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.

Monday, 23 June 2014

From Liège to York and back again: Nestlé looking for Belgian refugees memorabilia

Members of the Loix family, whose members fled Liège in August 1914, will meet members of the Rutterford family, whose relatives worked at Rowntree's, the York chocolate factory. The meeting will form part of the official events run by the Mayor of Liège's, marking the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war.

When tens of thousands of Belgians fled to Britain in August-September-October 1914, some went to or were went to York. Staff at the Rowntree's factory in Haxby Road set up a donation fund and a council to distribute resources and found accommodation for the refugees.

Alex Hutchinson, Nestlé heritage assistant said Nestlé's archives would be used to support the events in Liège, including an exhibition on the outbreak of hostilities in the town and the refugees who fled to York.

"Although the Rowntree family members were pacifists, and opposed to war, they were keen to help as many victims of the hostilities as possible. Those refugees who were able to work were given employment in the chocolate factory, but most had to be supported by donations from Rowntree's workers. Employees at the factory formed a council to manage and distribute resources until the end of hostilities. Factory workers cleared cottages in New Earswick, and space in the factory grounds for living accommodation."
Miss Hutchinson is appealing for anyone in York who has any photographs or memorabilia relating to the Belgian refugees to come forward.

Anyone who is able to help is asked to phone Nestlé's consumer services department on 00800 6378 5385 or 0800 00 00 30, or to write to Nestlé UK Ltd, Haxby Road, York, YO91 1XY, or to tweet @nestleUK or to contact via the webpage.

The text above is based on an article from York Press, 12 June.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Antwerp city walk, WW1-related

In the history of Belgian refugees, Antwerp plays a particular role. Deemed a safe haven, the port city accommodated 100,000s of Belgians on the run for the advancing German troops and the ensuing (stories of) atrocity.

However, the city did not hold out against the power of the German army and capitulated on 9 October, 10 weeks after the invasion.

The population of Antwerp at the time, little over 300,000 was decimated: virtually everybody was on the run. When the Germans entered the city in the morning of 10 October, most inhabitants had fled, mainly to the Netherlands, but also to France and the United Kingdom.

With the conference on Languages and the First World War taking place on Wednesday 18 June 2014 at the University of Antwerp (a second day is held at the British Library on 20 June) a morning walk is scheduled across the old city centre of Antwerp.

Most sites along the walk are World War 1-related: locations of Zeppelin attacks, addresses of casualties of those attacks, addresses from people who became refugees and ended up in places such as Ilford (data based on Pat Heron's work) and Glasgow. Some cultural references, to both British and Belgian artists are included too.

And of course the location of the temporary pontoon bridge.

The Google Map aims to be a work in progress, plenty of archive material and addresses to add still. You can find it here.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

From Antwerp to Britain and back again: the language of the Belgian refugee then and now

The following is an abstract of a paper to be held on Wednesday 18 June 2014 during the unique two-legged conference of University of Antwerp and British Library: Languages and the First World War.

"Given the nature of conflicts up until the First World War, refugee studies literature, focussing on the period prior to the Great War, mainly concerns religious and economic migration. Examples are the Huguenots relocations and the Protestant people and craftsmen from ports such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, who sought refuge in the Netherlands in the late 16th century.

When the Germans turned to Antwerp at the end of September 1914, the military move as well as the widespread tales of atrocity triggered a mass forced displacement, which was caused by the war, away from the port to the Netherlands and Britain. The Belgians, who had already sought refuge in the fortified city of Antwerp, joined the best part of the city’s population in fleeing the siege. It is estimated that, in a matter of a fortnight, nearly a million people had moved from what was a relatively small area.

This paper analyses the language used to describe the siege of Antwerp, the forced displacement and the subsequent settlement of Belgians abroad, in particular in the Netherlands and Britain, in the Belgian press, the Belgian exile press and the Dutch and British press. A peculiar language emerges in which propaganda rhetoric and early refugee reception discourse converge, only to disappear from view when the Belgians returned in 1919.

During their exile, especially in Britain, the Belgians lived in a world of displacement that was met with relative freedom of movement, employment opportunity and even benefits such as the necessary housing, clothing and food. After the war, the semantics of everyday life in Britain was in stark contrast to the hardship endured by refugees in the Netherlands and by those who had lived under the occupation.

After the war, the open society that was Antwerp prior to the war lacked the economic drive of the once thriving German minority. Also, the status of French as the language of print started to dwindle. Despite an enriching experience in Britain, the overall discourse had moved from cosmopolitan to parochial. As a conclusion, the paper aims to connect his sense of loss with the memory of those Belgian refugees in Britain and the presence of refugees today."

More information about the Antwerp day of the conference here.
Information about the British Library day here.
A fine blog on Languages and the First World War is updated on a more than daily basis.