Belgian Refugees in The First World War: Unity and Differences in Responses

Belgian Refugees in The First World War: Unity and Differences in Responses

This week, Neil Evans (Cardiff University) examines the responses of the four nations to Belgium refugees during the First World War. 

Wars are generally seen as times when national solidarity is at its peak. Catriona Pennell’s fine book on the early months of the First World War has recently reasserted this argument with an impressive array of evidence from across the four nations of the UK.[i] There is little reason to doubt the overall argument but there was still space for the nations of the United Kingdom to assert and display themselves. One issue which demonstrates this is the reception given to Belgian refugees in the course of the war.[ii] While the responses were directed and co-ordinated from London and there was a central War Refugees Committee, there were some quite significant variations in responses especially in the nations which comprised the British state. If wars make states, nation builders could also see them as opportunities for asserting their positions within the wider polity.

In Scotland this differentiated response was essentially an assertion of its separate administrative structure. Scotland had had its own presence in Whitehall ever since the creation of the Scottish office in 1885. Scotland had also had its own Local Government Board since 1894. These provided a link between the central state and the local administration of the policy in Scotland which was effectively devolved to the Glasgow Corporation Belgian Relief Committee. It became the de facto organisation for the whole of Scotland. Local committees were established in much of urban Scotland to raise funds no call was made upon the resources of the LGB in London for this work, even though there was an entitlement to these funds. Why should Scottish administrators and politicians have acted in this way? They were clearly drawing on Glasgow’s Victorian traditions of municipal enterprise and underlining the city’s claim to be the ‘second city of the empire’. Scotland’s distinctiveness, its brand of ‘unionist nationalism’ was being quietly but firmly asserted within the framework of the UK state and the war to preserve it.[iii]

Ireland’s administration was also distinctive. Workhouses were sometimes used to house refugees, a fact which caused some controversy. This seems not to have been the case in the rest of the UK and it reflects Ireland’s variation on poor law administration and policy. But more fundamentally, the reception of Belgian refugees was based upon more than two centuries of links with Belgian universities where Irish priests and nuns had been trained. Much of Ireland shared the Catholicism of Belgium, while with a small refugee population and an economy largely devoted to food production there as the pattern of early welcome and subsequent disillusionment found in the rest of the UK, was much less pronounced though it was still detectable. Ireland’s own divisions were also apparent within these responses. In Ulster, the welcome was predicated more on German atrocities than common religious and small nation identities. The fund-raising lists used in Ulster, chillingly, were derived from those prepared to receive Protestant refugees in the event of civil war. Radical nationalists might identify with the Germans on the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ as did James Connolly and, with the added seasoning of his experience of Belgian atrocities in the Congo, as did Roger Casement. Ireland had a fringe of opinion, much of which would be manifest in 1916, which was different from both the Irish middle ground and the generally prevailing attitudes in the UK. [iv]

Wales lacked the degree of institutional distinctiveness of Ireland or Scotland but it did possess politicians and intellectuals intent upon building the institutions of a nation. They thought of Wales as having an educational and cultural deficit and were intent upon filling the gap. This influenced responses to the refugees in some respects. There were hopes that Belgian artists might offer a lift to the artistic and craft work of Wales.[v] This was especially the concern of the wealthy Davies sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline, and their brother David, who despatched their advisor, Thomas Jones (Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet from 1916) to Belgium on a mission which included finding suitable refugee artists. Three came to Wales and were supported by the family throughout the war. Sadly this was in separate rural locations and they had little impact upon the arts in Wales, though Wales had more impact on their art.[vi] The Welsh Outlook, the monthly magazine which best expressed these nation-building and social reforming ideas (initially edited by Thomas Jones and largely funded by David Davies), carried a plethora of articles by and about Belgium and Belgians, reproductions of works of art, poems in translation and book reviews in the first fifteen months of the war, though they had steadily fallen away in number by 1916. There seemed to be a conscious effort to use the tragedy of the war to establish connections with a place whose refugees had raised awareness of its culture. As in most parts of the UK awareness of the Belgian refugees soon faded from memory but one of the most remembered acts of the war was the death of the poet, Hedd Wyn, (Ellis Humphrey Evans, 1887-1917) at Pilkem Ridge. He had submitted his winning poem from Flanders but died without knowing he had won the prestigious chair at the Eisteddfod. It was draped in black to commemorate him and it is key to the way in which Wales commemorates the war. Far less well-known is the fact that the chair was made by one of those Belgian refugees, Eugene van Fleteren.[vii]

The issue of Belgian refugees was not a minor one. The estimated 250,000 arrivals represented the biggest reception of refugees in British and Irish history. It is not surprising, therefore, that it illuminates something of the nature of the UK in WW1. In England the differing responses were mainly the result of industrial and class patterns while there was a basic similarity of issues and responses throughout the UK.[viii] Yet in Ireland, Scotland and Wales there were significant divergences from this pattern which spoke of their different positions within the state.


Neil Evans is an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University.

[i] Catriona Pennell, A United Kingdom: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (OUP, 2012).

[ii] Immigrants and Minorities, Vol. 14 Issue 2 July 2016 Special issue: British Responses to Belgian Refugees during the First World War (ed.) Jacqueline Jenkinson.

[iii] Jacqueline Jenkinson, ‘Administering Relief: Glasgow Corporation’s Support for c. 20,000 Belgian refugees’ in ibid.’

[iv] William Buck, ‘”Come and Find Sanctuary in Eire”: The Experiences of Ireland’s Belgian Refugees during the First World War’ in ibid.

[v] Lorna Hughes, ”Finding Belgian Refugees in Using Digital Resources for Uncovering the Hidden Histories of the First World War in Wales’ in ibid.

[vi] Oliver Fairclough (ed.) Things of Beauty: What Two Sisters Did for Wales (Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 2007) pp. 63-5

[vii] Richard Bebb, Welsh Furniture, 1250-1950 (Kidwelly: Saer Books) Vol. 2 p. 353.

[viii] See the essays by Laqua, Gill and Declerc / Baker in Jenkinson, ‘British Responses…’


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