LAST Thursday Richard Brooksbank treated the Lower Albany Historical Society to the extraordinary story of his great-grandmother, Louise Lienaux Vergauwe, who survived not only the invasion of Belgium by Germany in World War 1, but endured being separated from her children, coping with her anguish by creating six unique pieces of lacework which expressed her anger and resilience as a woman, mother and Belgium citizen.
These six remarkably unique pieces of bobbin lace, also known as pillow lace, were made with the use of continuous fine linen thread, no applique and worked through a 4cm hole in an oil cloth.
Vergauwe taught herself how to make lace and her story is told through the narrative of her daughter, Yvonne Brooksbank Lienaux. Vergauwe was born in 1890 and lived in Antwerp with her husband and two young children when the Germans invaded Belgium July 31 1914 at the start of WW1.
The Belgian government mobilised its armed forces and Vergauwe’s husband was called for military duty. Like many others, Vergauwe, a teacher, eventually fled her home with her children to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. She boarded her children with a sponsor family who safe-guarded them while she had to return to Belgium as a civil servant.
During the escalation of the war, Vergauwe was not able to see her children as the journey over the border became too dangerous. It is in this period of not seeing her children for four years that Vergauwe turned to lace-making to work through her anguish and frustration at being separated from her children and her anger about the war.
Altogether she made six lace pieces in total, the first one titled, “The defence of Yser”, which represented a battle which took place in October 1914 between the towns on Nieuwpoort and Diksmuide along a 35km (22 mile) long stretch of the Yser river and Yperlee canal in Belgium.
The front line was held by a large Belgian force which halted the German advance in a costly defensive battle. The Allied victory at the Yser stopped the German advance into the last corner of unoccupied Belgium but still left the German army in control of 95% of Belgian territory.
Victory at the Yser allowed Belgium to retain control of a sliver of territory, while making King Albert a Belgian national hero, sustaining national pride and providing a venue for commemorations of heroic sacrifice for the next century. The piece of lace depicted a Belgium lion defeating the imperial eagle associated with Germany.
The second piece of lace was titled “The prediction”, and was in response to the “Deutschland über alles” dogma being perpetuated throughout Belgium by German invaders. Vergauwe intricately stitched together a piece of lace with an enraged eagle being immobilised by a bear (Russia), a lion (Belgium), rooster (France) and the bulldog (England).
“I mean, this was protest stuff,” said Brooksbank.
During this time, Vergauwe narrowly escaped high treason when German officers came knocking at her door one evening. She fled with the lace and evaded the German military. Her third piece of lace, “Belgium bowed but undefeated”, depicts a woman who has endured “all” the suffering and loss and turmoil brought to Belgium during the war and being supported by a French soldier.
“It summed up Belgium’s anguish,” Brooksbank said.
The fourth piece of lace was in response to when America entered the war.
Germany had announced unrestricted warfare against all ships, neutral or otherwise, that entered the war zone around Britain, and what followed was the sinking of a series of boats including ocean liners that were carrying American citizens.
Vergauwe created a lace piece depicting the Statue of Liberty with the stars and stripes of the American flag stitched into the draping of the statue. The picture depicts the statue crossing the Atlantic Ocean with rifles and military helmets and a defeated Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The fifth lace piece depicted King Albert, a Belgian hero at the time, fighting in the trenches with his fellow men. She created a piece of lace that illustrates him holding a rifle. This was sent to the Belgium royal family who kept it for many years.
The sixth piece Vergauwe titled, “Peace”, and it was the most important and significant one for her, reflecting when her husband and children returned home.