- 'Testing the concept of a refugee: Belgians in Britain during WWI', Christophe Declercq (Imperial College London / University College London)
- 'Official responses to Belgian refugees in Britain 1914-1918, with special reference to Scotland’s 10,000 refugees', Jacqueline Jenkinson (University of Stirling)
- 'Twilight of the German Gods: Edith Wharton and WWI', Novella Mercuri (University College London).
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.