Monday, 29 September 2014

Antwerp, the final days



Prior to the First World War, Antwerp had been designated the ‘National Reduit’, the final safe haven for King, army and government in case of a German invasion. To that end, Antwerp had been fortified with several fortified rings. Because of its renown as a safe place to seek refuge and because King Albert, government and army had indeed settled there, hundreds of thousands of Belgians had sought refuge in the fortified port city.

However, on 28 September the Germans started shelling the city, a siege that intensified over the subsequent 12 days, after which – on 9 October – the city surrendered. In the meantime, up to a million refugees had moved on from Antwerp, most of them towards the Netherlands, but also towards the United Kingdom. As such, Antwerp plays a crucial role in the initial chapter of the story of the Belgian refugees in Britain. The following concerns 29 September.

On 27 September the city of Mechelen (Malines), roughly 25km south of Antwerp, had been taken by the German generaal Von Beseler. This freed German forces to increase their pressure on the outer fortified ring, some forts of which were located literally north of Mechelen.

     On 29 September the German neared the river Rupel but were fired upon from the Fort of Walem. However, resistance did not last long there as a German granate blew up the munition chamber, destroying an important part of the fort. Nearby, the fort of Fort Sint-Katelijne-Waver managed to resist for little more than a day too. Further east, the German army installed two ‘Dikke Bertha’ canon at Heist-op-den-Berg. They started shelling the fort of Lier, roughly 8km away. The Belgian army withdraws from the fort only two days later. 

     Among the many Belgian casualties of 29 September are Armand de KeyzerFelix De PauwJoseph Dolhain, Joseph Givron, Leopold HeerenHenriAertsKarelBaeyens

In an ideal world, it would be a valuable research project to be listing all casualties of Belgian soldiers who died in the wider Antwerp area in the period 4 August – 9 October and whether or not their families had already sought refuge elsewhere and perhaps ended up in Britain. Also, how many wounded soldiers from these battlefields convalesced in Britain? However, resources are very limited for the moment.

In Flanders, people from Antwerp tend to be looked upon as boasting about themselves. However, in the case of the movement war in Belgium in the first months of the war Antwerp played a crucial part. By the end of the war, half the Belgian refugees in Britain had been from the province of Antwerp. Antwerp engineers and factory labourers from Elisabethville were among the first ones allowed to return to Belgium so as to support the reconstruction efforts there. This was also because refugees from the frontline in and around Ypres did not have a house to get back to, even roads had gone.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The perennial issue of the number of Belgians in Britain



Every time a local history project about or someone’s interest into the Belgian refugees in Britain during the First World War aims to include a figure of how many Belgians eventually stayed in Britain, virtually all the time those figures are wrong. Often based on figures produced by The Times of the time, those wrong estimations come from the newspaper coverage before organised registration was in place, which was end of 1914 only. Even worse is when those figures are taken from secondary literature, without further verification, let alone corroboration.

The issue of the number of Belgians in Britain is such a major problem that it alone transcends the scope of a PhD subject. In fact, should one attempt to come close to a trustworthy figure, this would involve the following:

  • Decide which one of the three registration card archives is the most complete (there is one publicly available at Kew and one in Brussels, but Brussels also holds one which is not available just yet) and then digitise this, with the final result being an open database. However, this then equals an effort that is similar to gathering all basic civil data from a population of a community the size of Kingston-upon-Hull, Exeter and Durham combined, or Ghent .
  • Then cross-reference this with what can be considered as the second most complete, adding records and data. This would also see the category of erroneous or duplicate records increase dramatically.
  • In a final move, based on registration cards only, the third set would be added to that.

In a potential project that would do all this, erroneous, partial and duplicate records are affected by what is arguably the biggest issue in trying to get a grip on the number of Belgian refugees in Britain: Flemish surnames. The Glasgow Register (which is not such a thing, but a compilation of several registers) proves that several families (same first names, same ages of the same children, same home address in Belgium) have two or sometimes even more different registration card entries, with distinctively different spelled surnames (however similar they might be).

After all that worry and virtual impossibility (imagine you have junior researchers working on this, I’m sure the turnover of staff would be considerable…) only then can one start matching that one overall digitised database with information from British press, Belgian exile press, local archives, existing local registers (such as the one from Exeter). Throw in a crowdsourcing effort for people to upload material in case the family holds information not yet included in that database.

But in the end, what do you have? a database representing roughly 200,000 Belgians with most of the typical details, another 25,000 to 40,000 with limited data only, another X thousands with likely duplicate records and another X thousand records with virtually no information on them. And then the soldiers aren’t even included. The history of Belgians in Britain proves that there was a thin line between soldiers and refugees: how do you call a Belgian who sought refuge in Britain in August 1914 but relocated to France by early December 1914? Is he or she still a figure in the overall statistic, which is prior to when the Central Register was in place? And what about a soldier convalescing so long, he actually stays in Britain for most of the war or starts working there, whilst still being a member of the army?

So in the end, what do you have? A figure that is not very clear and any long-term research into will not differ much from the following finding: that the most important primary document on the subject itself was not in the clear about it all.

In 1919, the Ministry of Health oversaw the publication of what is in fact the key document, from a British perspective, into the history of the Belgians in Britain during World War One: “Report of the Work Undertaken by the BritishGovernment in the Reception and Care of the Belgian refugees” (HMSO, 1920). The report, which we abbreviate as RWU 1920 for ease of use, incorporates the following estimations:

  • p.5: “The total number of the refugees from Belgium who came over in these various ways was upwards of 200,000.”
  • p.8: “The registration of the refugees proved of great value. Altogether some 240,000 refugees have been registered, and in addition some 19,000 wounded soldiers, making a totol of roughly 260,000.” Note: on page 66 the number of disabled Belgian soldiers in Britain recorded in a special register by the Wounded Allies Relief Committee mentioned the figure of 35,000 (of which 9,000 were still in the country by the end of 1919!)
  • p.60: “The maximum number of refugees in the United Kingdom at one time, excluding wounded Belgian soldiers, was about 210,000; by the end of 1916, it had fallen to 160,000.”
  • p.64: “At the date of the amendment of the Order in Council which repealed the sections relating to Belgian refugees (1st June, 1919), the index contained 225,572 names.”
  • p.73: The paper by de Jastrzebski before the Royal Statistical Society on 18 January 1916 dealt “with the 220,000 refugees of whom records had been made”.

Based on this one document and corroborated with various other primary sources, it can only be assumed that any estimation of the number of Belgians in Britain is indeed upwards 225,000.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

"Herring saved our lives": Belgian fisheries and the First World War

The following is taken from an article by Brecht Demasure in the Belgian journal 'De Grote Rede' (in English) and concerns Belgian, given the geographical location of the coast Flemish is more appropriate, fisheries and the First World War.

"Nearly the entire Belgian fishing fleet left the country in October 1914. The fishermen who stayed behind succeeded in meeting the local needs under difficult circumstances. For refugee fishermen the war period was anything but wasted. They continued their activities operating from British, French and Dutch ports.

In this article we investigate to what degree the First World War was a turning point for sea fisheries. Was herring fishing crucial to the survival of the civilian population, as was the case in the Second World War (in other words: Did herring save our lives)? Were fishermen able to get back to work in Belgium after WWI? And what role did the seaside resort of Ostend play?"

More can be found via the online article.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Testing the concept of a refugee: Belgians in Britain during WWI

On 3 and 4 July 2014, the 83rd Anglo-American Conference of Historians is held at Senate House, London. On Friday 4 July, 11.15am-1pm, the panel 'The Western Front and European Home Fronts' (Gordon Room 34), chaired by Ulrich Tiedau, will include the following papers.

The following is the abstract of the first paper, which will form the basis for the conference paper.


Testing the concept of a refugee: Belgians in Britain during WWI


The history of the Belgian refugees in Britain during World War I seems to have been buried under the weight of more conventional war histories. Yet, more than 250,000 Belgians stayed in Britain during the war and close to 140,000 soldiers convalesced or took their leave on the British Isles. This paper will analyse the general framework of this history and highlight a few striking stories within it.

Between early and mid October 1914, the first Belgian refugees were met with a wave of empathy and charity. In addition, the atrocity stories that came with them proved useful for creating the  image of the Hun, the gallant Little Belgium and the kindhearted British. However much everyone wanted to have a pet Belgian in the house, the refugees soon proved to be all too human, with all their different habits. As the war was not going to end by Christmas, Belgians became more of a nuisance, something to be taken care of by the Local Government Board.

The second wave of Belgians, on the other hand, was in fact organised by the British authorities, who invited the Belgians staying in the Netherlands to come to Britain and help extend the war industry, which the Shell Scandal proved to be insufficient. These Belgians, often able-bodied men, had been staying in the Netherlands to which they had fled earlier. However, conditions in the Netherlands were not very tractive but the prospect of providing for one’s means in a seemingly much more supportive host society was attractive.

Belgian communities emerged around dozens of munition factories, some of them even owned by Belgians. Ranging from smaller groups to real pocket villages (settlements of thousands of Belgians in places such as Richmond, Letchworth, Birtley and Barrow), genuine Belgian life in exile grew from these micro-societies. Education and religion went hand in hand, whereas Belgian union practices often stirred up the working relationships among the British. All In all, Belgian able-bodied men were relatively mobile, earning wages and contributing to the war effort.