Does your apartment overlook a tiny cemetery in Schaerbeek? Do you get ready for work every morning, aware of the plain grey crosses on the other side of the garden fence, but not really affected by their presence? If so, I have to apologise if you glanced up from your breakfast this morning and were surprised by a strange figure walking briskly up and down the rows of gravestones. That was me, wearing my bright orange ski jacket and trying to keep my feet warm, in the little Enclos des Fusillés just off Rue Colonel Bourg in Schaerbeek, Brussels. It was an unlikely spot to visit at 8h30 on a bleak on-the-verge-of-snow morning in early February, but the relative isolation and gloominess added to the experience.
The maternal side of my family loves a graveyard and I am no exception. There is no better way to understand the history of a community than by going for a wander around the local graveyard. The older, the better. We especially love Protestant churches and graveyards and don’t even get us started on war memorials. This is in part due to a love of history and reading, but also to the Halbert surname. There are no other Halberts in Ireland, so we always keep an eye out for any mention. It doesn’t happen often, but there is much excitement when it does. For example, the time Martha and I were in St Paul’s Cathedral and had a look at the Roll of Honour in the American Memorial Chapel. A page is turned every day in this giant book and that particular day, it was on this very page:
Given that Halbert is a Germanic Jewish name, I was not expecting to find any relatives in the Enclos des Fusillés. The 342 crosses are in commemoration of Belgians executed during the wars, in addition to an individual memorial to Belgian political prisoners sent to concentration camps during World War II. As graveyards go, it is very well looked after (not that there is anything wrong with a lovely old overgrown graveyard, like the one overlooking Castlehaven cove in West Cork). I imagine that it is more decorative at other times, with plants in front of the crosses and leaves on the bushes, but today’s starkness was suitable for February.
There is also a row of crosses dedicated to a group of French Resistance fighters, all killed on 3 March 1944, “mort pour la France”.
The real reason for my visit to the Enclos des Fusillés was to see the spot where Edith Cavell was executed in 1915. An English nurse working in Brussels prior to and during World War I, Cavell was shot for her involvement in the resistance movement. I read a brilliant biography of her life and death last year, written by Diana Souhami, and this was a destination that I had been craving ever since. Considering how revered she is throughout Brussels, the site of her execution is understated to say the least.
It was minus 3 degrees this morning and I could feel the cold seeping up through my shoes. It reminded me of the year I went to Ypres on 11 November, when it rained throughout the ceremony under the Menin Gate. Both times, I did not dwell on my cold but was mindful of the fact that soon I would be indoors with a hot cup of coffee, a far cry from the fates of those commemorated on this plaque.