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‘Remember Belgium’
Mexborough and the Belgian Refugees of the Great War

Vice Chair Bill Lawrence continues his articles on the First World War with the plight of Belgian refugees and how the people of Mexborough came to their assistance

Belgian Refugees in the Mexborough Area, October 1914

In the summer of 1914 the Cabinet of the Liberal Government was equivocal as to whether to enter into conflict with Germany, after that country had entered into war with Russia in late July 1914. The defense of Belgium was to become a pivotal factor as to whether, or not, Britain should go to war. Britain, and indeed other countries including Prussia (Germany), had signed a treaty, as long ago as 1839, pledging Belgium neutrality. In order to implement the ‘Schliffen Plan’ (a plan to invade France and then advance into Russia) it was necessary for the Germany army to enter Belgium and be allowed free passage through Belgium itself. The Belgian government made it clear that it would not have its neutrality violated. Public opinion was set against the invasion of a small, relatively militarily weak country and the Cabinet’s opinion hardened. Such an invasion would make it difficult for the wavering Liberal Cabinet to hesitate longer.

On the morning of 4th August Germany did indeed invade Belgium. The British government had demanded that such action should not take place and sent an ultimatum to the German Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, stating that Belgian neutrality should be respected or else Britain would support that country in resisting the Germany army thus entering the war. The ultimatum expired at 11.00 p.m. British time (midnight in Berlin). The British government heard nothing to the contrary by the deadline and for that reason Britain declared war on Germany.

The question of the plight of the Belgian people was, at least initially, one that commanded the sympathy of many in Britain, of all classes. The violation of Belgium’s neutrality on 4th August was courageously and stubbornly fought for by a tiny Belgian force of 117,000 men, one tenth of that of the enemy. It took only two days for the fortified city of Liege to surrender to the German army. Despite this those Belgian troops occupying the forts fought on until the 16th August, finally being beaten by the might of a heavy German siege, greatly assisted by the Howitzers of their artillery. The surrender of Brussels followed four days later with the remaining Belgian army withdrawing further to the coast in an attempt to defend Antwerp. This army now consisted of only about 70,000 troops. The Belgian government by this time had withdrawn to Le Harve, and Belgian forces finally lost Antwerp to the Germans on the10th October, although its evacuation was ordered some days earlier. This was despite the efforts of the British, notably the Royal Naval Division (RND), who landed at Zeebrugge, to take part in the operations to defend Antwerp. Yet they themselves were to retreat and join Belgian troops, who were dispirited and thrown into disarray. They, along with thousands of refugees, tried to make their way to Ostend, on the coast. Ostend itself fell to the Germans on 15th October and refugees, plus British sailors of the RND, made their escape to neutral Holland, where many British Servicemen were interned for the rest of the war, including a number of Mexborough seamen, of the Collingwood Battalion of the RND ‘D’ Company. By mid October the much depleted Belgian Army held a diminutive piece of land which it, and its commander King Albert of Belgium, defended until the cessation of the war.

The Belgian’s courageous resistance gave time for the French and the British Armies to stall the ’Schlieffen Plan’ and thus the German advance into France, including one of its objectives, the taking of Paris. It came within artillery range miles of achieving this and with it the evacuation of the French government and half million Parisians with them. The British Army (BEF) moved to engage German units, along with French troops, near Mons, fighting a rearguard action which they finally retreated from. The Battle of Mons started on 23rd August and ended on 5th September. Pushed back over the River Marne, suffering from shear exhaustion and a lack of supplies, the BEF were pursued by a German army facing similar problems. They too retreated back over the River Marne and took defensive positions up on the north bank of the River Aisne. The tide of German advance was stemmed after a bloody but nevertheless short battle, the Battle of Marne, which lasted between the 6th and 15th of September. This was a victory for the Allied forces and with it died the last vestige of the ‘Schlieffen Plan’. It was known as the miracle of the Marne by the French for it had saved Paris from German capture and occupation.

Former Mexborough railway porter, Lance Corporal J Johnson, wrote home of his experiences at the Battles of Mons and Marne. In a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Chadwick, of Rowms Lane, he remarks upon the plight of the Belgium people. “You people live in Paradise compared to these poor people in Belgium. I have seen plenty like the poor old dad without homes”. News of the Belgium peoples’ sometimes dreadful treatment at the hands of their German occupiers was beginning to be told by soldiers and the press alike.

Despite the Belgian peoples resistance the German units were able to access their country, place it under martial law and occupy the country, often with brutal consequences for the occupied peoples. The German occupying forces conscripted hundred of Belgians to work for them, in the war effort, and took revenge for anything they considered to be forceful resistance, such as sabotage. Between September and November it is claimed that the German army executed up to 6,500 of those who were in defiance. Such acts of brutality and claims of atrocities, especially against women and children, were seized upon by the British and French press and capitalized on for propaganda objectives.

It was not difficult to stir the emotions of the British people as a result of what was called the “rape” of poor Belgium. Despite a previous mood of anti alien sentiment, that had been growing, as early as September the British Government offered to the Belgian people what it called the “hospitality of the British nation”. As a consequence of this a central body called the War Refugees Committee was set up and gave direction on the organisation of local committees for accommodating Belgian refugees. Many local Belgian Refugee Relief Committees were established throughout the cities and towns of Britain. The towns and villages of the Don and Dearne Valleys were no exception.

On the 17th October, The Mexborough and Swinton Times’ (The Times) reported that refugees were being distributed after what it called “careful planning” throughout England. Rotherham were to house refugees in the town and Rotherham Golf Club. Some were to be housed at Hickleton Hall as well as the Village Hall. The Denaby Relief Committee had, with assistance from Cadeby Colliery, furnished ten houses in Blythe Street for refugees, who would probably include some Belgian miners. Bolton, Goldthorpe and Swinton Relief Committees were all set up and eager to give of their hospitality. The Belgians were also housed at Thrybergh Hall.

There was at this time no mention of Mexborough’s contribution. However activity was taking place, ‘The Times’ mentions that Mr. John Clayton of ‘Ingle Nook,’ Church Street, who had been acting on behalf of the Belgian Relief Fund, had in a week collected £29. 0.0. By the first week in November the Mexborough War Relief Committee launched an appeal for Belgian refugees announcing that a party of them were to come to Mexborough and, they, the Committee, were making arrangements to accommodate them. One of the Committee members remarked, “The whole community is awake to the great debt we owe to the Belgian nation. Shall Mexborough lag behind in this great work securing these homeless wanderers? We hope not”.

Collections for the Belgium refugees was taking place in Mexborough as early as mid September. By mid November the Committee had set up a separate Belgian Fund and immediately raised £19 0.0. as a result of a charity concert at which the Orphues Glee Singers were the main entertainment. Christmas was approaching and although there were regular subscriptions from the usual benefactors, such as local businesses and sympathizers, funds were not coming in as quickly as was hoped. Barron’s and Waddington workers were donating a weekly sum of £3.0.0. and £ 3.12.11 respectively. The staff of Adwick Road, Garden Street Infants, Central Girls and Infants Schools were giving the Belgian Refugee Fund £1.0.0 a week at this time, while at the same time one last appeal went for household goods such as beds and bedroom furniture.

By the beginning of December Mexborough was at last prepared to take its first influx of refugees. Arrangements were made by the Mexborough War Relief Fund Committee to receive the arrival of three Belgian families, two from Antwerp and one from Malines on

On Saturday 19th December an appeal for the use of a motor car was made to assist in the transportation of the refugees’ worldly goods. The families were met at Mexborough Railway station with a procession headed by the local Salvation Army Brass Band. The newly arrived were to proceed to the Primitive Methodist schoolroom were they would be entertained with a very welcome tea. The Primitive Methodist Chapel was particularly sympathetic to the Belgians it holding regular concerts in aid of funds

Eventually the families were accommodated in the cricket pavilion, provided by the Mexborough Cricket and Athletic Club. But at first they were placed in temporary accommodation in rooms at the Montagu Arms Hotel. Their Christmas was made as comfortable and agreeable as was possible under the circumstances. Mr. Dennis Wood, the Secretary of the Mexborough Distress Committee, received from an anonymous Swinton resident, a Christmas tree decorated with presents. The tree was set up in The Cricket Pavilion, to the delight of the Belgian guests, who were to be visited over the Christmas period. Despite the obvious language difficulties, ‘The Times’ reports that Communication, by way of “glad looks and bright smiles were eloquent enough to convey there meaning”. Various caroling parties visited the Cricket Pavilion on Christmas Day including the Parish Church Choir, who donated the pence received from their services, to the small Belgian children. In the evening a family concert was arranged and attended by the Salvation Army String Band. There were both English and Belgian contributions to the concert.

An Artist’s Sketch of the Cricket Pavilion on its opening in 1910

Fund raising for the Belgians continued into 1915. Clearly Mexborough was still trying to help the needs of the refugees by attempting some relative compensation for their absence from their homeland. What was called a Belgian Concert was organised in the Public Hall in early February 1915. The main performers were the Mexborough Glee Society, but the promoters secured the services of one Henrie Dubois, who was described as a famous baritone from the Royal Opera House, Liege. It appears some effort was made on the part of the organizers to entertain the Belgian families with a renowned countryman of theirs.

The Central Register for Belgian Refugees attempted to keep records of the numbers who arrived in Britain. The National Registration Act of 1915 had deemed that men and women between the ages of 15 and 56 should register, a move that was essentially to aid the forthcoming forces conscription. This registration process had recorded that there were approximately 225,000 refugees who came to Britain to escape German occupied of Belgium. However the registration process was said to be unreliable and it is estimated that there was probably about a quarter of million Belgian who arrived during the war, the highest intake of war refugees ever to enter Britain before or since. Statistics of 1921 show that nearly 10,000 remained, but the vast majority returned to Belgium.

Generally there was little problem with the integration of Belgian Refugees. Under the surface there was always an element of xenophobic sentiment. Locally it was reported that there were those who believed that the male Belgian refugees should be fighting for their country and not immune from the arm forces. It was pointed out in ‘The Times’ of 26th December that a local Belgian youth of eighteen had offered his service to join his country’s armed forces, but it was not within the Belgian King’s proclamation to accept men of this young man’s age.

In early February of 1915 the question of what should happen to the able bodied male refugees was brought up in the House of Commons by a Mr. Thorne M.P. who raised this issue of military service for able bodied Belgian males. The President of the Local Government Board at the time, Herbert Samuel, dismissed this uneasy question which had surfaced when he remarked, “The question is not one for the Government but for the Belgian Military authorities and the Belgian refugees themselves” (Hansard 8th February 1915)

The forthcoming crisis of the inadequacy of shell production would see the mobilization of labour from new areas of recruitment, including Belgian males, deemed suitable for working in armaments factories and industries allied to them. Yet this, in itself, was to be a ‘problem’ over which the trade unions had concerns. They were originally fearful that the influx of Belgian refugees would inundate the labour market with cheap labour for employers to exploit at the expense of existing British labour.

At the end of April 1915, the Council’s Medical Officer, Dr Huey, who was also on the General Committee of Montagu Hospital, received a letter from the Belgium Relief Committee asking whether Mexborough could offer a Belgian women, suffering from appendicitis, a bed in light of their being no beds being available in Sheffield and Barnsley. This was granted with no committee member voting against, although after a long discussion and some worry as to whether or not it transgressed hospital rules.

Support for the Belgians continued well into the mid part of the war. Headmaster, Mr. Brown of Doncaster Road School records in his ‘Log Book’ notes concerning the ‘Children’s Belgian Day’ which was to take place on 20th July 1916. He writes, “The District Sub Committee had this question before them on Wednesday last and decided that on July 20th Schools should reopen at 1 o’clock and close at 3.p.m. in order that the children may assist in the movement”.

As the war continued ever increasing grief and the financial hardship of families focused more attention on the immediate plight of local people and less to the needs of the Belgians. It can be said that after the initial hospitality and rally to the cause of the plight of Belgian refugees they become concealed from much attention and disappeared into the mist of history for many years. Remarking on this, historian Arthur Marwick say, “On the whole it can be said that, in the early stages at least, the British people rallied magnificently to those felt to have suffered unjustly in a common cause, giving a sign both of timeless human generosity and of moral idealism of the first part of the war. But as the months wore on many an unfortunate Belgian found himself in the passion of the much-adored kitten which has grown up into the unwanted cat”.

Despite this waning enthusiasm for the cause of the Belgium’s refugees at least the people of Mexborough had played their part in giving some comfort to a few Belgian families who had suffered and seen the ravages of war at first hand.

Mexborough Cricket Pavilion today (2013) where Belgian refugees were housed during the First World War

Cahalan, P.J. – The treatment of Belgian Refugees in England During the First World War, 1977 (Phd Thesis)
Doncaster Road School – Log Book, 1894 -1924
Marwick, A – The Deluge, British Society and the First World War, 1965
Mexborough & Swinton Times – October 1914 to March 1915

Copyright: This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety, without the permission of Bill Lawrence