as a hostile act and responded accordingly. One may wonder if the Grand Duchess's secular leftist detractors would have been so vehement if it had been France rather than Germany which had violated Luxembourg's neutrality. French troops did in fact intervene in Luxembourg in 1919, during this small country's Abdication crisis.
Also worth seeing
In Gouvy itsself, its parish church is a solid stone building, with a conspicuous spire.
St. Vith (distance: approx. 10 kilometres) has Battle of the Bulge Memories.
Troisvierges, Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (distance: approx. 10 kilometres); the parish church has an interesting, domed spire.
Pruem, Germany (distance: approx. 30 kilometres) has some striking, ecclesiastical architecture in a scenic location.
How to get there: The nearest large, international airport to Gouvy is Brussels Airport (French: Aéroport national de Bruxelles; Dutch: Nationaal Luchthaven van Brussel; distance: approx. 120 kilometres), to which Brussels Airlines flies from New York; car rental is available from Brussels Airport. A railroad service via Liège links Brussels with Gouvy. Some services may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to contact the airline for up to date information. It is advisable to refer to consular sources for border crossing visa information with may apply to citizens of particular nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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