THE HALL OF HONOURS
The Medals awarded to Mr. Joannes Degezelle
© Hendrik Meersschaert, 2002 - 2017
Contributed by Antoine Degezelle and edited by Hendrik Meersschaert
Joannes (aka Jean) Degezelle was born on 3 February 1882 and lived in Deerlijk, near Kortrijk (Courtrai), a mere 30 km away from the Yser-frontlines, in occupied Belgium during World War I.

The nearby town of Kortrijk was, at the time, an important road and railroad junction; furthermore, numerous Imperial German Army services had offices there. This caused the creation of no less than three active spy networks to be based in the area, one of them being the "De Pauw"-network (Peacock) which gathered mainly information on transport of war equipment by rail to the Yser front, the movement of German troops to, and wounded and POW's from, the war zone. The dense traffic both by road and rail led to lots of messages that were to be speedily sent to the Allies in order for them to take appropriate counter measures. This in turn required intrepid message carriers to get the intelligence gathered to a go-between located in Gent (Ghent).
Joannes Degezelle was such a courier.

In the first half of 1915 he joined the De Pauw network and - as circumstances dictated - went on foot, biked or took the train to deliver messages. He made these trips to Gent, 40 km away, two to three times a week despite the very real danger of getting caught by patrols of members of the "Feldgendarmerie" (German Military Police) or "Geheime Polizei" (Secret Police) who were very keen to catch spies : couriers carried the irrefutable proof of their activities on their own persons which, in the event of being caught, carried an almost certain death sentence with it. To offset this, it was common practice to carry messages rolled tightly in a small capsule which the courier placed under his tongue and swallowed when capture was imminent.

He became a member of "De Pauw" at the express request of Maurice De Cabooter, a group chief within the network and a former railroad official in the Deerlijk railway station. The network consisted mainly of active railroad employees observing German traffic in and around Kortrijk.
Betrayal and treason caused the De Pauw network to be discovered and put out of action in the first months of 1917 and Joannes Degezelle was arrested at his home on 31 May. He was taken to prison in Gent and went through hell during interrogations. Fortunately, no material evidence had been found on him at the time of his capture. As a result he was not executed but sentenced to 15 years forced labour and in November was transferred to Rheinbach in Germany. In contrast, 20 members of the De Pauw network were sentenced to death, 13 of which were executed before the war's end. Joannes Degezelle survived and was back with his family on 23 November 1918.
Betrayal and treason caused the De Pauw network to be discovered and put out of action in the first months of 1917 and Joannes Degezelle was arrested at his home on 31 May. He was taken to prison in Gent and went through hell during interrogations. Fortunately, no material evidence had been found on him at the time of his capture. As a result he was not executed but sentenced to 15 years forced labour and in November was transferred to Rheinbach in Germany. In contrast, 20 members of the De Pauw network were sentenced to death, 13 of which were executed before the war's end. Joannes Degezelle survived and was back with his family on 23 November 1918.
A third generation house painter before the war, Joannes Degezelle ran his own house painting firm successfully between the world wars. Caused by the major discontent of the inhabitants of his home village with the way the local mayor and his aldermen had been running affairs during the war, he and some other veterans and deportees decided to run for office in 1921. Merely wishing to lend weight to any actions or protests against the local establishment, they were astonished to be elected. Thus, Joannes Degezelle became one of Deerlijk's aldermen, an office he held from 1921 to end 1932.

He died on 8 March 1957 and was buried with full military honours in recognition of his patriotic war services.
For these services Joannes Degezelle received the following Belgian decorations :

Knight of the Order of Leopold II with gilt centre stripe,
the Medal for Political Prisoners,
the Commemorative War Medal with silver crown
the Victory Medal

and from the British government :

The Medal of the Order of the British Empire
the British War Medal.
He was, furthermore, mentioned in despatches.

The gilt centre stripe on the Order of Leopold II's ribbon indicates the award was made for distinguished war services, the crown device on the Commemorative War Medal denotes his volunteer status.
The important feature of this medal group is, however, the rare and possibly unique award to a Belgian of an early Medal of the Order of the British Empire, Military Division. In all, fewer than 2,000 medals of this type were awarded during its short span of life, between December 1918 and 1922, when it was discontinued and replaced by the Empire Gallantry Medal and the British Empire Medal.
Apart from the document confirming the Mention in Despatches by Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig above, some other related documents have survived and can be viewed when clicking on the links below.

Order of Leopold II : announcement of the award in the "Staatsblad", the Belgian government's official daily paper
Medal for Political Prisoners : the original award document
Commemorative War Medal with crown : the original award document
Victory Medal : the original award document
A beautiful document recognizing service with the Kortrijk spy network