Invasion of Belgium

After the warlike statements made after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28th June, 1914, the Belgian Army (43,000 men) were placed on its borders. The German ultimatum to Belgium on 2nd August gave King Albert and his government the choice of fighting or being conquered. Albert took personal command of the armed forces and although outnumbered, decided to resist the German invasion that began on 4th August.

The German Army quickly overwhelmed Belgian defences and King Albert was forced to move his government to Le Havre in France. However, the Belgian Army resisted more than the Germans expected and this help to frustrate the Schlieffen Plan. By the end of September 1914, Germans ruled most of Belgium.

F.H. Townsend, Punch Magazine (August, 1914)
F.H. Townsend, Punch Magazine (August, 1914)

Over a quarter of a million Belgians fled to England. The government decided that Folkestone was to become the closely-guarded gate through which most Belgians were allowed into the country. Other ports such as Lowestoft were closed because of rumours that Germany was using some of these refugees as spies.

Leading figures made generous gestures to show that the Belgians were welcome in Britain. Henry James allowed his home in Rye to be used as a gathering place for Belgians. He also arranged for Crosby Hall to be a meeting place for the refugees in London. Lady Ottoline Morrell also took in several Belgian refugees into their home in Garsington Manor. This included sixteen-year-old Maria Nys, who later married Aldous Huxley.

Robert Richardson, the author of Through War To Peace 1914-1918 (1919), has pointed out that some Belgians found it difficult to adapt to conditions in England. One family, who had always lived on the coast, and who had never seen a hill or wood, were sent to the village of Kelly Bray, near Tavistock: "Whether it was the steepness of the hill, or because there are many trees in the vicinity, the fact remains that on arrival father, mother and child sat down and wept, declaring that they could not possibly stay, as there were wolves in the forest."

The Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, argued that these Belgians should be segregated from the rest of the population and made plans for building huge camps in Southern Ireland. He was eventually over-ruled and it was decided to try and assimilate these refugees. A War Refugees Committee was established and some 2,500 local reception committees were set up to find homes for Belgians who were arriving in England at the rate of 26,000 a week.

Ernest Sackville Turner, in his book, Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: "In Folkestone, some refugees ate their first meals in the homes of local fishermen and beds were laid down in Scout huts and church halls; but with arrivals of thousands a day... quick dispersal was essential. Here the human problems began to multiply. Families, often a dozen strong, were anxious not to be broken up; the classes were by no means eager to be mixed; Walloons and Flemings continued to detest each other, even in adversity; and priests and nuns had to be housed in establishments purged of the opposite sex."

Leaders of trade unions complained that the large amount of refugees would create unemployment and a fall in wages. The government published a handbook that was issued to all Belgians that urged them not to take British workers' jobs, or to work for wages below the accepted standard. As one historian has pointed out: "They (the refugees) were steered away from the Kentish hop fields, traditionally reserved for the poor of London... Thanks to local initiative, small workshops were set up in many towns where refugees could make furniture, leather goods or clothes; sometimes the raw materials were provided by the Belgian Government, which then accepted the finished products."

Emma Orczy had mixed feelings towards the Belgians living near her in Maidstone. She described them as being "like locusts... expecting everything, demanding everything, every attention, every comfort." She added: "Dear Belgians! How we loved them, how we pitied them, how we were all of us happy to do what we could for them... for a long time." One magistrate in London who fined refugees for drunkenness, said, "It looks as if we have the scum of Belgium over here." This caused deep offence and he later apologized and praised the Belgians for their industrious qualities.

In December 1914 Herbert Asquith appointed a committee of lawyers and historians under the chairmanship of Lord Bryce to investigate alleged German atrocities in Belgium. The report, published in 30 different languages, claimed that there had been numerous examples of German brutality towards non-combatants, especially towards old men, women and children. Five days after the Bryce Report was issued, the German authorities published its White Book. This included accounts of atrocities committed by Belgians on German soldiers.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Ernest Sackville Turner, Dear Old Blighty (1980)

In Folkestone, some refugees ate their first meals in the homes of local fishermen and beds were laid down in Scout huts and church halls; but with arrivals of thousands a day... quick dispersal was essential. Here the human problems began to multiply. Families, often a dozen strong, were anxious not to be broken up; the classes were by no means eager to be mixed; Walloons and Flemings continued to detest each other, even in adversity; and priests and nuns had to be housed in establishments purged of the opposite sex.

(2) The Times (27th August, 1914)

Nearly all the people I interrogated had stories to tell of German atrocities. Whole villages, they said, had been put to fire and sword. One man, whom I did not see, told an official of the Catholic Society that he had seen with his own eyes Germans chop off the arms of a baby which clung to its mother's skirts.

(3) The Bryce Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages (May 1915)

One witness saw a German soldier cut a woman's breasts after he had murdered her, and saw many other dead bodies of women in the streets of Belgium. Another witness testified that she saw a drunken German soldier kill a two-year-old child: The soldier drove his bayonet with both hands into the child's stomach, lifting the child into the air on his bayonet, he and his comrades were singing." Other witnesses saw a German soldier amputate a child's hands and feet.