Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Refugees in Chelsea

The following are quotes from a few literary giants from the time of the First World War and literary criticism impressions thereof. One cannot but wonder how these sentiments and actions reflect the current humanitarian crisis as well and should be posited against the overriding sense that nations become ever more inward-looking and that political discourse increasingly draws on sentiments of division, near hatred even, and not on unity and compassion.

In his posthumous contribution to the Times Literary Supplement on 23 March 1916 called 'the Refugees in Chelsea', Henry James – who had died four weeks earlier – examined the validity of fiction and narrative in the face of historical challenges as posed for instance by the sheer existence of refugees. The following is a selection of his TLS piece. Quite some striking relevance for today's ongoing humanitarian crisis.


"This is not a Report on our so interesting and inspiring Chelsea work, since November last, in aid of the Belgians driven thither from their country by a violence of unprovoked invasion and ravage more appalling than has ever before overtaken a peaceful and industrious people; it is the simple statement of a neighbour and an observer deeply affected by the most tragic exhibition of national and civil prosperity and felicity suddenly subjected to bewildering outrage that it would have been possible to conceive. The case [...] has had no analogue in the experience of our modern generations, no matter how far back we go; it has been recognised, in surpassing practical ways, as virtually the greatest public horror of our age, or of all the preceding[...]"

However, the difference between today’s worrying climate of xenophobia that has taken hold in Europe as it struggles to cope with the crisis and a refugee crisis one hundred years ago lies in the presence of so much being “done in direct mitigation of it”.
“We live into — that is, we learn to cultivate — possibilities of sympathy and reaches of beneficence very much as the stricken and suffering themselves live into their dreadful history and explore and reveal its extent; and this admirable truth it is that unceasingly pleads with the intelligent, the fortunate, and the exempt, not to consent in advance to any dull limitation of the helpful idea.”
Henry James had already been involved in charity towards the Belgian refugees. When Edith Wharton, who stayed in France during the First World War organizing relief for Belgian refugees there, asked her circle of friends to look for contributions for a charity book, published in 1916 as The Book of the Homeless the proceeds of which were used to fund accommodation for displaced people, Henry James had asked W.B. Yeats whether he would contribute. Yeats replied with a short poem called "To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations", which became “A Reason for Keeping Silent" first and finally "On being asked for a War Poem" in Yeats's wartime poetry collections "The Wild Swans at Coole". Henry James himself contributed The Long Wards.
It has been argued that after Henry James had taken an active interest in the relief of the Belgian refugees, his allegiance to Britain and that country’s welcoming of refugees fuelled his decision to become a citizen of Britain in 1915. James aligned himself with the plight of the Belgian refugees in Britain very early on in the war. The first Belgians arrived around 22 August 1914, nearly three weeks after the Germans so brutally invaded their neutral home country, and James is still in his house in Rye.

“It was in September, in a tiny Sussex town which I had not quitted since the outbreak of the war, and where the advent of our first handful of fugitives before the warning of Louvain and Aerschoot and Termonde and Dinant had just been announced. Our small hill-top city, covering the steep sides of the compact pedestal crowned by its great church, had reserved a refuge at its highest point; and we had waited all day, from occasional train to train, for the moment at which we should attest our hospitality. It came at last, but late in the evening, when a vague outside rumour called me to my doorstep, where the unforgettable impression at once assaulted me. Up the precipitous little street that led from the station, over the old grass-grown cobbles where vehicles rarely pass, came the panting procession of the homeless and their comforting, their almost clinging entertainers, who seemed to hurry them on as in a sort of overflow of expression of the fever of charity. It was swift and eager, in the autumn darkness and under the flare of a single lamp — with no vociferation and, but for a woman’s voice, scarce a sound save the shuffle of mounting feet and the thick-drawn breath of emotion. The note I except, however, was that of a young mother carrying her small child and surrounded by those who bore her on and on, almost lifting her as they went together. The resonance through our immemorial old street of her sobbing and sobbing cry was the voice itself of history; it brought home to me more things than I could then quite take the measure of, and these just because it expressed for her not direct anguish, but the incredibility, as who should say, of honest assured protection. Months have elapsed, and from having been then one of a few hundred she is now one of scores and scores of thousands: yet her cry is still in my ears, whether to speak most of what she had lately or of what she actually felt; and it plays, to my own sense, as a great fitful, tragic light over the dark exposure of her people.”

Although James himself accommodated Belgians in his house in Rye, his piece in the TLS focused on Chelsea.
“I have small warrant perhaps to say that atmospheres are communicable; but I can testify at least that they are breathable on the spot, to whatever effect of depression or of cheer; and I should go far, I feel, were I to attempt to register the full bitter-sweet taste, by our Chelsea waterside, all these months, of the refugee element in our vital medium. […] I need go no further, none the less, than the makeshift provisional gates of Crosby Hall, marvellous monument transplanted a few years since from the Bishopsgate quarter of the City to a part of the ancient suburban site of the garden of Sir Thomas More, and now serving with extraordinary beneficence as the most splendid of shelters for the homeless.”
James did not refer to the fact that Thomas More’s Utopia –published in 1516 – allocated an important element to the port city of Antwerp, a city as well where about one in three of the Belgian refugees in the UK during the First World War had come from. Instead, he elaborates on the grand civic character of Crosby Hall, “one of the noblest relics of the past that London could show”, and how it is still magnificent, despite having been moved from Bishopsgate to Chelsea for the purpose of “candid commercial interest”.
“The British, James suggests, might feel safe on their island fortress, protected by the English Channel from the battles on the continent. But just as the continent has its war-displaced refugees, so too does England have its own refugees, not just the foreigners it shelters but the victims of commercialism like Crosby Hall in its original site. The point, then, is that things are not safe, since anything or anyone can be displaced. Culture, though, at least through its correlate, education, may be the best bulwark against the chaos of displacement. This too James emphasizes through the choice of the word "edified." if we read it now in its more common sense of "instructed," for it is through edification that the Belgian refugees can receive whatever sense of security is now possible to them. While post-war Modernist classics such as Ulysses and The Cantos sought to rebuild the modern world after the chaos and destruction of World War I. and James agrees that culture is the one defence against chaos, his play on re-edification is a reminder that a reconstruction is never perfectly solid and unthreatened.” (Pierre A. Walker, 1999, Introduction, in: Henry James on Culture, p.xxv).
And in 1915 that very grand place formed “the headquarters of the Chelsea circle of hospitality to the exiled, the broken, and the bewildered; and if I may speak of having taken home the lesson of their state and the sense of their story, it is by meeting them in the finest club conditions conceivable that I have been able to do so.”
“This exhibition of our splendid local resource has rested, of course, on a multitude of other resources, still local, but of a more intimate hospitality, little by little worked out and applied, and into the details of which I may not here pretend to go beyond noting that they have been accountable for the large housed and fed and clothed and generally protected and administered numbers, all provided for in Chelsea and its outer fringe, on which our scheme of sociability at Crosby Hall itself has up to now been able to draw. To have seen this scheme so long in operation has been to find it suggest many reflections, all of the most poignant and moving order; the foremost of which has, perhaps, had for its subject that never before can the wanton hand of history have descended upon a group of communities less expectant of public violence from without or less prepared for it and attuned to it.”
James then continues on the “scores and scores of thousands […]testimony to suffering, dismay, and despoilment” and that it is “because we have responded in this degree to the call unprecedented that we are, in common with a vast number of organisations scattered through these islands, qualified to claim that no small part of the inspiration to our enormous act of welcome resides in the moral interest it yields […] truly representing the exquisite in the horrible.”
Mainly in Chelsea did Henry James become involved with the Belgian community in exile there. He made no distinction between civilian refugees and wounded, convalescent soldiers, the latter “reminiscent of the bedside comfort provided by Walt Whitman to soldiers during the American Civil War” (Eric L. Haralson and Kendall Johnson, 2009 , Critical Companion to Henry James: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, p.13).
“The strong young man (no young men are familiarly stronger,) mutilated, amputated, dismembered in penalty for their defence of their soil against the horde, and now engaged at Crosby Hall in the making of handloom socks, to whom I pay an occasional visit — much more for my own cheer, I apprehend, than for theirs — express so in their honest concentration under difficulties the actual and general value of their people that just to be in their presence is a blest renewal of faith.”
The diverse otherlingual situation of the Belgians in Britain did not hinder James much as he was able to “offer verbal solace to the French-speaking Belgians and expressive sympathy to the Flemish-speaking Belgians, a virtual nation of strangers in a strange land to whom his heart went out in identifying sympathy” (Fred Kaplan, 2013, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography, np).
In an essay on Henry James, Virginia Woolf posited that Henry James was very qualified to relate to the outbreak of war.

“For years he had been appreciating ever more and more finely what he calls “the rare, the sole, the exquisite England”: he had relished her discriminatingly as only the alien, bred to different sounds and sights and circumstances, could relish others so distinct and so delightful in their distinctness. Knowing so well what she had given him, he was the more tenderly and scrupulously grateful to her for the very reason that she seemed to him to bestow her gifts half in ignorance of their value. Thus when the news came that England was in danger he wandered in the August sunshine half overwhelmed with the vastness of what had happened, reckoning up his debt, conscious to the verge of agony of the extent to which he had committed his own happiness to her, and analysing incessantly and acutely just what it all meant to the world and to him. [...] Read, for instance, the scene of the arrival of the Belgian refugees by night at Rye, which we will not curtail and thus rob of its completeness. It is precisely the same little scene of refugees hurrying by in silence, save for the cry of a woman carrying her child, which, in its thousand varieties, a thousand pens have depicted during the past four years […] with the scene painted for us by Henry James might perhaps be credited to his training as a novelist. But […] we cannot help feeling that if all philanthropies had such advocates our pockets would never be anything but empty.” (Virginia Woolf, 1919, Henry James: 1. Within the Rim).


Friday, 3 June 2016

Louis Ide en de vluchtelingencrisis (Knack 02.06.2016)



Het politieke debat in Vlaanderen en België is al lang verzand in een woord/wederwoord-discussie, waarin het inhoudsaspect en het betrekkingsaspect voortdurend door elkaar lopen, vaak overgoten door irrelevante tussenkomsten die argumentatie niet onderbouwen maar onderbreken. Er is nog weinig plaats voor context, nuance of visie, polarisierung muss sein. Dat is echter niet de bedoeling van dit stukje.

Als Louis Ide in Knack online een analyse wilt maken van het werk dat NVA sinds de verkiezingsoverwinning van 2014 zou hebben verricht, is dat zijn volste recht en ben ik niet de juiste persoon om daartegen in te gaan wegens gebrek aan degelijke dossierkennis terzake. Ook het feit dat zijn stuk, ‘opinie’ kan je het moeilijk noemen, zowat samen verschijnt als een antidotum voor de kritische analyse van alles wat Vlaamse superminister Homans al dan niet heeft bereikt, is een plat argument dat ik hier niet verder wil uitbouwen. 

Echter, als algemeen secretaris van een partij waarin historie toch een belangrijke rol speelt, kan hij toch maar beter accurate feiten aanhalen als hij streepjes wilt zetten achter de naam van zijn partij. Zo stelt Ide dat in 2014 niemand de omvang van de migratiecrisis kon zien aankomen, noch dat de ‘grootste migratiestroom sinds de tweede wereldoorlog’ Europa zou overspoelen. Over het vervolg van zijn betoog, hoe Theo Francken hiermee omging, kan ik mij door datzelfde gebrek aan kennis over diens handel en wandel in dezes niet uitspreken.

Natuurlijk kan niemand inschatten dat miljoenen mensen op de vlucht zullen slagen en naar West-Europa willen trekken als in april 2011 (!) een 5.000 Syriërs, vooral vrouwen en kinderen, in Libanon aankomen, of als een dikke maand later de eerste grote groepen Syriërs de grens met Turkije oversteken. Tegen het einde van dat jaar heeft Turkije al 15 miljoen dollar uitgegeven aan vluchtelingenopvang. We hebben dan nog 2,5 jaar te gaan vooraleer NVA de verkiezingen wint. De aantallen vluchtelingen blijven nog relatief beperkt totdat in juli 2012 ongeveer 200.000 inwoners Aleppo ontvluchtten. De meesten proberen Turkije te bereiken. Steeds meer gaan aantallen van ‘enkele duizenden’, naar ‘enkele tienduizenden’. 

Tijdens de zomer van 2012 kan een vluchtelingenkamp van de UNHCR, het commissariaat voor vluchtelingen van de VN, meer dan 110.000 vluchtelingen opvangen. Die zomer ook bereiken de eerste Syrische vluchtelingen de EU, de niet aflatende drama’s van gammele bootjes en laffe mensensmokkelaars op de Middellandse Zee neemt in toenemende mate dramatische proporties aan. Op het einde van 2012 zijn er ongeveer 750.000 Syrische vluchtelingen, zowat heel Antwerpen en Gent samen. In Syrië zelf kan nog eens een 300.000 op de steun van de UNHCR rekenen, maar er zijn binnen Syrië niet minder dan 4,25 miljoen mensen op de vlucht, internally displaced people.

Op het einde van 2013 zijn er naar schatting anderhalf miljoen Syrische vluchtelingen, even veel als het aantal Belgen dat in de herfst van 1914 op de vlucht sloeg naar Nederland, Frankrijk en het Verenigd Koninkrijk. Na de zomer van 2013 – Angelina Jolie is dan al op rondrit geweest in vluchtelingenkampen in Jordanië en de voorzitter van het UNHCR stelt dat de Syrische vluchtelingencrisis groter is dan die van Rwanda in de jaren 90 - kan Bulgarije de toevloed niet meer aan en krijgt het steun van de EU en het Internationale Rode Kruis. Zweden laat gezinshereniging toe voor de dan al 8.000 Syriërs die in het land zijn aangekomen. In oktober 2013 beloven 16 Westerse landen – België is er niet bij maar alle buurlanden wel – om meer Syriërs op te vangen. Nog voor het einde van het jaar roepen de VN op om geld in te zamelen, er is 6,5 miljard dollar nodig om soelaas te bieden, en vervoegt het Verenigd Koninkrijk zich tot die ‘actieve’ Westerse landen.

Als in België en Vlaanderen eind mei 2014 verkiezingen worden gehouden, is 1 op 5 personen in Libanon een Syrische vluchteling en begint het ergste: IS start zijn terreur. In een klap ontvluchten een half miljoen mensen Mosul. Nog voor Geert Bourgeois zijn eed aflegt en de regeringsverklaring leest op 25 juli, heeft IS het kalifaat afgeroepen en bezit het de meeste olie- en gasvelden in Syrië. Terwijl in Vlaanderen en in België het begin van de Eerste Wereldoorlog herdacht, met aandacht voor de Belgische vluchtelingen en daarbij horende parallellen naar de toenmalige vluchtelingencrisis in het Midden-Oosten, wordt het aantal mensen op de vlucht binnen Syrië geschat op 6,5 miljoen en het aantal dat buiten Syrië is geraakt op 3 miljoen. De High Commissioner for Refugees van de VN heeft het over de grootste humanitaire crisis die bepalend is voor ons tijdperk, en merkt ook op dat “the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them". Het duurt dan nog zeven weken vooraleer de regering Michel in het zadel zit. De VN trekt aan de alarmbel, de doos van Pandora is zelfs nog maar net geopend, maar niemand kan de migratiecrisis zien aankomen? Ik heb in de lange zomer van 2014, maar ook ervoor al, bij tal van herdenkingstoespraken, waaronder een van zijn partijvoorzitter, net het omgekeerde gehoord.

Uiteraard kan Louis Ide niet voor elk thema dat hij aanhaalt veel details mee opnemen, al kan je wel stellen dat het ontbreken van accurate historische representatie en onderbouwend cijfermateriaal hoe die vluchtelingencrisis wordt aangepakt, ervoor zorgt dat zijn initiële stelling over dit onderwerp nogal selectief is – dat doen we uiteindelijk allemaal – maar ook erg kort door de bocht. Je wilt je niet inbeelden dat hij en zijn partij andere thema’s op een gelijkaardige snelheid nemen, thema’s zoals de versmachtende snelheid waarop België een duur land aan het worden is om in te leven (vooral dan op het vlak van voedsel), maar ook mobiliteit, ecologie en belastingontduiking. Een extra 'spaarpotje' van 300 miljoen voor onder andere pensioenen neemt Ide wel op, 15 miljard voor nieuwe gevechtsvliegtuigen dan weer niet (reken zelf uit hoeveel spaarpotjes dat zijn), nochtans mag dat nieuw oorlogstuig de oude vliegtuigen gaan vervangen die nu al twee jaar bombardementen uitvoeren in Irak en sinds kort ook in Syrië. 

Christophe Declercq is docent aan University College London en is ook verbonden aan de Universiteit van Antwerpen. Hij doctoreerde aan Imperial College London over Belgische vluchtelingen in het Verenigd Koninkrijk en is verbonden aan herdenkingsprojecten zoals het Vredescentrum in Antwerpen, Amsab-ISG in Gent, Flanders House Centenary series en Wales for Peace. Hij werkte verschillende keren samen met VRT en vooral BBC.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Beyond Flanders Fields: The Great War in Belgium and the Netherlands (QMUL, 4, 5 June) - updated

Queen Mary University of London and University College London will host another conference in 2016 to further explore aspects of the First World War: Beyond Flanders Fields. Belgian refugees will take centre stage :-)

When? 4-5 June 2016
Where? Queen Mary London, Arts Two Lecture Theatre





Saturday 4th June 2016

  • 10.30: John Williams. The Flames of Louvain: A Tale of Total War and Destruction of European High Culture in Belgium by German Occupying Forces in August 1914.
  • 11.00: Tessa Lobbes. ‘Those, whom we used to call our beloved Flemish friends, are becoming our German enemies’: The confrontation between Dutch intellectuals, Flemish activism and the German Flamenpolitik during the First World War.
    • 11.30: Break
  • 12.00: Sebastian Bischoff. Furies, spies and fallen women: Gender in the German public discourse about Belgium, 1914-1918.
  • 12.00: Geneviève Warland. Post-war plans for Belgium? German academics dealing with the First World War and its Aftermath.
    • 1.00: Lunch
  • 2.30: Keynote speaker: Sophie De Schaepdrijver. “A Less-than Total Total War”: Neutrality, Invasion, and the Stakes of War, 1914-1918.
    • 3.30: Break
  • 4.00: Christophe Declercq. Emerging from a forgotten past: Belgian refugees in Britain during the First World War. (see below)
  • 4.30: Rolf ter Sluis. De ‘Keizer-quaestie’. The ‘Kaiser Issue’. The Former German Emperor in the Netherlands. November 1918 - March 1920.

Sunday 5th June 2016

  • 10.30: Mathijs Sanders. Bilateral Societies in the Netherlands, 1916-1921.
  • 11.00: Bernhard Liemann. Contact Zones beyond the “Iron Curtain”? Belgo-Dutch-German Border crossings 1914-1918.
    • 11.30: Break
  • 12.00: Hugh Dunthorne. A Cambro-Belgian in the Great War: Frank Brangwyn as Artist and Activist
  • 12.30: Maria Inés Tato. Witnessing the German Occupation of Belgium: Roberto J. Payró’s War Chronicles.
    • 1.00: Lunch
  • 2.30: Keynote speaker: Hubert van Tuyll. The Low Countries as Enemies, 1918-1920.
    • 3.30: Break
  • 4.00: Karen Shelby. The Guard on the IJzer: The Memory of the Belgian Front. 
  • 4.30: Workshop and Drinks

Supported by
The School of Languages, Linguistics and Film, Queen Mary London
CenTraS, University College London
Belgian Embassy London
Flanders House London
Palgrave MacMillan


Emerging from a forgotten past: Belgian refugees in Britain during the First World War
During In the first half of September 2015, parallels were drawn in the national newspapers and social media between the massive numbers of refugees from the Middle East and the scale of the refugee crisis in 1914, the Belgian refugees who came to Britain during the First World War, in particular.
The history of the Belgians in Britain is a complicated one, not least because it has apparently been overlooked for so long. Indeed, forgetfulness might very well be the true legacy of the passing of about a quarter of a million of Belgians through wartime Britain. The history of the Belgians in Britain was also characterised by the fact that it was a transnational history in a cross-cultural setting. The themes of language and class constitute a refrain running throughout this history, as did the arguments in support of the idea that the Belgians in Britain had already disappeared from view during the war at the same time as constructing a unique identity in exile.
This paper provides a holistic view of that history and its main cultural representations, such as the Belgian exile newspapers published in Britain, charity gift books and publications by Belgians living in Britain.


 

References

Amara, Michaël, Des Belges à l'épreuve de l'exil. Les réfugiés de la Première Guerre mondiale en France, en Angleterre et aux Pays-Bas, Brussels, Editions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 2008.
Cahalan, Peter, Belgian Refugee Relief in England during the Great War, New York/London, Garland Publishing, 1982.
Caine, Hall (ed.), King Albert's Book: a tribute to the Belgian king and people from representative men throughout the world, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1914.
Cammaerts Emile, Belgian Poems: Chants Patriotiques et Autres Poèmes (English translations by Tita Brand-Cammaerts), London, John Lane, 1915.
Cammaerts, Emile (ed.), A Book of Belgium's Gratitude, London, John Lane, 1916.
Carlile, J.C., 'Our Belgian Guests', Folkestone During the War: A Record of the Town's Life and Work, Folkestone, F.J. Parsons, 1920, pp.20-24.
Comité Officiel Belge Pour L'Angleterre, Rapport Addressé A Monsieur Le Ministre de l'Intérieur. Le 31 Août 1917, Bruxelles/London, Adhémar Dumoulin, 1918.
Davignon, Henri, La Belgique en Angleterre: un peuple en exil, Paris, Bloud & Gay, 1916.
De Jastrzebski, T.T.S., 'The Register of Belgian Refugees', Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, vol.79:2, 1916, pp.133-158.
Fabry, Camille, Nos 'Hors Combats' à Elisabethville-Birtley, Bruxelles / Seraing, Les Chants de l'Aube / Maison A. Genard, 1919.
First Report of the Departmental Committee appointed by the President of the local government board to consider and report on Questions arising in connection with the reception and employment of the Belgian Refugees in this country. Presented to Parliament by command of his Majesty, London, HMSO, 1915.
Kushner, Tony and Katharine Knox, Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives during the Twentieth Century, London, Cass, 1999.
Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages appointed by His Britannic Majesty's government and presided over by the Right Hon. Viscount Bryce (Bryce Report), London, HMSO, 1915.
Report on the Work Undertaken by the British Government in the Reception and Care of the Belgian Refugees, London, HMSO, 1920.
Sarolea, Charles (ed.), Everyman's Special Belgian Relief Number, London, Aldine House, 1914.
Storr, Katherine, Excluded from the Record: Women, Refugees, and Relief, 1914-1929, Oxford, Peter Lang, 2009.
Varlez, Armand, Les Belges En Exil, London/Bruxelles, Librarie Moderne, 1917.
Verhaeren Commemoration, Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1917.
Wallon, Justin, Une Cité Belge Sur La Tamise, London, Librarie Moderne, 1917.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

A regular Belgian section in The Glamorgan Gazette

This post is mainly based on The Glamorgan Gazette (via Welsh Newspapers online) of 30 October 1914. The account below provides a useful insight into life in a city that is being shelled, and into the last few days before Antwerp fell on 9 October. One cannot but think of life in Aleppo right now. There are some clear details about the journey from Antwerp to the Netherlands and from there to the United Kingdom, more in particular to Bridgend.

Jacques De Hont, his wife and brother Louis, stayed at the residence of Mr. Laurence in Wyndham Street, Bridgend, when a journalist of The Glamorgan Gazette asked Jacques about his story of  "that week of terrorism which saw Antwerp being vacated by all living souls that were not among the combatants attempting to repel the invader.  In fairly good English he narrated incident after incident that brought to the mind a terrible picture of suffering, anxiety and terror.

 I can't describe all I saw; it would be unbelievable unless one had actually gone through the experiences that the people of my city went through. It was beyond description.
For twenty-four years I had lived in Antwerp. Things have altered now. Antwerp, or a great part of it, is in ruins.

My brother and a captain of the Civil Guard and myself then started a walk through the city just as the bombardment commenced. Bombs fell in all parts of the city, and shells overhead were screaming as they tore their way through the air. Some fell in the Rue de Peuple, Avenue du Sud, Chaussee de Malines, and the Rue du Esplanade. Houses were struck till nothing remained but bare walls. The cables of the telegraphs were cut, and fell about the road. Flames sprang up to the sky from those houses where shells had fallen.

As we were going along one street a shell burst behind us with a terrible roar. It had struck a house, and blew everything to pieces inside, and only the walls stood upright. In Rue du Compromis several sheels fell and set a number of houses on fire. At last I reached my office, and was just going in when a shell struck the Madonna Church tower and wrecked it. A man lost his arm, and the captain of the Civil Guard was injured in the kneecap.

Near my house I found my brother and my wife had already left, with thousands of others, who were making their way to the Dutch frontier. We left our home and soon after we saw it fall in a heap of ruins as a shell struck it. Immediately after another hit the hospital. People were rushing along the streets panic stricken and making for safety. As the sun rose at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning we could so.

Antwerp was in flames; everywhere there was fire, and the sky was lit up in all directions; shells were screaming and roaring as they exploded, and wherever one looked crowds of people were to be seen rushing along the street carrying the possessions they had managed to secure wrapped up in sheets and slung over their shoulders.

Little children clung to their mothers' skirts crying and screaming, while the mothers were distracted. Old men and old women, feeble and infirm, were trying to keep up with the others, but hundreds had to fall behind. Most of them were making for the Dutch frontier. My brother and myself hastened on in that direction, and near the frontier I found my wife.

All the way along people were saying that the Germans were coming in our direction, but we decided to risk meeting them. Many, however, sat down on the roadside, tired and hungry. After a long tramp we had a rest, and then started our journey through Flanders on foot. On the way we passed thousands of others. Some had no hats; many of the women were carrying their boots, which had begun to blister their feet, and they were walking over the hard roads bare-footed and sore-footed. All were trying to comfort the others. Ultimately we got to Calloo, where we had our first night's rest, sleeping in a stable on potato sacks that were wet and muddy. But we slept.

The next day we started for Hulst, a distance of 30 miles, where we passed the night on chairs in a cafe. Next day we reached Walsoorden, and then got to Hantweert by boat, walked to Vlake, and took the railway to Middelburg, where we remained four or five days. Here the people gave us a good reception, and did all they could for our comfort. We then crossed the Channel to Tilbury, were taken to London, and were put up at the Hotel Cecil.

I had been able to bring a little money with me, and paid for my food in London; but there were thousands who had been unable to get anything. Many had been out of work since the war commenced, and had no money at all. In the end I got to Bridgend, where Mr. and Mrs. Laurence have treated us as one of themselves. We are happy as we could be, but of course we would be happier if we could be in our own country again. You see there is nothing for us to do. We don't know how to spend the time. 



Nearby Porthcawl Rest Home welcomed 29 male Belgians on 26 October 1914
(source Porthcawl and the Great War)


One last impression of that terrible journey. It was terrible, and I could tell you better in my own language of the horrors of those days; of fathers wheeling perambulators, bearing all their worldly possessions, of children hanging on the parents' necks being carried to safety, of tear-stained faces of mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers; of little children in carts being drawn by dogs and mules, all crowding the roads that led to safety.


Over M. Hont's face there occasionally came a look of pain, but he tried to smile and maintain that spirit that has made the Belgian nation the pride of the world today."

For the remainder of October 1914 and the entire month of November Jacques De Hont provided a short piece to The Glamorgan Gazette, in which he addressed the local Belgian refugees in Dutch. The section was called 'Vluchtelingen'. This feature reoccurs among other local newspapers in Britain, but so far is the only Welsh one for Dutch. In January and July 1915,  The Barmouth and County Advertiser and District Weekly News published a French letter by a Belgian réfugié, not a regular item nor a proper segment, but perhaps a sign that Francophone and/or bilingual Belgians were based more in North Wales and Flemish speaking ones in South Wales?

Still, try and imagine a regular section in local newspapers today that is written in Kurdish or Levantine.

Wales Welcomes over 4500 Belgian Refugees



Below is a reproduction of a text produced by the people of Wales for Peace and Christophe Declercq on the subject of Belgian refugees in Wales. On 17th of February, at 6pm, in the Main Hall of Aberystwyth University’s International Politics Department, the public and academics alike are invited to explore a less-studied aspect of WW1, namely the astonishing achievement of hosting around 250,000 Belgian refugees in the UK.

Help us complete the jig-saw – uncover and share your area’s part in hosting the Belgian refugees

When Germany invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. The following weeks fierce fighting across Belgian territory created a mass movement of civilians, which came to a halt with the fall of Ostend (15 October) and the First Battle of Ypres (19 October – 22 November). In fact, in the early autumn of 1914 nearly one in three Belgians sought refuge from the war.

In early October alone, nearly one million Belgians crossed the border with the Netherlands. By the end of 1914, nearly 100,000 Belgians had crossed the Channel. Six months later, this number had grown to about 175,000. In total, during the course of the war, over a quarter of a million Belgians had visited Britain, although there were never more than 165,000 in Britain at any one time.

The sojourn in Britain of about a quarter of a million Belgians has long been overlooked. The reasons for this are many. Most importantly, the Belgians came as imperceptibly as they went. By mid-1919 virtually all had returned to Belgium, without leaving a clear trace. During their stay in Britain the Belgians disappeared from view. Initially the ‘Belgian refugee’ was a very useful image in maintaining popular support for the war cause. 

Yet as the war dragged on the ‘Belgian refugee’ needed more than reception, accommodation and subsidized support, consequently across Britain tens of thousands of Belgians were gradually employed in the war industry. Sometimes this led to the development of a true Belgian colony around a particular factory (Elisabethville near Newcastle, Pelabon in Twickenham/Richmond and Kryn&Lahy in Letchworth, for instance). Thousands of Belgian children went to entirely Belgian schools established in Britain especially for that purpose, and even more attended British schools. The Belgians also relied on an intricate spread of exile newspapers and journals. In short, by mid-1915, Belgians disappeared from view into the factories and schools and they were reported on mainly in their own newspapers.
 Belgian refugee children, Cardiff (Weekly Mail, 1914)

Although one in three Belgians stayed in the greater London area, thousands of Belgians found a safe haven in Wales too. By the end of August 1917, a total of 4,547 Belgians were still living in Wales (compared with 155,376 in England, 10,628 in Scotland and 1,700 in Ireland). Two small local Belgian communities of about 500 Belgians each were living in Cardiff and Swansea. More than a thousand Belgians stayed in Pembrokeshire, an area on the outskirts of the main island that not only had century-old ties with Flanders, but also a fishing industry to which the mainly Flemish settlers could relate (Milford Haven). Early on in the conflict, the Davies sisters arranged for a number of Belgian artists to be brought to Wales. Eventually, nearly a hundred were accommodated, most of them in and around Aberystwyth.

History repeats itself. When the Germans invaded Belgium again in 1940, thousands of Belgians came to Britain once again, including Wales. The Belgian government in exile subsequently established a military camp in Tenby, for instance, a seaside town where Belgians had lived during the First World War as well.

By Christophe Declercq c.declercq@ucl.ac.uk. *

An exciting part of the Wales for Peace project is mapping out the impact of war and peace heritage throughout Wales. With the help of volunteers across Wales and in partnership with the National Library of Wales and People’s Collection Wales, we are interested in uncovering local histories and archives relating to the Welsh-Belgian experience during WW1. The Belgian research project provides an opportunity to extend the partnership to share discoveries digitally and inform and inspire future actions relating to the reception of refugees and the strengthening of Wales-Belgium links.

On the subject and the event Christophe said: "Reflecting on the past to illuminate the present is what history is all about. This Belgian-Wales sharing of information will enhance our understanding of the Belgian Refugees' story during WW1, in the context of a new refugee crisis emerging in Europe a 100 years later. I was very pleased to respond to this opportunity to share my research through the Wales for Peace project, at Aberystwyth University’s International Politics Department."

*Christophe Declercq has been researching the Belgian refugees story for over a decade and has not only addressed conferences on the subject, but also local communities. He has been involved in various Centenary projects and is the UK liaison officer for a project currently organized by the Amsab Institute of Social History (affiliated to the University of Ghent, Belgium): www.belgianrefugees14-18.be. The project is supported by renowned partners in both Belgium and the UK, such as the In Flanders Fields Museum (Ypres), the Red Star Line Museum (Antwerp), the People’s History Museum (Manchester), the Imperial War Museum London and Hertfordshire at War, among others. Amsab-ISG is looking for archive material for an online exhibition on Belgian refugees in Britain during the First World War, in particular iconographic material (pictures, drawings, letters, leaflets, concert programmes etc.) and family histories from those who have a Belgian ancestor, as well as from those whose families accommodated Belgians at the time. The project has many public engagement events and is now expanding into Wales and relevant Welsh history. The project does not focus entirely on the past and aims to include a contemporary education component as well as references to the situation of refugees today.

Working with Wales for Peace www.walesforpeace.org and People’s Collection Wales http://www.peoplescollection.wales which provides training and resources, archive collections can now be scanned locally and shared digitally with both the Welsh and Belgian historians and public.
Download a hidden history initial contact form to progress with your community/school research idea.