They found a welcome ‘Across the Channel’

The life of Belgian refugees in the Scottish city of Glasgow during the Great War provides the backdrop for a new novel by the VRT journalist Annelies Beck. During the war up to 210,000 Belgians sought a refuge in Britain. It’s a subject that until now has received scant attention. To learn more about the experiences of these Belgians flandersnews spoke with Annelies Beck.

You’re a trained historian, but it was your own family history that really got you interested.

It all started with a bunch of documents that my grandmother gave me. She handed me my great-grandfather's ID card from the War. He had fled to Britain at the start of the Great War and she still possessed his identity papers. The ID book lists the addresses where he stayed in London and in Glasgow in Scotland. There are many stamps too. There's also a ration book and a heap of photographs. As a teenager I was always fascinated about this part of my family's history.

So how did your great grandfather end up in Britain?

Well, he's from Aalst, a small industrial town half way between Brussels and Ghent. When the war started there was a real climate of fear. There were all kinds of rumours about what the Germans, the Hun, were doing and would do, when they came here. There were real horror stories too. War was declared at the beginning of August and later that month rumour led to thousands of people fleeing the town of Aalst on one single day. Most returned, but when the German invaders drew closer more and more people decided to flee abroad.

Over a million people were on the run?

Yes, an estimated 1.5 million Belgians left the country and became refugees in France, the Netherlands and Britain. France hosted over a million Belgian refugees. Hundreds of thousands fled north to neutral Holland, while between 150,000 and 210,000 Belgians made the more arduous journey across the Channel to the UK. People were fleeing from the interior to the coast piling on the pressure on the Belgian ports. They used any means possible to get away including fishing boats. By the time my great-grandfather and his two brothers got to the coast there were no boats left so they walked to Calais on foot where they got a boat to Britain.

How did they end in Glasgow?

Like so many refugees they took a boat to the English port of Folkestone. They had long been separated from two younger brothers who were in the Belgian army and fought and survived the trenches. Anyway, from Folkestone they were taken to London and then all the Belgians were dispersed across the country. My great-grandfather was sent to Glasgow, at the time the second largest city in the British Empire. He was a carpenter by profession and was set to work in a saw mill. Like everybody they were deployed as part of the war effort. He helped to make ammunition crates.

What kind of a reception did the Belgians get?

To start off with it was a very warm welcome. Belgium formed part of official British propaganda. British politicians spoke of standing up for 'Brave Little Belgium that had kept the Hun at bay’. Photos of the destruction of the Flemish cities of Leuven and Mechelen appeared in the British press. People also felt they had to do their duty: they could either go and fight in the war and, if that wasn't possible, they could provide a warm welcome to refugees. It was a major enterprise. In the first months of the war, in October, November 1914, 10,000 Belgians arrived in Glasgow and needed to be housed. Just to sketch the general feeling, in the Imperial War Museum in London I came across a diary of a young woman who wrote: 'Everyone had gone Belgian-mad. It was a real case of Belgianitis!

Coping with this influx of refugees, was it a challenge that the Scots were able to meet?

In the UK there were literally hundreds of charities involved in helping the Belgians find accommodation and work. Like many single men my great-grandfather was sent to Roucken Glen. It's a big mansion house with a park. It still exists to this day. That's where they were sent until they could find a room somewhere else, either sharing or staying with local families. I discovered how class-sensitive the British were at this time. Better-off people got better accommodation, while working class people had to make do.

The warm welcome was not to last though?

No, it didn't. The war was supposed to end by Christmas and, as we know, it didn't. Though most of the Belgians were involved in the war effort, people started to ask "What are these people doing here, while our lads are being killed in the trenches of Flanders?" Of course, the war meant that people in Scotland were having a bad time. Glasgow was a big industrial city with a lot of poverty. Some people, definitely not all, started to feel that the Belgians were outstaying their welcome. Of course, as the conflict drew on, life was getting harder for the Scots themselves. Belgians were accused of being ill-mannered parasites that refused to learn English! The Belgians also stuck together. Not everybody needed to learn English. In one street there were even five Belgian shops. In London, too, there were riots directed against the Belgians. Shop windows got smashed.

The authorities were aware of the problem?

Yes, in Glasgow a special official, one Alexander Walker, had been appointed as a co-ordinator for the Belgians. The Belgian authorities also printed special pamphlets explaining how people should behave in the host country. One of the problems centred on pay. By the beginning of the war British unions had secured better wages than those in Belgium. There was even a minimum wage. There were fears that Belgian workers would undercut the wages of British people and the Belgian authorities made it clear that Belgians should not offer to work for less than British workers.

A remarkable find proved to be the catalyst that finally got you writing.

That's true. My great-grandfather befriended another Belgian family, the Claes Family, when they were in Glasgow. When they all returned to Belgium they stayed in touch. These friends had a daughter called Marie. One day I was trawling through documents in the State Archives in Brussels and came across a letter signed by Marie Claes. I couldn't believe my eyes! I couldn't imagine that the letter could be written by the same Marie, but it was. It's a letter included in correspondence between the Scottish and Belgian authorities about the problems they were having with Belgian refugees. It's a letter that caused great upheaval to her world and to the world of the Belgians in Glasgow. My novel explores how she came to write this letter and discovers what happened next. Unfortunately the book is only being published in Dutch at the moment, but I have high hopes that one day your readers will also be able to read it in English too!

'Over het kanaal' is published by De Geus.