The 26-year-old victim of the First World War

An encounter with an unexploded RAF bomb changed Maité Roël's life for ever. Robert Fisk finds out what the Great War means to her

Maité Roël is just 26 and she is the youngest victim of the First World War. And when she walks to meet me past the old churchyard in her village of Bovekerke, she limps, ever so slightly, on her left leg, the living ghost of all those mutilated, long-dead men whose memory the world honoured on Armistice Day earlier this month. She even holds a First World War veteran's card – "mutilée dans la guerre" – and when she shows it to the local railway ticket inspectors for reduced fare train trips, they suspect her – with awful inevitability – of stealing it from dead grandfather or great-grandfather.

But it's all true. After shaking off – so far – a 10-year addiction to the morphine which Belgian doctors gave her during 29 excruciatingly painful operations on her leg, Maité is now a young mother with a year and a half old baby and, incredibly, a total disinterest in the war that almost killed her. Only an hour before I met Maité, I was listening to the "Last Post" at the Menin Gate, 15 miles away in Ypres. "I know nothing about it," she says to me with indifference. "I've read nothing about it. This month was the first time they ever took me to show me the preserved trenches of the war."

They are all around her. Bovekerke was in German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, on the very edge of the Allied-held Ypres salient, and so was the military camp at Wetteren near Ghent when a bomber of the newly created RAF, successor to the Royal Flying Corps, dropped a bomb there in 1918. The Germans were already in retreat across France and Belgium, abandoning the terrible battlefields of Ypres and the Somme, pursued by British, French, Empire and newly-arrived American troops, harried by RAF bi-plane fighters and bombers. Those critical last months of the "War to End All Wars" almost did for Maité 17 years ago.

"We went on a scout camping expedition to Wetteren and I remember now that it was an old military camp," Maité recalls very slowly. She has tiny dreadlocks that hang down her slim face and a silver ring in her nose – not the usual face of a First World War victim. "It was July 6th, 1992. I knew nothing about war. I remember we all built a fire using bricks round the outside and the other kids starting throwing logs on it. I was tired and so I went a few metres from the fire so I could sleep. Then there was a sudden explosion – I woke up and saw sparks from the explosion. Everyone was running and shouting and I tried to get up and I couldn't. Everyone was looking at me and I looked down – and I saw that my left leg was hanging by a piece of skin."

A million British soldiers had experienced this same terror in this same land more than 60 years earlier. But Maité could not understand. She was rushed to the local hospital at Wetteren where there were no specialist surgeons and she had to be rushed by air to Ghent University Hospital. For three hours, she wept and cried in pain before doctors could give her a sedative because the doctors were not sure which medication to administer. "I only started feeling the pain when I saw my leg – and then it never stopped," she said.

Nor has it stopped now. The doctors took skin and muscles and arteries from thighs and back and ribs to reconstruct her left leg – and saved it after 29 operations in which Maité spent two years in hospital, all of them on morphine. For the next 10 years she was addicted, desperate to detoxicate but still finding the pain unbearable. Maité now has only one artery in each leg. The birth of her child, Damon, and the love of his father, Kurt, helped her, she says, admitting with a smile that she still needs cannabis and alcohol to survive the pain but has been without morphine for a year and five months.

She is now cared for by the Belgian Institute for Veterans' Affairs and War Victims. The Institute, along with doctors and police officials, quickly realised that the scouts must have picked up the cylindrical RAF bomb, thinking it was a mouldy log – and thrown it on the fire. The explosion blasted the bricks into pieces, one of which almost severed Maité's left leg. Belgian explosives officers later identified the fragments as those of an RAF bomb – typical of many found over battlefields in the decades that followed the 1918 Armistice – manufactured in 1918 and used during the German retreat. The Wetteren camp was used by the Reichswehr during this period because the town was a major rail centre for German military traffic to the front.

With one of those bitter ironies that war alone can produce, the RAF's youngest victim – long after both the pilot and his intended targets must have died – turns out to be partly British. Maité's grandmother, Janette Matthieson, is Scottish and now lives in Ostend, making Maité's French-speaking mother half-British. Maité now lives on £700 a month, a stipend available to her since she was 16. When she was so grievously hurt, not a single newspaper outside Belgium mentioned her fate.

Belgian authorities are still paying monthly allowances to much older victims of First World War munitions as well as survivors of the Second World War – including Belgian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust – and newly-arrived wounded from Afghanistan. Maité wants to go on a clothes-making course and open a boutique – "I don't want to work for a boss," she says as cheerfully as any 1914-18 British soldier with a "Blighty" wound, though she may be more successful than the men who came home in 1918 and found that theirs was not a land fit for heroes.

"I have an '051'-coded card from the First World War veterans' department and when I buy train tickets, they often question me about it," Maité says. "They think I've taken it from an ancestor but it's completely real. I'm just the youngest victim of that war."

I ask her why she shows no interest in this terrible period of history which struck her so mercilessly – and so literally – when she was younger. She shrugs her shoulders. So much for the Somme and Verdun and Gallipoli and the nine million military dead of the Great War and the Last Post just down the road in Ypres. But I rather suspect Maité is right. Her boutique and her home-made clothes sound a far better future than an examination of the awful mud upon which her village of Bovekerke was rebuilt after the War to End All Wars.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering