Belgian refugees in WW1 Britain: were they welcome guests?

When the first Belgian refugees reached Britain’s shores in 1914, fleeing the German invasion of their homeland, they were met with open arms. But as the First World War ground on, relations became increasingly strained. Alison S Fell explores their complex experiences

Young Belgian refugees wave a British flag during celebrations for Belgian National Day in London during the First World War

As the first huddle of Belgian refugees prepared to leave their native shores for the British city of Leeds in October 1914, excitement, relief and trepidation laced the air. Sister Marie Antoine, who had been forced to flee when her convent in Willebroeck, a village between Antwerp and Brussels, was attacked by German shells, described the exodus at the dockside in Antwerp: “We took our places on the deck of this little boat… There were seats for about half of the number of passengers, but we crowded together as best we could, with a feeling of security, for we all knew that within a few hours we would be safely out of reach of those terrible bombs and shrapnel.” A mere four hours later, after a freezing journey across the sea, “the hills and rugged banks of England made their appearance” – safety was finally in sight.

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The British, for their part, were eager to catch a glimpse of these beleaguered victims of war. After all, for most of the population, the arrival of Belgian refugees was their first encounter with the human costs of the First World War. Belgium had announced in July 1914 that it would uphold its neutrality, as guaranteed by Britain, Prussia, France, Austria, Russia and the Netherlands in the 1839 Treaty of London. But by August 1914, the Germans were advancing through the country to reach France. Refugees began to flee in their thousands. On 9 October 1914, the Belgian garrison commander surrendered Antwerp, and by November most of Belgium was under German occupation.

In total, 1.5 million Belgians were displaced, fleeing to France, neutral Netherlands and Britain. By October 1914, after the collapse of Belgian military resistance, a thousand Belgians a day were arriving in Britain. In November the Netherlands asked Britain for food for its Belgian refugee camps. Instead, the government proposed that 5,000 refugees a week be brought to Britain. In a few short months, more than 200,000 Belgians arrived in the country – the largest influx of people in British refugee history.

One of the reasons why the British government was so willing to accept Belgian refugees was decidedly self-serving: the invasion of Belgium was central to Britain’s publicly declared reasons for going to war. Britain had guaranteed its military support when the Belgian government refused the demands of the Germans to allow them passage through their country.

Britain also used the invasion to bolster the anti-German sentiment that was brewing among the population. British recruitment posters depicted Belgium as the oppressed victim of a German aggressor who had ridden roughshod over international laws.

Newspaper articles, interviews and photographs all contributed to this image, presenting Belgian refugees as the innocent victims of German brutality. For instance, in Leeds, a front-line reporter called Bertha Bennet Burleigh gave a talk about the situation in Belgium in which she attacked the Germans as barbaric and uncivilised, and condemned the targeting of civilians and the looting of churches and libraries. While there were indeed atrocities committed against Belgian civilians during the invasion, including rape, hostage-taking and murder, these stories were sometimes invented or exaggerated, and the press were instructed not to print negative stories about Belgian refugees.

So it is no surprise, then, that the refugees from ‘Gallant Little Belgium’ who arrived in Britain were met with open arms. There was an immediate and impressive response by the well-established British charitable sector, led by the War Refugees Committee who agreed to the government’s request to coordinate relief work, but who were mainly funded, supported and directed by the Local Government Board. The management of care for the refugees themselves was devolved to local committees, whose ranks were made up of local worthies, including clergymen and wealthy middle to upper-class women.

Contributing to the cause

The Lord Mayor’s Belgian Relief Committee in Leeds, for instance, which was responsible for an average of 1,500 refugees throughout the war, was convened by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe – the lord mayor’s wealthy 27-year-old niece-in-law. To escape her unhappy marriage, Ratcliffe threw herself into war relief work. And there was much to do in Leeds as dispossessed Belgians poured in to the city. Two hundred and twenty-eight houses were given over to needy refugees, and there was also a hostel for unmarried Belgians and Belgian soldiers who were on leave.

In 1914 and 1915, the British public were greatly supportive of the refugees’ plight, and huge sums to cover the cost of caring for the Belgians were donated. The money raised in this period by the Leeds committee alone came to £10,714 (more than £500,000 today), which was supplemented by a further £11,258 in government grants.

Of those Belgians who fled to Britain and required monetary support, around two-thirds were women and children; men of military age continued to be conscripted into the Belgian army throughout the war. Belgian soldiers were subject to military discipline, but refugees were also subject to state control. The 1914 Aliens Restriction Act, initially passed to control German and Austrian residents in Britain, required Belgians to register with the police and inform their local registration office if they were moving address, thus restricting their right to move around Britain freely.

Belgians gradually shifted in status from ‘guests’ to ‘resident aliens’, whose cultural mores were distinctly different

As the first few months of the war turned into years, the relationship between Belgian refugees and their British hosts fundamentally changed. Belgians gradually shifted in status from ‘guests’ to ‘resident aliens’, whose cultural mores were often distinctly different from that of their hosts.

Initially, individual families had taken refugees into their own homes. However, this proved to be only a short-term solution. British families soon found their budgets and generosity exhausted, while Belgian refugees preferred to live independently once they were able to do so.

But for those who did not rapidly become self-sufficient, there was another option for regaining some semblance of independence. Many rambling English houses were converted into hostels, allowing groups of refugees to escape the confines of British families’ homes and live together. The records of one such hostel, Heaton Hall near Bradford, reveal how relations between Belgian residents and their British hosts became increasingly strained.

The Heaton Hall Committee was dominated by older, socially conservative middle-class women and chaired by Alice Priestman: the 62-year-old Quaker wife of a middle-manager in the textile industry, and an experienced visitor at a women’s prison. But the realities of work with Belgian refugees was not always as rewarding as the committee members had first hoped. They regularly heard the Belgians’ “small petty jealousies” and were regaled with complaints of “one person having had his boots repaired more often than another”, for instance, or a lack of tobacco money. In December 1915, the secretary noted the situation had become so fractious that the refugees were “strongly reproved by our [the committee’s] chairman”. A Flemish speaker called Madame Brule also chastised them, “pointing out that it was very ungracious of them to have petty bickerings when so much has been done for them”.

Relations between the Heaton Hall Committee and the refugees continued to deteriorate. In subsequent committee minutes, increasing tensions emerged between the wealthy Yorkshire women of the committee – with their Protestant values and assumed class and moral superiority – and the refugees they were responsible for. The Belgians came from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and they did not always take kindly to having their behaviour policed and reprimanded by their British hosts.

A culture clash was particularly evident in attitudes towards the consumption of alcohol. In July 1915, after a M Lickens was found to have an “illness caused by drink”, Mrs Priestman reported that “she had visited the Delvers Arms and requested the proprietress to, as far as was possible, discourage the Belgians from drinking more than a reasonable amount”. The temperance movement was strong among the Protestant middle-classes of Yorkshire, but it would have been an alien concept to the beer-drinking Catholic communities of Belgium.

Earning their keep

As the refugees became more of a fixture of British life and the initial interest in them waned, the British population’s purse strings began to tighten. In 1916, two years after the first Belgian boats had arrived, both casualty figures and food prices were on the up, and there were many more charitable causes asking for donations from the British public’s dwindling resources. Belgian refugee committees across the country faced difficult choices as funds began to run out, and there was mounting pressure on the refugees to find paid employment.

The manpower crisis, especially in 1917 and 1918, meant that there was no shortage of opportunities. By 1918, some 30,000 Belgians were working in ammunition factories, including more than 7,000 women, making it one of the largest foreign workforces in the country. In Elisabethville in Birtley, County Durham, more than 3,000 Belgians worked in and lived near a large munitions factory.

As finances became stretched, the Heaton Hall Committee attempted to get more women into paid employment, to “pay for their keep”. This led to a suggestion that Belgian women carrying out the domestic work in the hostel should be paid for their labour at a rate comparable to that which the committee would have to pay a “local charwoman (cleaner)”. However, this suggestion was rebuffed by several middle-class Belgian women, who found it insulting that their domestic work could be given an economic value in this way. One woman, a Madame Delgrosso, “attended before the committee and returned the money which she received for work done in the house”. The following week, she obtained work in a munitions factory in Bradford. Clearly, being a paid industrial worker was more palatable to her than being given wages for the domestic labour that she had undertaken for free for the previous 18 months.

Many Belgians yearned to escape the confines of relief committees and gain a sense of identity beyond that of ‘Belgian refugee’

As the Belgian refugees settled into life as paid factory workers, cleaners and the like, they were increasingly eager to escape the confines of the relief committees. The Belgian press that was published in Britain in both French and Flemish during the war (refugees came from the Walloon and Flemish communities in Belgium) reveals that many yearned to establish greater autonomy for themselves – and, crucially, a sense of identity beyond that of ‘Belgian refugee’.

Both discharged Belgian soldiers and Belgian civilians lived in Britain, and the failure of the British population to distinguish between the two was often the source of complaints. For instance, Jules Barry, a discharged Belgian soldier, wrote a letter to the Leeds committee in November 1915 complaining that he was always referred to as a “Belgian refugee” when he was in fact a disabled soldier, and requested that all official letters should use the correct terminology.

The pages of the French language newspaper LIndépendence belge publicised an increasing number of Belgian-led initiatives designed to maintain their traditional way of life. These ranged from Belgian schools – established because of anxieties that children were becoming too anglicised – theatre groups and choirs, to professional groups, including associations for Belgian lawyers, railway workers, teachers and metal workers.

The desire to preserve Belgian traditions was further strengthened by the unpalatable impression some refugees had of British culture. A 1918 article published by a Belgian refugee in the Yorkshire Evening Post attacks the sight of the “repulsive array of drying underwear spread out on washing day on clothes lines stretched over the streets”. The men of Leeds came under scrutiny, too, being lambasted for “their love of the pictures, their going mad over the feats of a footballer, their love of the Charlie Chaplin type”.

There were romances between Belgians and their hosts. Some ended in marriage, but others ended in illegitimacy and scandal

While for some British residents, the refugees remained representatives of civilian war victims, for others, longer-term relationships led to Belgians becoming clients, colleagues (or competitors) in the labour market, friends, or, in rarer cases, spouses. Most wartime newspaper reports of marriages involved Belgian refugees marrying other Belgians. But there were romances between Belgians and their hosts, too. Some of these ended in marriage. Others ended in illegitimacy and scandal, which was often hushed up for decades (see end of article).

Yet when the war drew to a close, many of the complex relationships that had formed between the refugees and their British hosts were effectively severed. Rather than remaining in Britain, more than 90 per cent of refugees returned to Belgium. Concerned about the economic fallout of war, the British government actively repatriated them, supported by a Belgian government keen to begin the long task of reconstruction.

In many cases, Belgians were keen to return to their homeland – although they faced a difficult reception when they arrived. Some were treated as cowards who had had an easier time than those forced to live under the harsh conditions of German occupation.

Forgotten friendships

In Britain today, there are few traces of the Belgian refugees. As the vast majority returned to Belgium, there simply aren’t many descendants around to tell their stories. And in Belgium, refugee experiences have often been marginalised in national commemorations of the war. Remembrance instead focuses on the suffering of those who remained in Belgium, as well as those who were killed during active military service.

But inscribed furniture, paintings and other objects donated by Belgians to their British hosts bear witness to the warm friendships that existed between individuals and communities. Letters and photographs from the interwar years, preserved in attics and archives, attest to some ongoing ties. In a few cases, there were visits between Belgian and British friends and neighbours that lasted well into the 20th century.

It is only more recently, and especially during the centenary of the First World War, that more evidence has come to light which illuminates the many ways exile affected Belgians – in some cases reverberating down the generations. Through initiatives such as the Tracing the Belgian Refugees project (a free online database that features interviews with refugees’ descendants, information from local history groups, and academic research), we can shine a light onto this history and remember the forgotten friendships, enmities and love affairs that bloomed between two societies who were thrust together during the privations of war.

Alison S Fell is professor of French cultural history at the University of Leeds. She is the principal investigator of the Tracing the Belgian Refugees project: belgianrefugees.leeds.ac.uk

Material from Tracing the Belgian Refugees is featured in IWM London’s exhibition Refugees: Forced to Flee (part of IWM’s wider Refugees season). It is on display until 24 May 2021. Find out more at: iwm.org.uk/events/refugees-forced-to-flee

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This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine