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.

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