Learning From History: Belgian WWI Refugees in Britain


Belgian Refugees

Over 100 years ago a refugee crisis was going on in Europe that mirrors what is happening in our own time. People were fleeing Russia, Serbia, and Armenia. Belgium alone saw an exodus over 1.5 million.

In August of 1914, Germany invaded neutral Belgium to set up a pathway to France as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

Stories of the German invasion of Belgium reached England featuring stories of horrible atrocities. There was a great outpouring of concern from the British people, and because of a treaty made in 1839 that the Brits would defend Belgium’s right as a neutral nation to deny passage of warring nations, Britain declared war and began making preparations to take in Belgian refugees.

Viscount James Bryce had compiled a report known now as The Bryce Report that alleged terribly violent acts committed by the Germans against the Belgians. It detailed rapes, murders, the killing of children, massacres, fires, and looting. Some historians mark it as propaganda, but the report claims to have gotten its information from first-hand accounts and the diaries of German Soldiers. However it was it intended, it was indeed used as propaganda in Britain and the United States to gain public support for declaring war against Germany.

Following the invasion, one in five Belgians was leaving for safer havens. Most went to the Netherlands and France, with estimates as high as 260,000 seeking refuge in Britain. The rest went far afield to the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Cuba, and Switzerland.

Posters went up all over England that read “Remember Belgium”, “The Rape of Belgium”, “Remember the Women of Belgium”, all of which entreated men to “Enlist Today”. Belgium was referred to as Gallant Little Belgium and its people as “plucky”.

311px-Remember_Belgium remember

The British government wasn’t sure how to organise the refugee crisis and find housing. The Home Secretary was looking to build camps in Ireland, not certain just what to do. Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, said they “ought to stay there and eat up continental food and occupy German policy . . . this is no time for charity.”

While the government was uncertain about logistics, the public was clamouring for Belgians to keep in their homes. Several sources liken the sentiments of the civilian population as viewing the refugees as pets. Every home wanted one.

Luckily for the refugees, the government found ways to accommodate them temporarily before going to communities that had volunteered to take them. Skating rinks, public buildings like Alexandra Palace and Earl’s Court, and other similar places were set up as short term housing.

When they arrived, they often arrived in great numbers. One port reported 26,000 at one time.

belgian refugees arrive ostend

As many as 2500 committees were formed to help the national and local governments to organise the effort, including official Belgian organisations like the Belgian Legation.  Charities were established, and fundraisers held to help in the effort. The Catholic Church set up schools to educate the children in their languages and according to their religion.

The open arms welcome they received in the beginning was heart-warming and full of charity. Poetry was written; paintings were done of the well-heeled British greeting the bedraggled refugees at port with British children offering plates of cookies. Writers like Virginia Woolfe and Agatha Christie were inspired by the refugees. Families posed for photographs with their new refugees, beaming with pride at their own generosity. Brits that took in refugees thought of themselves as upstanding contributors to the war effort.

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