The dateline is Belgium, September 26, 1914. The First World War is underway and the German Army has invaded the country. Belgian soldiers are still fighting back and one, Optatius Buyssens, is out on patrol. A shot rings out from a German rifle. Things don’t look good for the volunteer Belgian soldier.
But how had it come to this in Belgium? Why was a hostile German shooting at a Belgian in his own country? The answer, of course, lies in the fact that the First World War had broken out weeks before. And tiny Belgium, which was supposed to be an entirely neutral country, found itself in the firing line.
The great European powers of the period – Britain and France on one side and Germany and Austro-Hungary on the other – were at war. To the east, there were also hostilities between Russia and the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. This front of hostilities, however, isn’t quite relevant to our story about Belgium and the volunteer soldier, Optatius Buyssens.
Sadly for the Belgians, their declared neutrality was ignored by the Germans. By August 2, 1914, the Germans had given Belgium an ultimatum. They asserted that the Belgians must allow German troops to pass through their territory unopposed. This would allow Germany to access its bitter rival, France.
The Germans’ approach to the war was simple. First, they must defeat the French. With this in mind, they planned to take Paris within four weeks. To do this they needed to cross Belgium, sandwiched between Germany and France. Having vanquished the French, they could then turn their attention to the Russians.
After the German ultimatum had been issued to Belgium at the beginning of August, events moved quickly. Unsurprisingly, Belgium refused to give the Germans permission to tramp through their country to attack France. And so, because of this defiance, the Germans invaded Belgium the very next day.
On the same day that hostile soldiers marched into Belgium, the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, proclaimed war with the French. And with the Germans now setting foot on Belgian territory, the Belgians called upon the terms of the Treaty of London. This was an agreement that had been signed by the European powers in 1839.
This treaty, among other things, assured the neutrality of Belgium. The Germans had clearly flouted the terms of the 75-year-old agreement and the British government felt they had no option but to declare war on Germany. This was despite the fact that Wilhelm was the cousin of the British King George V. In fact, another cousin to both of them was Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II.
But all that these close ties between European royalty served to prove was that geo-politics was more important than family. The British declared war on the Germans on August 4. And so the Germans now activated the Shlieffen Plan, which was devised by the Chief of the General Staff of the German Army, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen. This was a plan for the rapid invasion and defeat of France.
The Shlieffen Plan called for an overwhelming German force to pour across Belgium into France. The troops would then head straight for the French capital, Paris. Taking Paris, the Germans hoped, would result in a rapid capitulation by the French. This would allow the Germans to mete out the same treatment to the Russians in the east.
And so the German Army made a determined thrust across the Belgian-German border at dawn on Tuesday, August 4. And they made rapid progress through Belgian territory. On Wednesday, the Germans attacked the important Belgian city of Liege in the first large-scale military encounter of WWI. By August 16 they had captured the city.
As they swept through Belgium, the Germans were utterly ruthless. Any opposition to their progress was met with reprisals, including the murder of civilians and the destruction of towns. These German war crimes came to be known as the Rape of Belgium.
There was utter chaos across Belgium. Some 25,000 homes were put to the torch in 1914 and around a fifth of the population – some 1.5 million souls – fled. Some 3,000 Belgians died by electrocution, as the Germans had erected electric fencing to stop them from leaving the country.
The Germans were convinced that their troops were the victims of Belgian saboteurs who had apparently captured and tortured their soldiers. As a result, between August and September 1914 as many as 6,500 civilians were put to death by German soldiers. Later historical study has suggested that these Belgian attacks only actually existed in the imaginings of the invading Germans.
After the city of Liege had fallen, so too did other Belgian cities. Namur was besieged and fell to the Germans on August 24. However, the Belgians now planned a counterattack to try and halt the German advance. And so the Battle of Buggenhout commenced on September 25.
This brings us to the point of meeting the protagonist of this story, Optatius Buyssens, on September 26, 1914. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider how we know so much about this single Belgian soldier. And the answer to that, surprisingly, comes from the website Reddit.
One keen Reddit user is 28-year-old Vincent Buyssens, the great-grandson of Optatius. Vincent lives in the Belgian city of Antwerp, working as a digital strategist. After posting about his great-grandfather on the social media site, it was clear that he had captured many people’s imaginations.
Within 24 hours after Vincent made his Reddit post in November 2018 it had garnered no fewer than 130,000 upvotes. Furthermore, it also caught the attention of international media. Everybody from CNN to the BBC was now covering Optatius Buyssens’ extraordinary story.
Before we tell Vincent’s story about his great-grandfather though, let’s find out a little more about Optatius Buyssens. He had apparently been turned down by the army when he first tried to join. He had been excluded, it seems, because of a past injury to his hip.
But it seems that Buyssens was a true patriot. Undeterred by his initial rebuff, he eventually managed to join up. And on his very first day, September 26, 1914, he found himself near the Belgian town of Lebbeke. That is a significant time and place, since on September 25 the Battle of Buggenhout had been launched nearby.
We don’t know for sure what Buyssens was doing on September 26 – though it seems he was on some kind of scouting mission. What we do know is that two battalions of Belgian troops had advanced from the town of Buggenhout towards Lebbeke. And by the end of the day, the Belgians, perhaps with Buyssens as one of their number, occupied the town.
However the German unit that the Belgians had hoped to engage were avoiding confrontation by simply making their way around Lebbeke. Somehow, however, Buyssens came within range of some German soldiers. Whether he had just stumbled across these Germans or if they’d hunted him, we do not know.
As Vincent Buyssens’ post described, these Germans opened fire and his great-grandfather was hit in the chest. Such a wound would certainly have proved fatal, but for one thing. Buyssens had six coins in his breast pocket, and it was those that the German bullet had hit.
The Mail Online quoted Vincent’s words. “He was very lucky since the bullet that should have killed him ricocheted off of the coins, thus saving his life.” But there was another twist to this extraordinary story and the role of these six coins.
“Ironically, the coins were the reason why he got shot,” Vincent told the Mail Online. “Because it was the noise of them clinking together in his breast pocket which gave his position away.” So the very coins that were almost responsible for his death actually ended up preventing it.
The German who shot Buyssens wasn’t content to leave it at that. He walked over to the prone Belgian and gave him a kick to the head to ensure he was dead. Of course, Buyssens was still very much alive. But fortunately he had the presence of mind to play possum. And luckily the German was fooled by his act.
It’s little wonder that this incredible story gripped the Reddit community. However, the tale seemed almost too fantastic to be genuine. Indeed, without evidence to verify this miraculous escape from death, the story would take some believing.
Even Vincent himself had initially harbored doubts about the story. “When I first heard the story years ago I couldn’t believe it,” the Mail Online quoted him as saying. “But when I talked with my dad and granddad and read through his journals it became immediately clear to me that it was legit.”
Vincent also described the experience of his Reddit post going viral. “There were some people who were skeptical on Reddit,” he stated. “But when I explained to them the full story in detail they were appreciative and thought it was really cool.”
Another important angle to Optatius Buyssens’ story struck Vincent. And this was a factor intimately linked to his own mortality. “The coins… saved the life of my great-grandfather and [therefore] inadvertently… mine,” Vincent told the Flemish broadcaster VRT NWS. Because, of course, without his great-grandfather, there would have been no Vincent.
After the shooting, the Germans who had attacked Buyssens disappeared from the scene. This gave him and another wounded compatriot the chance to crawl away from danger. From here, they could make good their escape.
Buyssens managed to cross the Belgian border into the neighboring Netherlands. He then made his way to Britain, where he was able to make a complete recovery from his ordeal. A whole year was to pass before his family heard any news of him.
As far as Belgium was concerned, things went from bad to worse. After the 1914 invasion, Germany controlled some 95 percent of Belgian territory. The occupying Germans set up a ruling body called the General Government for most of Belgium. However, the area of Flanders, where fighting continued, was under direct German military authority.
Many Belgians fled their country, just as Buyssens had done after he was wounded. Some 300,000 crossed the border into France, while another 200,000 made their way to Britain. The Germans conscripted around 120,000 Belgians, transporting them to Germany as forced labor.
As for the Belgian Army, they had stood little chance against the German onslaught. The country’s declared neutrality meant it had not been preparing for war with any great urgency. And so the Belgian Army had only 102 machine guns at its disposal and no artillery at all at the outbreak of hostilities.
Nevertheless, the Belgian Army put up some creditable defensive actions in the early weeks of the war. For example, at the Battle of Liege, Belgian troops held out at the fortified city for nine days until the final surrender. This delayed the German battle plans by some five days, allowing French and British forces more time to prepare their defenses.
But Belgium suffered much destruction during WWI and its territory was the scene of hundreds of thousands of casualties. The Belgian city of Ypres, not far from the French border, suffered terribly. There were several major battles in and around Ypres during the war.
The Second Battle of Ypres in spring 1915 saw the first concerted use of poison gas by the Germans. The Germans sustained some 35,000 casualties during this ferocious battle, which lasted just short of five weeks. To complete the carnage, there were almost 60,000 British and around 18,000 French losses.
Belgian troops were also involved in the final days of the war, leading up to the armistice that ended the conflict on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. A combined force of French, British and Belgian troops eventually broke the German lines. And they soon recaptured the Belgian cities of Bruges and Ostend.
So Optatius Buyssens was one of the many Belgians who suffered during the terrors of the First World War. In fact, you could count him as one of the lucky ones since, thanks to those coins in his breast pocket, he survived what almost certainly would have been a fatal bullet. Buyssens lived on after the war, dying of heart disease in 1958.