American citizen nearly executed, then knighted, during First World War

Louvain, Belgium, in ruins. Library of Congress.

Victor Bogaert was one of six American citizens knighted by the King of Belgium during the First World War. He was lucky to have received this honor, for months earlier German troops nearly executed him for being a French spy.

Born in Belgium on March 7, 1859, Bogaert spent much of his life serving others. In the 1870s, he went to the French Congo and Belgian territory in Africa to disrupt the slave trade. Bogaert eventually moved to America, and, in 1883, settled in Lexington, Kentucky. His decision to make Lexington his home was completely pragmatic; he later said that he had simply run out of money. “I had to stop here,” he told a reporter. “I was broke, absolutely.”

A jeweler and watchmaker, Bogaert opened a small watch repair store. This business soon grew into a thriving business. Called “the leading jeweler of his adopted city,” one advertisement stated that the store was “known for the quality of their diamonds and the care in selecting them.” In 1899, Bogaert became a U.S. citizen.

When World War I erupted, Bogaert organized the “Belgian War Relief Association of Lexington” to help his war-torn native country. He then went overseas and worked as a military interpreter and civilian volunteer with the Red Cross, helping troops who were serving on the Western Front. Continually operating near the front lines, he reputedly became “shell-shocked” after his experiences there.

“When war broke out,” Bogaert said in 1914, “I was in Brussels with my wife. I wanted to see something of the fighting, and started for Liege . . .” When he reached “the small town of Flemmelle-Haute the Germans were just starting to shoot into the town.” Boegaert hid in a cellar but had to flee when the Germans ignited buildings. He eventually found his way to Louvain, Belgium, and was there when German troops sacked the town in August 1914.

After escaping Louvain, Bogaert encountered several German officers. He later said that they “demanded that I get down on my knees and deliver up any weapons that I might have. I told them that I had no weapons, and that, being an American citizen, I wouldn’t get on my knees for any German officers.” They then arrested him.

Accused of being a spy, Bogaert failed to convince his captors that he was an American. Instead, the Germans force-marched him down a road and threatened to execute him. Bogaert eventually fainted from exhaustion. When the Germans searched his pockets and found his identification, they discovered that he was an American. This spared his life.

During the war, Bogaert witnessed other atrocities. “I was also in Charleroi when the Germans set fire to that town,” he said. “It was a terrible experience. Many girls were burned or suffocated to death behind the counters in the stores because they were afraid to venture out into the streets and face the rain of bullets that were flying.”

A month after his capture, Bogaert returned to the United States and began speaking in communities across Kentucky, giving them, a reporter wrote, “a first-hand account of the painful situation prevailing in devastated Belgium.” After a presentation in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, a reporter said, “It was an interesting address, striving not to be partisan, nor harsh, but giving cold hard facts, and appealing only for suffering men, women and children who have been the victims of the awful horrors of war.” Speaking several weeks later in Richmond, Kentucky, another reporter remarked that “His address was a beautiful one, eloquent and forceful.”

A year later, Bogaert again ventured to Europe, where he met King Albert of Belgium. He also visited his son, Romaine, who had been wounded while fighting in a Canadian regiment. Romaine, who had been hit with poison gas, was eventually wounded four more times. When Bogaert returned to the United States, he continued giving talks about the suffering endured in his native country.

As soon as the conflict ended, Bogaert helped civilians in war-torn Belgium, including hundreds of orphans. In 1919, King Albert named him a Knight of the Order of Leopold “for distinguished service to suffering Belgium.” Bogaert was only one of six Americans so honored by Belgium during the war. This was the highest honor that the king could bestow upon a foreign citizen.

Upon being knighted, Bogaert said, “It makes me proud because I was so proud to do what I could, but I know that the proudest day of my life was when I stood before the German cavalrymen in a potato field of Belgium one morning, and when they told me that I was to be shot at 4 o’clock as a French spy I replied, ‘I am an American citizen.’”

Sadly, the war was never far from the minds of Bogaert or his children. In 1922, his wife, Josephine, died while the family was in Brussels. According to her obituary, “Horrors seen on a visit to her native country during the World War were such a shock to her . . . that nervous breakdown followed, causing her death.” She was buried in Brussels.

Bogaert died in Lexington on March 7, 1950. A lifelong philanthropist, he lies buried in Calvary Cemetery there. At the time of his death, he was 91 years old.

Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books. His latest, Murder on the Ohio Belle, was just published by the University Press of Kentucky.

Writes about history. Author of four books, including the new “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” published by the University Press of Kentucky.

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