One of the unsung heroes of world war one
Name 10 famous Belgians – it’s a joke isn’t it? Well, let me tell you about one Belgian who should have been famous but his story has been lost amongst thousands of others in the annals of the first world war.
Remy Himmer was the director of a textile factory in Dinant, a beautiful little medieval town on the River Meuse. A prosperous man, with an impressive combed white moustache, an elegant wife and a clutch of children, he might have lived the life of a contented burger if hadn’t been for the interruption of history.
By 23 August 1914, three weeks after German troops crossed the Belgian border, French forces were targeting the Germans from the woods on the other side of the Meuse. (Factoid: Lt Charles de Gaulle was injured in the leg on the bridge at Dinant on August 15th 1914)
Himmer’s factory was on the river. While some of his 600 plus workers managed to escape to the French-controlled side, he remained with 40, including women and children, hiding in the factory basement.
As a significant purchaser of South American wool, Himmer was consul for the Argentine, a neutral country, so he put up the flag above the factory gates. It did him no good. German soldiers forced them out at gunpoint and marched them up to the Abbey of Notre Dame de Leffe a hundred yards away.
Women and children were shoved into the church, and – realising that the worst was about to happen – Himmer approached the German officer.
“I will give you my entire fortune if you spare my workers,” he said.
The German commander replied: “It’s not money I want, it’s blood.”
With that boss and workers were lined up against a stone wall and shot.
I looked at that wall on Sunday and tried to imagine it stained with fresh blood. I had heard Himmer’s story from his great grandson, Michel Hubert, a retired surgeon.
Is it true in every detail? We will never know, but a monument was erected to those killed, and Himmer’s widow made sure that future generations should know that her husband was an honourable man who had done his utmost to save his employees.
“When I was very little, she told me that you must never forget what happened to your great grandfather,” said Michel. “It was passed down through the family but it was really me who embraced the idea of keeping alive the memory of this horror, because innocent people were murdered.”
A hundred years on, Belgians are thinking again about the terror of the first world war, in which 6000 of their number were killed in German atrocities. The 40 workers were amongst more than 600 killed in Dinant, site of the worst civilian massacre of the conflict.
Michel has meticulously researched his great grandfather’s story, keeping photographs and other documents in a bulging album, but his aim is to preserve memory not stoke resentment. After another world war and nearly 70 years of peace, he holds no ill feeling towards Germans.
“The Germans were our enemies but that was a long time ago. Now it’s over,” he says.
“You couldn’t talk about the Germans to my grandparents, of course. But then it passed as everything does.”
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