The German invasion of Belgium in 1914 shocked the world by its suddenness and the ruthlessness of its army. Many towns were almost destroyed by the ferocity of the bombardment, and troops were recorded as committing atrocities, murdering innocent civilians.
The carnage received a lot of press attention and sympathy in the UK – the “Rape of Louvain” was a popular theme, accompanied by photographs showing the destruction of the medieval town centre. For the civilian population, there was little choice but to escape the devastation. Many thousands crossed the border into France, and the UK set up numerous relief funds and local organisations were established to help refugees. In all, some 200,000 – 250,000 refugees came to British shores.
Many of these were women and children, plus men beyond the age eligible for military service. Some had professions and occupations which they put to good use over here, encouraged by local aid bodies. The image of the plucky refugee was a common one, immortalised in fiction by the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.
In Wales, some 4,500 refugees were accommodated, whilst Lord Bute offered to find homes for 3000 refugees in Cardiff and on Rothsay. Towns including Cardigan, Aberaeron, Lladysul, Lampeter and Barmouth all invited Belgian refugees. The Davies sisters of Gregynog (the daughters of David Davies the entrepreneur who developed Barry Docks) recruited 91 of what they termed “a better class of refugee”, mainly artists and musicians, and set them up in Aberystwyth and Barry, hoping to enrich the cultural life of Wales, with a degree of success. The Western Mail ran a column in Flemish and a Belgian primary school was set up at 9 Richmond Road.
By early 1915 the local authorities had ascertained the following numbers of Belgian refugees in the whole of Glamorgan:
Male over 16 408
Female over 16 505
Male children 212
Female children 202
Source: Glamorgan County Council War Distress Relief Committee (GC/WD/1)
Records from the Roath Park United Reformed Church show that it was agreed that a house in Albany Road be taken subject to the Belgian Relief Committee agreeing to furnish same.
St Martins Church in Albany Road had its original Lady chapel decorated by a Belgian refugee artist in gratitude for the kindness shown by the parishioners during the First World War. However, much of the interior was destroyed by bomb damage during the Second World War.
It is fair to record that as the war dragged on public opinion began to turn against those Belgian male refugees who were of military service age who hadn’t enlisted, at a time when British men were conscripted, and thus support for the “plucky Belgians” began to wane. About 90% of the refugees were said to have returned to Belgium after the war, leaving about 25,000 who settled in the UK.
Thank you to Jon Roberts for this guest contribution to our blog. Pictures added by Ted Richards.