Historical exhibition Sophie De Schaepdrijver

In this exhibition, historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver tells the little known story of Bruges during the First World War. While the city was full of quartered soldiers, the port was dependent on a German maritime bulwark.



Bruges’ dual role during WWI

Bruges’ role in the Great War is perhaps not as well known as that of Ypres, Poperinge, or Passchendaele, but it is unique and worth telling. Bruges was occupied by the German army and was also a base for its submarine fleet.

‘Bruges at War’ is a historical exhibition that focuses on what daily life was like in occupied Bruges, but also considers the international dimension of the First World War.


Bruges: maritime bulwark of the German navy

During the German occupation, Bruges depended on a maritime bulwark that was formed by the triangle of Bruges, Zeebrugge and Ostend. The inner and outer harbours in Bruges were enlarged to create a submarine port, with look-out posts, bunkers, long distance and anti-aircraft guns, barbed wire, electric fences, radio links, and underwater mines. Curator De Schaepdrijver explains that the bulwark was to serve as the base for a war of attrition that targeted British provisions. With its advanced front, care had to be taken to protect the Heimat and ensure that the Flemish coast did not fall into enemy hands.


Daily life in occupied Bruges

As a Marinegebiet (coastal defence), Bruges was under the authority of Admiral Von Schröder, who led an exceptionally severe military regime that limited freedom of movement of the inhabitants to the bare minimum. On the other hand, the occupiers also viewed the city as a tourist destination and a source of cultural prestige.

Amongst the strict German regulations endured by the citizens of Bruges were many prohibitions and rules concerning the use of the harbour and the coastal defences. The requisitioning of provisions and tools and the quartering of German soldiers also made life difficult.

The people of Bruges also suffered from the allied aerial bombings, which were aimed at the German bulwark. In total, around 6000 bombs fell on Bruges and the surrounding areas and 126 houses were completely destroyed, leading to 125 fatal casualties.


‘Bruges at War’: a story told through 11 themes

Photos, posters, portraits, tools, uniforms, and other objects tell the story of a city at war, from the mobilisation of July 1914 to the post-war commemorations of 1919-1920. Themes include the rare contact with the Belgian army and the difficulties of daily life, but alongside this are instances of comfort and ‘normality’, resistance and collaboration, joy at liberation, commemoration, and mourning.

Meanwhile, maps, panels, and multimedia installations provide an international context.


‘Bruges at War’: historical background

The Bruges city archive invited Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver to curate this historical exhibition. She is an authority on modern history, particularly the Great War. She is exceptionally well placed to understand how to place the specific nature of Bruges’ role as an occupied city within a wider international context.


Biography of Sophie De Schaepdrijver

Sophie De Schaepdrijver is a historian and professor at Pennsylvania State University (USA). She is internationally renowned for her work on the social and cultural history of the First World War, and her specialist subject is occupations.

Her books on the subject include De Groote Oorlog: Het Koninkrijk België tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog (The Great War: the Kingdom of Belgium in the First World War) (1997, reprinted 2013), We Who Are So Cosmopolitan: the War Diary of Constance Graeffe (2008), Erfzonde van de Twintigste Eeuw: Notities bij '14-'18 (Original Sin of the Twentieth Century: Notes on ’14-’18)(2013), and Gabrielle Petit: Death and Life of a Female Spy of the Great War (London, Bloomsbury Academic, released in 2014).

De Schaepdrijver is co-author and presenter of the 4-part documentary Brave Little Belgium (VRT-Canvas, August 2014). For her work, she has received the Arkprijs van het Vrije Woord (Ark Prize of the Free Word)(1999) and the Gouden Erepenning van het Vlaamse Parlement (Gold Medal of the Flemish Parliament) (2013). In 2014, she was awarded the Order of the Crown.



Practical information

For all the practical information about the ‘Bruges at War’ exhibition, click here


Additional activities

LECTURE (in Dutch)
Historian and curator Sophie De Schaepdrijver talks about Bruges’ WWI history and the exhibition ‘Bruges at War’.

  • Date: 19 October 2014, 10.30 am
  • Location: attic of Sint-Janshospitaal (Old St. John’s Hospital), Mariastraat 38, Bruges
  • Tickets: € 5, free for members of Vrienden Musea and Levend Archief
  • booking required through Musea.reservatie@brugge.be
  • Organised by: Vrienden Musea Brugge and Levend Archief


PUBLICATION: Bastion: Occupied Bruges in the First World War

This publication from Sophie De Schaepdrijver complements the historical exhibition. Building on a rich heritage of books and studies about Bruges and the First World War by, amongst others, Jos De Smet, Luc Schepens, Patrick Verbeke, and Valentin Degrande, this book wants to offer a slightly different perspective. It places Bruges’ experience of the war within the wider context of the World War, by showing the experiences of the people of Bruges alongside the plans of the German navy, the fate of the Marinegebiet alongside that of the whole of occupied Belgium, and the hopes of the people of Bruges against the background of ‘war cultures’ in the whole of Europe. It offers a starting point for further research.

Published in Dutch and English
Price: € 24,50


To pdf
Brugge 14 - 18 - historische tentoonstelling Sophie De Schaepdrijver
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