How a ‘Warm Reception’ for Belgium’s WW1 Refugees Turned to Resentment
This coming Sunday marks 100 years since the end of the First World War.
Armistice Day, also known as Remembrance Day, commemorates the signing of the Armistice Treaty in 1918 which brought four years of devastating war to an end.
The Allies and Germany signed the treaty in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne in France at 05:00. Six hours later, at 11:00, the guns fell silent along the Western Front in Europe.
The centenary of the Armistice – the end of the devastating First World War – will be marked by numerous commemorations around Europe.
But, as much of the fighting took place on Belgian territory, that small country has arguably more reason than most to recall the painful events of the “war to end all wars.”
The centenary is also a chance to ponder a little known feature of that terrible war – the plight of the estimated 1.5 million Belgians forced to flee their homeland, many across the channel to England.
A poll conducted by YouGov showed that only one person in over 2,000 people questioned was able to pinpoint the Belgians from a list of seven options as to which were the largest numbers of refugees in Britain at the time.
But the outbreak of war in 1914 left many Belgians homeless and penniless.
The story of the Belgian refugees is a fascinating one which, with the ongoing asylum and migrant crisis still high on Europe’s political agenda, has resonance today.
The number who fled the country from 1914-18 was approximately one-sixth of the Belgian population. They headed to the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands to flee the encroaching German troops.
An estimated 250,000 no less headed to the four nations of the UK for safety. In fact, the Belgians in wartime Britain constituted the biggest single ethnic influx of refugees into Britain to date. About one in three stayed in London or its environs. The number of refugees in Wales, Scotland and Ireland together was never more than ten percent of the total Belgian community in exile in the British Isles.
Some of those who didn’t head to Britain made the relative short journey over the border to France, parts of which were occupied during the First World War.
At first, the Belgian refugees were greeted with open arms.
In “The Reception of Belgian Refugees in Europe,” UK-based author Pierre Purseigle recalls how “a group of Belgians detraining in Northampton were met by kind-hearted ladies who were ready at the station with steaming coffee, buns and sweets.”
“Such refugees arriving in the English Midlands brought home to us the tragedy of their martyred country.”
In the UK, the Belgians set up Belgian Refugee Committees and even had their own purpose-built villages with their own schools, newspapers, shops, hospitals, churches, prisons and police. One such community of perhaps 6,000 was based in London’s Richmond and East Twickenham, where many were employed in the munitions factory built in what is now Cleveland Park alongside Richmond Bridge.
The large number of Belgian refugees arriving during the war caused East Twickenham to be known as the Belgian Village on the Thames.
Another favourite destination was Birtley in County Durham, a small industrial village that became a central hub for 4,000 new Belgian neighbours. Birtley was chosen as the site of two munitions factories, staffed entirely by Belgian soldiers, their families and other refugees. The resulting community was nicknamed “Elisabethville,” after the Belgian queen Elisabeth of Bavaria.
At its height, Elisabethville accommodated between 2-3.75% of the entire Belgian refugee population living in the UK.
But while at the start of the war, the local populations in the host countries, including the UK, were favourable to the refugees from “Poor Little Belgium,” public opinion gradually turned into mistrust and distancing.
As the war dragged on, Belgian citizens lost the goodwill of the locals and began to be considered ‘cushy’ a comfortable distance from the battle fields, while their own sons and fathers were fighting on the front-line.
Many had expected the war to be over by Christmas but it soon became evident that would not be the case. Housing and jobs became an issue. Belgians in the purpose built villages in England had running water and electricity while their British neighbours did not.
A feeling of mistrust and remoteness set in and even riots broke out in 1916, as the local populations thought that integrating Belgian workers into the British labour market threatened their own jobs.
Towards the end of the war, some 140,000 Belgians were still in the UK and some decided to remain in the country that had welcomed them.
But within a year of the war ending on 11 November 1918 more than 90 percent had returned home.
For many the terrible events of 1939 to 1945 and a certain Adolf Hitler overtook the First World War.
This weekend thousands will converge on Ypres, the small Flemish town that was obliterated during the war, for a whole series of Armistice events.
The somber occasion also provides a timely reminder of the plight of the tens of thousands of Belgian refugees who once fled its shores to find safety in other lands.