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Bernissart (Municipality, Province of Hainaut, Belgium)

Last modified: 2013-12-28 by ivan sache
Keywords: bernissart | blaton | harchies | pommeroeul | ville-pommeroeul | resistance | cross: crosslet (yellow) |
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[Flag of Bernissart]

Flag of Bernissart - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 18 August 2005

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Presentation of Bernissart and its villages

The municipality of Bernissart (11,513 inhabitants on 1 January 2007; 4,344 ha) is located on the border with France, 20 km west of Mons (Belgium) and 15 km north-east of Valenciennes (France). The municipality of Bernissart is made since 1976 of the former municipalities of Bernissart, Blaton, Harchies and Pommerœul (including Ville-Pommerœul since 1964).

The name of Bernissart is related to a clearing (in Walloon, sart; in French, essart) probably made by someone called Bernier. The oldest written mention of Bernissart dates back to 1216, but the place was already settled in the Paleolithic, as shown by flint arrowheads and an axe found in 1892 in Champ-de-la-Grande-Croix.
The land in the region is fairly flat but a series of small hills can be seen near Bernissart. These hills are former slag heaps. Bernissart was located in the northern limit of the French-Belgian coal basin. Coal extraction started in the region around 1735 and ceased in Bernissart on 1 October 1926. The abandoned slag heaps were colonized by the vegetation; some of them were planed down and used for building roads.

The St. Barbara's shaft (puits Sainte-Barbe) was dug in 1845; its exploitation started in 1847 and it was closed in 1921 after floods that caused casualties. In the region of Bernissart, natural shafts, called by geologists "circulary faults" and locally known as crans, are common inside the coal layers. It is believed that the crans formed when the carboniferous layers (300 millions years BP) crashed down following the dissolving of calcareous underlying layers (340 millions years BP) by water. The crans were filled by the so-called Wealdian sands and clays (130 millions years BP). In March 1878, two miners, Jules Créteur and Alphonse Blanchard, then exploiting the "Luronne" seam at a depth of 322 m in the St. Barbara's shaft, reached a cran, from which they extracted what they believed to be pieces of petrified wood filled with gold. The colliery's physician, Dr Lhoir, looked at the pieces of wood in the local café Dubruille and correctly identified the pieces as fossil animals' bones filled with pyrites, a natural iron sulfate forming white sparkling crystals. The most famous Belgian paleontologists were called for expertise and it seems that some of them believed it was an April fool and delayed their visit to Bernissart. On 7 May 1878, P.J. Van Beneden, Professor at the University of Leuven, identified the fossils as bones of iguanodons, typical, huge herbivorous dinosaurs.
The Director of the Royal Museum for Natural History, E. Dupont, sent his assistant L. De Pauw to Bernissart in order to retrieve the fossils. The extraction of the igunanodons was very tedious and hazardous; it took three years. De Pauw used to go down to the mine every day at 5:30 with his team of miners and to came back only at 12:30. In August 1878, the team was blocked in a gallery for two hours, following an earthquake; the gallery was flooded in October 1878 and the extraction resumed only in May 1879. Since pyrites filling the bones crumbles on contact with air, De Pauw decided to extract the bones inside their gangue of clay and to protect them even more from air with two layers of plaster. Six hundred such blocs were carried by horse-drawn carriages to Brussels, representing a total weight of 130,000 kg.
The Board of the colliery decided to offer the iguanodons to the Belgian state and to pay the extraction costs, more than 1 million of Belgian francs. The colliery had then to pay a 26,000 francs fine to the state for having extracted iguanodons instead of coal. The French governement offered 1 million of (revalued) francs to get one complete skeleton, but its request was rejected upon pressure by the Belgian government.
The cran of Bernissart yielded 22 complete skeletons of iguanodons, six small turtles, several crocodiles, the remains of 3,000 fishes and several plants. A new species of iguanodon was named Iguanodon bernissartensis, and a crocodile was named Bernissartia fagesi, after A.G. Fagès, Director of the colliery. Other members of the board were honoured on the same way. The two miners who had found the cran were not rewarded at all. Jules Créteur applied for a State pension but was granted only a medal.
There was little space in the Brussels museums to put the iguanodons. They were first kept in a former monastery near the Museum located Parc Léopold. In 1893, King Léopold II ordered the building of a new wing to the Museum for housing the iguanodons. The Museum was renamed Royal Institute of Belgian Natural Sciences. The preservation of the bones was difficult: the clay gangue was dissolved with a mixture of boiling glue, sulfurous acid, alcohol and clove tincture. The bones were then dried and repaired with tin foils when necessary. Reconstituting the huge animals required the building of specific scaffoldings with an elaborated system of ropes and pulleys. The first complete iguanodon was shown to the public in 1883. In spite of the conservation measures, the iguanodons started to crumble after 30 years of contact with the air and because of temperature variations. In 1932, the Director of the Museum, Van Straelen, alerted public opinion. Belgium divided between the iguanodophiles and the iguanodophobes, but the iguanodons were eventually restored in the paleontology laboratory of the Museum, locally known as "the hospital". The skeletons were dismantled into their 1,200 elementary bones, consolidated in a specific solution. The whole process lasted from December 1935 to August 1936 but it took only nine days to wind up a skeleton. The iguanodons were placed in big glass cabinets with controlled temperature and relative humidity.

After D. Decrouez, Bernissart et ses iguanodons. Revue du Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève, 219, 1981.

Blaton is mostly known for its church, one of the oldest Roman churches in Hainaut (12th century). It is the only church in Wallonia to be dedicated to All Saints, at least since 1470. Every year on All Saints' Day, a mass is celebrated in Blaton for more than 250 years, with more than 10,000 participants. The mass is part of a festival including the Vendors' Fair and the Fallen Leaves' Kermesse.
Blaton was nicknamed "the little Venice of Hainaut" by the local historian Louis Sarot because it is the crossroads of three canals, Pommerœul-Antoing (inaugurated on 26 June 1826), Blaton-Ath (1866), with five locks in Blaton, and Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes (Nimy-Blaton inaugurated on 25 October 1955, Blaton-Péronnes inaugurated on 5 October 1964).

Harchies lived from coal extraction until the closure of the last colliery in 1964. The bank of the Rivage mine was transformed in 1992 in the Mine Museum by Jeannot Duquesnoy. The Museum was inaugurated on 1 May 1993. Several of the objects shown in the Museum were used in the film Germinal, directed by Claude Berri, after Émile Zola's novel.
The folkloric Society of Hussars was created in Harchies in 1816 to celebrate a medieval quarrel between the lords of Harchies and Pommerœul. On the Wednesday after the first Sunday of July, the Hussars perform the Coupage de lî Tiête à lî Biête, lit. the cutting of the head of the beast, by beheading a goose. The poor goose recalls the fee paid by the lord of Pommerœul to the lord of Harchies.

Pommerœul is known for the leaning spire of its Gothic church, built in four periods from 1150 to 1630. The spire is locally known as el croncq clocher (the leaning belltower). Every 15 August, a big procession with dressed actors and flower-decked floats commemorates a miracle performed by the Blessed Virgin c. 1100, which explains the origin of the village and the spire.

The five villages constituting the municipality of Bernissart have a common traditional sport called crossage de rue, street clubbing. The crossage takes place in Bernissart, Blaton and Harchies on Ash Wednesday; in Pommerœul and Ville-Pommerœul, it takes place on Mardi Gras. The local historians say that this sport was already popular in the Middle Ages. People from Bernissart claim that the crossage is the ancestor of golf and all ball games, including football.

Source: Municipal website

Ivan Sache, 18 August 2005

Municipal flag of Bernissart

The flag of Bernissart is quartered first and fourth green with three crosse scrosslet yellow placed per bend, second and third yellow with five thin red bends.

According to Armoiries communales en Belgique. Communes wallonnes, bruxelloises et germanophones [w2v03], the flag is prescribed by a Decree adopted on 5 March 2001 and 17 July 2003 by the Municipal Council, with the (unnecessarily complicated) official description:
Divisé en quatre quartiers égaux, le premier et le quatrième portant sur fond vert trois croisettes recroisettées au pied aiguisé jaunes, rangées selon la diagonale descendante avec les pointes dirigées vers le centre du tablier, les deuxièmes et troisièmes quartiers portant sur fond jaune cinq étroites laizes rouges, équidistantes et parallèles aussi à la diagonale descendante.
The flag is a banner of the municipal arms:
Écartelé, au premier et au quatrième de sinople à trois croisettes recroisettées au pied fiché d'or, rangées en bande, les pointes dirigées vers le centre de l'écu; au deuxième et au troisième d'or à cinq cotices de gueules.

The two quarters vert (sinople) recall the arms of the former municipality of Bernissart, which used the ancient arms of the family of Auberchicourt, "Vert a border gules a chief ermine", granted by Royal Decree on 16 July 1931.

The crosses crosslet come from the arms of the former municipality of Blaton, granted on 22 March 1929 by Royal Decree as Gironné d'argent et d'azur de dix pièces, chaque giron d'azur chargé de trois croix recroisettées au pied fiché d'or posées 2 et 1, les pieds dirigés vers l'abyme de l'écu, le tout brisé en chef d'un label d'azur à deux pendants (Gyronny of ten pieces argent and azure, each gyron of the second charged with three crosses crosslet fitchy or 2 and 1 a label azure with two pendants), therefore very similar to the arms of Enghien.

The five cotices come from the arms of Harchies, granted on 4 January 1940 by Royal Decree as Écartelé, aux I et IV d'or à cinq cotices de gueules au canton du même chargé d'une étoile d'or; aux II et III équipolés d'or et de gueules seize points ("Quarterly, 1. and 4. Or five cotices gules a canton of the same charged with a mullet or; 2. and 3. Chequy of sixteen pieces or and gules"). Harchies was once one of the Baronies of the County of Hainaut, whose heraldic history is detailed on the Heraldus website. The oldest lords of Harchies, from the house of Audregnies-Strépy-Ville, bore De gueules à cinq cotices d'or (Gules five cotices or). Jean de Harchies bore in 1450 D'or à cinq cotices ou bâtons de gueules au canton dextre du même (Or five cotices gules a canton of the same). The five cotices also recall that the municipality is made of five former municipalities, whereas the three crosslets recall that the fusion of 1976 involved only three municipalities.

Arnaud Leroy, Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 4 June 2007

Former municipality of Ville-Pommerœul

[Flag of Ville-Pommeroeul]

Former municipal flag of Ville-Pommerœul - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 18 August 2005

The flag of the former municipality of Ville-Pommerœul was most probably a banner of the municipal arms, granted by Royal Decree on 27 December 1910, as D'or à la bande de gueules (Or a bend gules).
Pommerœul was one of the Baronies of Hainaut, whose heraldic history is detailed on the Heraldus website. The early lords of Pommeroeul bore D'or à cinq cotices en bande de gueules (Or five cotices [per bend] gules). The domain was later transferred to the lords of Ville.

Pascal Vagnat & Ivan Sache, 4 June 2007

Flag resistance acts in Bernissart during the Second World War

On Pierre Bachy's website, Marin Marceau relates several acts of resistance he was involved in during the Second World War in Bernissart. The whole page (in French) deserves reading; I am summarizing below the resistance acts involving the Belgian national flag.

Marceau Marin was captured on 20 July 1940 and released four months later, after having "sweared" he won't attempt anyhting wrong again the Nazi regime. Back to Bernissart, he joined the anti-German resistance movement organized in the colliery and took part to several propaganda (including selling flags of the allied nations) and sabotage operations. He also served as a liaison agent with French policemen working for the resistance.
In 1943, Marin decided to prepare a spectacular act, in order to show the local population and the Germans that Belgium still resisted. With his brother-in-law Andre Balcaen, the baker Henri Olivier and two Italian miners, Gaston Pansani and his father, he decided to hoist a Belgian national flag on a place where it would be seen by everybody and remain for a significant time.
Coal was no longer extracted from the third pit of the Bernissart colliery, but the big tower with the wheel used as a lift for the cages and the skips was still standing, at a height of 80 m. Marin and his fellows prepared an access to the roof of the tower, since there was no ladder available, cut a 10-m piece of wood in the neighbouring forest, to be used as the flag staff, and brought it onto the top of the tower.

It was even more difficult to make the flag, since pieces of cloth were extremely rare and expensive during the war. Marceau's sister Nelly Marin and her friend Nelly Laroche eventually found the required pieces of cloth and died them in the appropriate colours. They stitched a flag whose length was about 5 meter.
On the night from 20 to 21 July 1943, Marin, Balcaen and Pansani climbed on the tower with the flag, while Olivier watched the neighborhood. A German patrol was about to find the plotters but did not. The flag was hoisted, and a shield with "Hazard of Death" was placed on the ladder, in order to postpone the removal of the flag as long as possible.
Next morning, the weather was fine and everybody could see the flag. The Germans wanted to remove it as soon as possible but were scared by the shield. Around 14 PM, the Germans and their local henchmen from the Rexist movement forced a miners' train driver to climb on the tower and remove the flag.

The operation was repeated close to the Liberation with another flag stitched by the same two women. Electricity was also installed on the top of the tower, which was used as a watching post and a transmissing station to help the allied troops. Marceau also broadcast national anthems to encourage the population and welcome the liberators.

Ivan Sache, 10 November 2004