Guillaume Mennens (born 1875) was my maternal great-grandfather (my mother’s grandfather). Before the First World War, he and his elder brother Henri were both prison officers in the town of Rekem, not far from the border with the Netherlands, where the prison was apparently located in the buildings of the local château. The brothers are shown in their uniforms in the photograph (left), with Guillaume on the right.
The brothers remained prison officers during the war and by 1914 they had been transferred to the prison at Ypres, near the border with France (where the photo was taken). Under threat of war operations, the whole prison population, including inmates and guards, as well as the guards’ families, were evacuated to France (possibly in 1914?), where they ended up in the Loire valley. As a result, my granddad (Gerard Mennens, 1902-1974, son of Guillaume) spent most of the war years in Angers, where he went to school, together with the children of other Flemish refugees. In the second photograph, right, Gerard is shown with some of his friends on the school’s football team (he is the handsome lad on the right, at the age of about 16). The Flemish boys kept using their Dutch vernacular amongst themselves, which to French ears sounded very ‘Germanic’, with the result that they were often called ‘boches’ by their French peers!
After the war, Gerard finished his secondary education (in his native Dutch language) in 1920, back in Belgium, now in the town of Hasselt, in the province of Limburg, from where the Mennens family originated. After his university studies he followed in his father’s footsteps and went on to have a successful career in the prison service. He started as a prison officer in Oudenaarde but ended his career as the director of the high-security prison in Leuven, where some of Belgium’s most notorious prisoners were being kept. Before coming to Leuven, he had been director of a number of other prisons, where he and his family lived in the director’s house, which was normally located on the prison’s precinct. This explains why my mother grew up behind prison walls and why I, as a baby, regularly went to prison…
Guillaume Mennens (1875-1948), Prison Service, Belgium, and Gerard Mennens (1902-74), Prison Service, Belgium, are the relatives of Dr Godfried Croenen, Reader in French Historical Studies, CLAS.