Zimmermann and WWI-heritage in Antwerp (2009-2012)

46 aerial photographs dating from January 1918 documented the German defences along the Belgian-Dutch border and around Antwerp, of which part is now opened to the public

German WW I photograph of Brasschaat
German WW I photograph of Brasschaat
Research carried out by the University of Ghent at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History (KLM -MRA ) in Brussels in 2007 brought to light 46 aerial photographs dating from January 1918. The photographs are of German origin. They carry the caption Kaiserliche Fortifikation Antwerpen and were taken by a certain Lieutenant Zimmermann. It was immediately clear that the photographs contained a wealth of historical data.

From research to valorisation

Keen to have them analyzed to extract that information, in 2008 Antwerp provincial authorities launched a project entitled ‘Inventorization and processing of the Zimmermann aerial photograph collection’.

Location of part of the WW I photographs around Antwerp
Location of part of the WW I photographs around Antwerp

The research showed that the series of photographs depicts a part of the German defences along the Belgian-Dutch border. Fearing an attack from the neutral Netherlands during the First World War, the German occupier built a defence line of bunkers and trenches along large parts of the border. More than 530 military defence elements were identified and located on a modern-day map. The defence elements varied greatly from trenches and breastworks, through bunkers and artillery posts to the forts and sconces of Antwerp’s outer line.

How much of that military infrastructure from the First World War has survived? That was the question behind the project ‘Zimmermann anno 2010. Inventorization and (environmental) analysis of aboveground WW1 relics from the Antwerpen-Turnhoutstellung’.

A preserved German pillbox in the Mastenbos (Kapellen)
A preserved German pillbox in the Mastenbos (Kapellen)
That analysis included the complete inventorization in the field of the military defence elements preserved aboveground. Most of the military remains (400) are part of the northern section, the Nordabschnitt. Almost half of the preserved structures are located in Kapellen (197). Brasschaat has 96 relics, Stabroek 67 and Schoten 40. The canal defence had fewer remains and they are not as well preserved. Seventy-six structures were found spread over Schoten, Brecht, Rijkevorsel, Beerse, Turnhout and Oud-Turnhout. The sheer number, the diversity and the good condition of the military elements are unique for Belgium and make them an exceptional example of military heritage. The impressive and well-preserved German system of trenches dating from 1917 is particularly important: more than ten kilometres of trenches are extremely well preserved.

In 2012 the European project ‘Great War between the lines’, part of the European ‘Interreg IV A–2 Seas programme’, provided the opportunity to carry out follow-up research. The project ‘The possibility of providing access to the Antwerpen-Turnhoutstellung military heritage’ required the presentation of proposals for preserving and accessing the heritage for three specifically chosen areas of the line. After the research, one of these initiative was executed: the WWI trenches in the Mastenbos (Kapellen) are opened to the public and attracted over 20.000 visitors in the first year after the inauguration in November 2014.

Results

Two-volume book 'Vergeten Linies'
Two-volume book 'Vergeten Linies'
The different projects resulted in a rich dataset which is a unique source for managing the heritage and for further scientific research. 

To bring the results to a larger public, the Heritage Department of the Province of Antwerp published the output of the project, including all original photographs, overview maps and historical background, as a two-volumes hard-cover book: "Vergeten Linies. Antwerpse bunkers en loopgraven door de lens van Leutnant Zimmermann (1918)".

Contact

Dr. Wouter Gheyle

Dr. Birger Stichelbaut

Prof. dr. Jean Bourgeois