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August Thiry: ‘It’s about fighting, travelling and getting wiser after a big adventure’

ACM Belgians marching in New York City.

Historian, writer and lecturer at Thomas More University shares the adventure of ACM corps and his favourite heroes in the English edition of his new book ‘King Albert’s heroes’.

What was the idea of writing this book? What is the prehistory of this book?

I was an assistant at the University of Leuven, I went to the library of the Slavonic studies. I was looking for a Russian- Dutch dictionary. When I took the dictionary, a small booklet fell on the floor. It was about the ACM-Belgians who witnessed the Russian Revolution. One of those young Belgian guys, had my family name – Marcel Thiry, who became a writer later on. I wrote an article about the ACM corps. My first book in Dutch was published in 2008 and the English edition King Albert’s Heroes came out in September 2018.  I will also publish an e-book in the spring of next year.

The accent in the book ‘King’s Albert Heroes’ is mainly on the heroes or the history?

It’s a human interest story with a large historical background. It’s about 400 young Belgians who went to war and above all wanted to survive. They went through the First World War and the Russian Revolution. They changed from warriors to travelers, they made a worldwide voyage. They started in France, they went to Russia, Ukraine, Siberia; they crossed the Pacific Ocean, made a tour through America, crossed the Atlantic Ocean and finally returned to France. It’s about fighting, travelling and getting wiser after such a big adventure.

Why did you decide to translate the book in English? Will there be translations in the other languages as well?

The first book, written more than 10 years ago, was in Dutch. Two years later, the book was translated in the Ukrainian language in two versions. I had a choice to translate it into French or English, but English is more international, so my choice was to translate it into English.

‘King Albert’s heroes’ was published in September 2018. August Thiry focuses on the worldwide adventures of the Belgian army’s first armored car unit during the World War I. ©Fulbright Commission Belgium

There’s not a lot of information about the ACM corps in Russian. As they spent a lot of time in Russia, it could be also interesting for the Russian readers.

I had some negotiations with high ranking Russian officials when I was the last time in Russia. They wanted to focus on the military aspect and use the story for patriotic reasons. When I say ‘King’s Albert heroes’, there’s a little bit of irony in it. The ACM-Belgians were not real heroes in the military sense of the word. They almost did their best to survive. Today, many Russians are interested in patriotism, but I don’t believe in nationalism. I believe in people, all people are equal.

What is also included in the book, the memories of soldiers?

I picked up the most famous of these young Belgians, but some of them were already famous before the start. There is for instance World Champion Wrestling Constant le Marin. There are also my distant relatives: Marcel Thiry and Oscar Thiry. Marcel became a well-known author after the war. There was also an ACM-Belgian who was involved in the Belgian socialist trade union before the war; later on he became the leader of the Belgian communist party and he was assassinated.  His name was Julien Lahaut.

Do you have your favorite hero?

Perhaps, Oscar Thiry. He was reckless. He was badly hurt, because he didn’t want to recognize the danger of the war. Before the war he was a journalist, but after his return he never put a single word on paper; his abilities to write were destroyed by the war. He became a burn-out person. Another one is Fernand Houbiers, the young nephew of wrestler Constant le Marin. Young Fernand was mainly interested in fighting and surviving: finding food and the girls. I think it’s a very healthy attitude, so he survived. He also left a typescript with more than 1000 pages, including the stories collected from fellow veterans.

This unit, known as ACM (Autos Canons Mitrailleuses – Armored Cars with Cannons and Machine Guns), was organized in Paris at the end of 1914.

In your opinion, should students read this book? And why?

If they are interested in history, Belgium, war and unusual stories. It is a story not only about World War I but also about young people. How people of those days reacted to the harsh and difficult circumstances. It’s kind of a mirror for the young generation. Why there was nationalism, why they only wanted to speak French. The more languages you know, the better person you are.  There are also more than 100 pages of unique pictures that you can find nowhere else.

What is the main thing you have learned about the ACM Belgians?

Positive and negative. They were so narrow-minded in some aspects. According to them, there is only one culture, the European culture, and on the top of it is the French culture. Travelling all over the world, having contact with other cultures and other languages – it hardly broadened their minds.

On the other hand, having this narrow minded they fought 3 years and still managed to survive. Apart from one case, they behaved themselves rather decently: no atrocity against civilians, no killing of women and children. Even though they were warriors, they were not participating in the ugly war. They fought in the Belgian way, which is the simple way, always looking for compromises, and that’s why I call them King’s Albert heroes.

Text: Alevtina Samusseva. Pictures: ©Fulbright Commission Belgium.