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.
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