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The Royal Victory Ball In Brussels


The Royal Victory Ball In Brussels

New Year’s Eve 1918

By Francis J. Atkinson

January 1952


This Fascinating Story Of The Glittering Affair Staged By The 4th Canadian Division In Belgium’s Capital 33 Years Ago Is In Many Respects Reminiscent Of The Famous Ball Held In Brussels By The Duchess Of Richmond Before The Battle Of Waterloo.

It all came about through a sleepless night in Brussels spent by a junior staff officer of the 4th Canadian Division, who was obsessed with romantic dreams of international friendship such as only an Anglo-Irishman could conjure up.

Active war had ended for him, but after all the violence, sleeplessness and mud-hugging since August, 1914, idleness could hardly result.

Never again in history, he mused, would an opportunity present itself to develop the spirit of Hands-across-the-Sea as at that moment.

Such a body of Canadians had never before landed on the European Continent and there was an obvious ignorance on both sides of the Atlantic of the national characteristics of each other. Though the Canadians had come as the “Army of Salvation and Liberation”, they called the Belgians “froggies”. The Brabançons, on the other hand, had vague ideas of these “sauvages” from the Wild and Woolly West. Indeed, they seemed surprised that the Canucks did not wear chaps and ten-gallon hats and gallop into the Grand Place on bucking bronchos.

There was rich material in these two elements for a descendant of the McCarthy clan of Cork to spend sleepless hours dreaming of doing something towards bridging the ocean barriers of at least two Allies.

And so, as day dawned in that villa in La Hulpe, a suburb of Brussels, where Major-General Sir David Watson and a skeleton staff of 4th Division H.Q. were housed, plans were already crystal clear to the young Intelligence officer.

First contact in the breakfast room was his loyal standby, the General’s aide-de-camp., Capt. MacLeod-Moore, formerly adviser on policy to the London Times and as much at home in India and Canada as in Fleet Street or a Pall Mall club. There was just time to explain the Pall Mall club. There was just time to explain the plan to him before the General walked in. Sir David’s greeting and wisecracks were most à propos as usual and he readily granted the request to bring up a “special subject” with him after breakfast. He then applied himself to his egg and bacon, with an occasional glance at the London Daily Mail, flown in freshly by Major Billy Bishop’s starlings as a final contribution to a magnificent chapter of unequalled co-operation with Div. H.Q. ever since Mount St. Eloi and Vimy Ridge.

Having finished a second cup of coffee Sir David finally looked up and said, “Well, Titch, what’s on your mind? Have the Huns of Hannover asked the British King to come back and rule them?” “No, Sir,” replied the young officer, “I just want the 4th Canadian Division to capture Brussels.”

The Divisional Commander was staggered and suggested to the M.O. that he give Titch a check over. No doubt the heavy drag of counting whole army corps of prisoners from Amiens to Mons, from August 8th to November 11th, had brought on cerebral lesions!

However, the General gave close attention to the explanation of the Plan and admitted it had merits, but no doubt he had visions of renewed risks and responsibilities for his battle-weary staff, for his intended “coup de grâce” was, “But how can you finance such a huge undertaking?” Being an Irishman, the last point the Intelligence Officer ever considered was the finance angle and he had no compunction in replying, “Of course you, Sir, being a Scot, would think of that first, but frankly, I had left that part to Providence.”

And so the discussion terminated on a promise that he would have 24 hours in which to find an answer to that question.

With H.R.H. the Prince of Wales on the Canadian Corps staff to build such an event around; with a burgomaster like Max, who had defied the Hun extortionists; with a City Hall that ranks among the finest works of architectural art in the world- what could dampen the ardour of an idealistic dreamer bent on cementing bonds of affection between two nations allied but still strange to one another?

The next morning Titch, weary from long hours of interviews and mathematical wrestling matches with adjutant-generals and quartermaster-generals and paymasters at divisional level, arrived at breakfast somewhat bleary-eyed but still enthusiastic over the possibilities of the Plan, the fulfillment of which would emblazon the name of the “Old Fourth” across the headlines of the World’s Press. This aspect, he thought, should at least appeal to General Watson, who in civilian life was a newspaperman; in fact, the proprietor of a daily paper in Quebec.

Sir David came in promptly. After the usual springing to attention and the order to “carry on”, he made a swift attack on the Canada-packed bacon, the toast and the coffee, finally to ask the inevitable question, “Anything fresh?” He seemed quite surprised when the topic of yesterday, which he had just about forgotten, was resumed but immediately asked the fatal question, “Did you find a solution to the financial burden of your proposition, Titch?”

“Yes, Sir,” the I.O. replied. “I need three days’ pay from you down to the newest second lieutenant.” It took a little harangueing before the General was reassured that this was not just the result of a séance with the banshees around an emerald crystal ball. At last he said, “Well, if you can work the deal on that estimate, you have my authority to go full speed ahead, but mind you limit the guests to 1800. Submit the final battle operation plan to me in 48 hours.”

That was early December. Mac told me afterwards that Sir David was as eager to see the Plan work as anyone and had instructed his brigade commanders to give us the utmost co-operation and make sure that every officer in the Division agreed to sign on the dotted line for the order to the Paymaster to collect three days’ pay.

From then on it was a cinch. Divisional Transport officers informed us we could have as many cars and trucks as we needed–plus two personal Cadillacs for MacLeod-Moore and me!

Mac and I moved to the best billets available in Brussels. Monsieur Max, the illustrious burgomaster, announced that his personal secretary was to be our personal A.D.C., and we were promptly shown around the Maximilian Hall, the Salle Gothique and all the other enthralling replicas of the Wartburg, with splendid hand-carved panel walls and vaulted ceilings. Plans for allocation were drawn up and I left Mac with the lithographer, after searching out a stoneworker who could act as interpreter for his Flemish-speaking chief.

We had, en route, presented our credentials to the British Minister, Sir Francis Hyde Villiers, who promptly inveigled his wife into accepting the chairmanship of the Invitations Committee. This was quite an onerous task, as some of the local inhabitants, even though they might carry titles of haute noblesse, were on the taboo list on account of having fraternised with the Germans during the occupation. Lady Villiers was most judicious in her selection of the committee members, among whom I remember the Countesses de Lannoy and de Merode and Madame Paul Hymans, wife of the Foreign Minister.

Mac’s production of the programme, with a plan of the Hotel de Ville engraved in the centre section, was a masterpiece and was held together by a silk ribbon in the Belgian tricolour.

Meanwhile I had been to see the Minister of National Railways and soon had a whole network of trains organised to pick up officers down to battalions and companies, with their batmen, bandsmen and volunteer helpers for the kitchens, bars, checkrooms, etc.

Next day we organised a formal Committee of Action, composed of brigade commanders and brigade majors, with the Hotel Astoria requisitioned as our headquarters by the City Hall. That large round table under the central glass-roof dome of the spacious foyer became the dynamic centre of affectionate competition during the busy days that followed.

The Engineer-in-Chief of the 4th Division, Brigadier-General King, insisted on executing the work in the various halls himself, aided only by his staff-sergeant.

Mac handed the General a real job. He had devised the slogan, “We shall dance-in the year of Glorious Peace.” (33 years later this may sound rather cynical, but no one then believed anything else than that we had won “the war to end wars”).

His project was to have a clock over the large glass panel above the main entrance of the Salle Gothique, made with wooden staves, decorated with cotton wool and electric light bulbs and his slogan placed around the framework above.

It was the pièce de résistance of the sumptuous decorations, and General King and his Staff Sergeant put as much zeal and expert knowledge into it as if they were planning for the Battle of Amiens.

We had set the date for 9 p.m., 31st December, 1918. Mac “adopted” a few newspaper correspondents in his snowball advance towards the Capture of Brussels. Monsieur Louis Pierard of Le Soir particularly was a great help in getting the news of our progress broadcast. Liaison with the Lord Chamberlain, Count de Merode, was a task which fell mainly to myself. It was a great shock when a memo arrived from his office at Laeken Palace advising me that a star guest of first magnitude would not be able to appear: His Majesty the King of the Belgians had decided to proceed to La Panne near Ostende to visit the war victims in hospital there at New Year’s.

This was the second blow within a few days, for we had received only that week a short, friendly but firmly formal note from Lord Claude Hamilton, A.D.C. to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, expressing regret that, owing to special circumstances, H.R.H. could not attend.

It was enough to make us weep. Our castle of cards was toppling about our ears, with the two main star attractions withdrawn.

MacLeod-Moore and I dared not reveal our predicament to the Chief and only did so to our Committee some days after when there were only seven days left till zero hour. It was decided, however, to carry on with the Plan in spite of these disappointments.

Meanwhile the preparations had proceeded apace.

Our D.A.Q.M.G. had taken charge in a masterful way, with a small army of cooks and catering specialists, guided in turn by a ladies committee which was au fait with the special tastes of the Belgians.

The 3rd Canadian Division as well as the Australians billeted in our precincts, were especially invited and proved most co-operative in complementing our own resources in materials and personnel.

Then, too, Providence came to our aid. A cryptic army signal arrived: “Am coming – Edward”, this on the early morning of December 30th. A Management Committee meeting was immediately convened and it was decided that the Salle des Echevins should be reserved as a special dining salon for H.R.H. and a select group. A red carpet was laid, and a canopy erected from the pavement to the noble entrance with its beautiful Gothic stairway and ceiling painted in murals with Leonardo da Vinci themes of cherubs and angels floating in a cloud-bedrifted sky of Italian blue.

General Watson had imposed upon me the duty to act as Usher-in-Chief at the first landing of this “Stairway of Honour” and to announce each party as they arrived at the entrance to the Grand Ball Room and the Salle Gothique. Having typed the invitation lists a dozen times as they were made, revised, discussed and again remodelled by Lady Villier’s committee, I had become quite familiar with names, titles, rules of protocol, and all that sort of thing.

The admonitions of Sir David to restrict, as my personal responsibility, the invitations to a maximum of 1,800 individuals were of course futile. First our beloved G.S.O. 1, Lt.-Col. (Later Major-General) Eddie de B. Panet, who died just a few months ago in Kingston, would impress upon me the essentiality of inviting this Duke and Duchess or that Baron and Baroness. Then General Odlum (now Canadian Ambassador to Turkey) or General MacBrien (afterwards Chief of Staff in Ottawa and head of the R.C.M.P.) would hand me a list of cards marked “MUST be invited.” And to this day I have a heavy file of letters in feminine script, highly perfumed, imploring me to send this or that niece, daughter or other relative or friend an invitation. Little wonder that I finished up with 2,800 guests on my list instead of 1,800.

*          *          *

To those who participated in the Royal Victory Ball in Brussels on New Year’s Eve 1918, memories will be many and varied. For myself, I shall always remember the moment when Count de Merode came to me and said, “Now, Atkinson, you started this carnival, and it’s up to you to act as personal chaperon to my five nieces.” Believe me, they were a stunningly beautiful bouquet of flowers, those nieces, but I felt this was a more dangerous operation than any of the Canadian Corps’ exploits since we crossed the Canal du Nord.

At 11:57 p.m. the Belgian tricolour was drawn back, showing General King’s clock devised by MacLeod Moore. Standing at that historic moment in the gorgeous ball-room, with the lights slowly dimming, with revolving blue and red beams focussing on the Holy Cross and its Maple wreaths and Poppies from Belgian Flanders, with the Opera’s silver chimes ringing out the fateful year 1918 and 12 trumpeters sounding the Last Post and Reveille – few could help feeling the intensely dramatic sensation of those moments. The pent-up gratitude of the liberated Brabançons and their undoubted affection for their liberators, the Canadians, welled up as uncontrolled sentiments.

I had concluded my reception duties about 10 o’clock, just after the arrival of the Prince of Wales, and made a quick survey of the various salons, kitchens, buffets, bars, cloak rooms, report centre, detective room and press room, and satisfied myself that all was going well. By 11 p.m. I was able to take part in the dancing and fun-making in which, incidentally, the Prince joined as merrily as the rest of the guests. Nevertheless, can one wonder if Mac and I were glad to call it “Cease Fire” after Auld Lang Syne had been sung at 6 a.m.? We celebrated the success of the ball by going over to a humble little café opposite the main entrance gates of the City Hall on the Grande Place and order ourselves a bottle of Bordeaux rouge. Having been strictly abstemious all through the 26 days of preparations and during the ball too, we felt entitled to that although we were too fatigued to eat. But we were happy. The operation was a huge success. There was no financial hangover, and the objective – friendship between Belgium and Canada- had been achieved.

The British Ambassador (there was no Canadian diplomatic service in those days) was delighted with the affair and made sure Mac and I had the best beefsteaks when we visited the Embassy later to finalise our reports. One of my treasured mementos of the event is Burgomaster Max’s autographed photo and a souvenir album of the historic City Hall of Brussels.

The Ghost of the Duchess of Richmond had walked again. Hail, Waterloo! Hail les Brabançons!


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