Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Belgian refugees and their largely forgotten history 100 years later: the continued myth


We only read this now, by a historical researcher, for The Times (4 May 2015, obtained through Nexis). We fully appreciate time constraints and word limitations but some of what is below is not entirely accurate or needs a tiny bit more context.

"On August 4 , 1914, Germany invaded the small sovereign state of Belgium, forcing Britain to enter the First World War in response. As the German Army forced its way across Belgium, attacking and occupying the villages and towns in its path, thousands of civilians fled for safety."
--> The death of nearly 6000 civilians, the majority of which was executed, formed a very powerful reason to seek refuge.
"These refugees found sanctuary in various northern European states, including the Netherlands and France. However, one of the largest intakes was in Great Britain, where official records from the time estimate that 250,000 Belgian civilians entered between 1914 and 1918, seeking temporary asylum."
--> 95% fled to NL-FR or GB. The final figure will be hard to pin down, because Belgian convalescent soldiers were also looked after by local refugee committees, as such defining an appropriate number is very difficult.

"Some of the refugees were offered places in purpose-built villages within the UK. These areas were considered to be Belgian territory and were run by the Belgian Government - they had their own schools, shops, hospitals, churches, police and even their own currency. Other Belgians were taken in by British families across the country."
--> Indeed: 'some'. This basically applies to the Belgians in Birtley only, not to the 250,000+ others.
"From the outset of the war, propaganda illustrated the plight of the noble Belgian civilians as victims of Prussian barbarism. As such, many Britons welcomed the refugees with open arms, considering it their moral and civil duty to do so. However, as the war dragged on these Belgian guests sometimes became financial burdens to the British families who had taken them in."
--> Not only propaganda. The number of newspaper mentions in British press of Belgian refugees far outstrips any reference to 'Remember Belgium', 'Poor Little Belgium' etc.
Few communities in Britain were unaffected by the huge intake of Belgian civilians in one way or another, yet for a long time these refugees were largely forgotten. This could be attributed to several reasons. 
--> True, but the reasons provided for are scarcely the ones that really mattered.

Many Britons felt a certain level of resentment against the refugees, especially those who lived in the purpose-built villages, enjoying luxuries like running water, and were keen for them to leave after the Armistice. 
--> Given that the purpose-built village of Birtley was about the only one, this cannot have a fed a nation-wide sentiment. On the contrary, some Belgians were happy to return as they had been living in rather shabby 'huts' in Glasgow, Sheffield and other places.
Furthermore, the memory of the thousands of Second World War refugees who arrived in Britain after 1945 soon eclipsed that of the Belgian refugees from World War One. 
--> The sheer comparison of both figures beggars belief. 

Of course, this is not to say that the Belgians left nothing behind or had no impact in Great Britain. Some families stayed in touch with the refugees they took in for years, and Agatha Christie is even said to have based the character detective of Hercule Poirot on a Belgian refugee she met in her home town of Torquay.
--> "Many families". There have been quite a lot of intermarriages, as well as out of wedlock children (perhaps another reason to keep quiet about things?)
--> Poirot: this was proven quite a while ago.

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