Sixty-seven years ago, the Allies landed in Normandy. In the wake of the British, Canadians and Americans followed the French, Dutch, Polish and Belgians. This is the story of how The Piron Brigade (1) entered into the history books of the Second World War.
Why talk about this in the pages of the Bulletin Segnia [A newsletter of the Belgian Cercle d'histoire et d'archéologie, Segnia]? The photograph of the author of this article explains it. He was a lover of good beer. He was a brewer himself and a long-time friend of Christian Bauweraerts, who relocated to Houffalize, and with Pierre Gobron, established the Achouffe Brewery for which Houffalize itself has come to be well-known. It was through Christian that Modeste’s manuscript has reached us.
In 1969, at an Antwerp Rotary meeting, Modeste had presented a brief account of his years in uniform while in England and in the area between Normandy and the Meuse River. That same year, his experiences were published in the Club Bulletin. He painted a picture of the less than ideal conditions in which a group of Belgians, who came from all walks of life, prepared for their engagement in the theatre of operations, without showcasing his personal contributions. Therefore, it seemed useful for us to pay tribute to these men who found the spirit to fight for their freedom and that of their countrymen.
When war was declared, Modeste van den Bogaert was a student at the College of the Jesuits in Antwerp. He was drafted by the C.R.A.B. and was required to report to the Recruitment Center in Roeselare. As chaos reigned everywhere, he was first sent to Poperinge and from there to an area south of the Somme. His brother Étienne accompanied him. The movement of troops was done on bicycle. They were pushed back at the French border three times, before successfully crossing at the beaches of De Panne, Belgium. At Abbeville, France, they found themselves face-to-face with German Panzers. They then went to Calais where they boarded a Polish ship, called Katowiz after which they lifted anchor for the destination of Bordeaux.
The British Admiralty decided otherwise, and after three days circling at sea, they instead landed at Southampton, England. Here they submitted to several identity checks. Modeste passed before two Scotland Yard police officers who asked him for the names of his parents and the occupation of his father. "A Brewer", Modeste replied. The quick follow up question was: "Which Brewery?", and just as quickly, Modeste’s response was: "De Koninck". One of the men from Scotland Yard replied: "What is the name of the cafe in front of the brewery?" Obviously, Modeste knew the answer: "De Pelgrim", which opened a big smile on the mouth of the inquisitor. He and his brother were subsequently accepted as foreign refugees on May 25, 1940. Modeste was assigned number 167801.
They met Michel Nève de Mévergnies who, like themselves, was stripped of everything except for a few small personal items. On May 28, the day the Belgian Army surrendered, they were lodged in Chiswick, by the Henry family, a quiet couple that relieved them of their misfortune. They had to adapt to the lifestyle of their British hosts, and with time, they began to appreciate the qualities and merits of their hosts. In September, the two brothers made contact with the Belgian Embassy where confusion caused a lot of tension. The arrival of the Jesuit Priest Robert Jourdain was a real blessing: while nobody was concerned about the plight of youth, the priest became a celebrity. Jourdain founded the Belgian College in Buxton, which was inaugurated in December by Prime Minister Pierlot. Hundreds of young Belgians continued their studies there, if not completing their secondary education. The Father was an ardent patriot since his youth, having also been the founder of the Free Belgium resistance during World War I.
The advice given by Father Robert helped the men understand the immediate priorities such that de Mévergnies and Modeste voluntarily enlisted in the British Royal Air Force. However, they didn’t have any aviation experience so they joined the Belgian ground forces in Tenby. Thus began a five year military career for Modeste, while de Mévergnies had his wish fulfilled: he joined the RAF as a pilot, but on May 9, 1943, died at the controls of his fighter plane which crashed near Weldon Bridge in the Northumberland. He was 19 years and 10 months old.
At Tenby, the Belgians numbered only a few hundred at the beginning of May, 1940, but, four years later, they formed a formidable unit. After having endured four difficult years of training as a commando, Modeste became a Lieutenant of an assault squad in August 1944 at Arromanches.
Note: Mr. Modeste Van Den Bogaert gave Chris Bauweraerts of Lachouffe Brewery this story in 2007. Modeste was the owner of De Koninck Brewery and passed away on October 1, 2010. In August, 2010, Modeste had sold De Koninck to Duvel-Moortgat. While Modeste was signing the sales agreement with Michel Moortgat, the CEO of Duvel-Moortgat , he stated that he was confidently placing his brewery in "good hands", with DUVEL-MOORTGAT. To commemorate the memory of Modeste van den Bogaert, the Antwerp Beer College (ABC), in collaboration with brewery De Koninck will organize the first Modeste Bier Festival on 1st and 2nd of October, 2011. Also a commemorative beer will be brewed. The "CUVEE MODESTE", a strong Scotch-style beer - a style that Modeste enjoyed particularly. This one-batch-in-a-year beer will be brewed a few days before the Modeste Bier Festival and will be cellared for 6 months before it will be released for sale.