The Military Hospital with its emphatic name of Military Hospital for Sea Cures, has an exceptional history. It is linked to major political, economic, social and military conflicts and the two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. The Belgian government built the large hospital in Ostend in 1913. It fulfilled a range of functions during the two world wars, from caring for the wounded to a storage site under the control of the Germans. After the liberation of 1944, the British used it to care for wounded Canadian, British and Polish soldiers. It was returned to Belgian authority in 1946 and became a Military Hospital during a long period of peace. The complex of wards, operating theatres, laboratories and a cloister have stood empty since 1993. It gradually became a lonely and quiet place for people that inhabit the ragged edges of society. And it became the domain of animals that live and die in their own rhythm. The buildings have deteriorated to become finally and definitively part of history, to continue their existence in books and on the internet.
The photographer, author and artist Claudia Heinermann discovered the Military Hospital in Ostend and studied its exceptional history. She became fascinated and was inspired to transform it within her work domain of photography and art. She wandered through the abandoned buildings and scoured archives in search of information and photographic resources about the hospital. Her method of working was characterised by a combination of personal involvement and research.
She took series of colour photos and selected black and white photos from the archives. The connecting feature between all these photos is their focus on detail: the corner of a room, a corridor, a flat wall and situations involving nurses and wounded soldiers. Her photos portray the decaying buildings and the traces of time: a discarded shoe, a baptism spoon, stained wallpaper, a drawing on the wall and an abandoned chair. The languages spoken in the documentary photos are Flemish, French, German, English and Polish. You can sometimes recognise this through a uniform. Otherwise there is no distinction, the casualties and nurses are on an equal footing.
Despite the large difference in their origin, colour and tone, the photos are mutually reinforcing. For me, the order, classification and combination of photos means this book is about presence and absence, power and destruction, life and transience.
Text: Albert Van Der Weide 2009
History of the Military Hospital in Ostend
In August 1913, the Military Hospital opened its doors with Dr Glaudot as its director, but soon after, in 1914, the new building had to be handed over to the invading German forces. The brand new, modern complex was used by the Imperial Army as a hospital until 1918, when a bombing raid on the harbour caused so much damage to the building that all activities there had to be halted. It was only in August 1926 that the hospital could resume its normal role.
In 1930, in analogy to barracks and other military buildings, the hospital was given the name of a prominent and distinguished soldier from the war. The Military Hospital, which until then had the functional name of Military Institute for Sea Cures, was changed to ‘Hospitaal Bataljons-Geneesheer Charles-Aimé De Beer’ (the Battalion Medical Officer Charles-Aimé De Beer Hospital), after the medical officer De Beer from Ciney. The hospital expanded to become a sanatorium and health resort for soldiers from the entire Belgian army.
Within the scope of the Charlier restructuring plan, the Military Hospital in Ostend was converted to an outpatients clinic on 1 January 1990 and then dispensed with entirely in 1993 because of army reforms.
“On 31 December 1993, I had the honour of turning off the lights and locking up, signalling the definitive end of the institute.”
Mr Freddy Hubrechtsen (commander of the military outpatients clinic in Ostend)