The nation we know as Belgium won its independence less than 200 years ago. Before that its territory always belonged to some other European power – Spain, Austria, France and Holland in succession. After separating from Holland in 1830, the new state, with its own monarchy, was recognised by the 1839 Treaty of London, signed by Great Britain, Prussia, France, Austria and Russia. It was to be eternally neutral and free from invasion.
Within weeks of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in late June 1914, its neutrality was violated by Germany, keen to break through into France on its northern flank. On 4 August, as a guarantor of its neutrality, Britain declared war on Germany.
Despite heroic resistance by the small Belgian army, the Germans soon over-ran most of the country, committing crimes against humanity in the process. Liège, Brussels and Namur in August, followed by Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and Ostend in October, fell in quick succession. Their advance was checked only at Nieuwpoort, an ancient town close to the sea, like Faversham, which in medieval and early modern times had been one of its trading partners. 150 miles from Faversham, it is closer to it than towns like Bedford in the UK.
By late October the town formed a key part of the front line, and was bombarded by the enemy, virtually to extinction. But with support from the French and the sea water, and as a result of the ingenuity of the Belgian defenders, who deliberately flooded the surrounding area with sea water, it was held. In its desolation it was no place to live, and all of its civilian population sought refuge elsewhere.
In all, 20% of the nation’s people fled abroad. Some returned after a few weeks or months, others stayed abroad for the duration of the war – 325,000 in France, 140,000 in Britain and 100,000 in Holland. Many were to land at Folkestone, and then be found homes there or in the rest of Britain.
A national War Refugees Committee was formed in August, and local committees soon formed in its wake. Faversham’s was formed in October, after the fall of Antwerp, when the influx was at its height. Soon offers of rent-free accommodation were made. Harry Pover, an architect and surveyor, offered 50 East Street, and Dr Frederick Gange 58 Newton Road.
Among the first refugees to arrive, on Saturday 17 October, were the wife and 3-strong family of Emiel Vandenabeele, a Nieuwpoort boat-builder, together with 6 other relatives. They were housed temporarily with hosts at 35 Norman Road and 10 Queen’s Road. They were joined by Emiel himself on 21 December. Later one of the families moved to 17 Stone Street and the other to 35 South Road, where they were to remain for the greater part of the war. Both families returned to Nieuwpoort in 1919.
Emiel’s great-grandson, Peter Vandenabeele, has now traced the story of all Faversham’s World War1 Belgian refugees in a detailed account, generously illustrated in black-and-white and colour, published by the Faversham Society as No 119 in its popular series of Faversham Papers. The 96-page A4 softback, Belgian Refugees in Faversham in the Great War, costs just £6.50 ( by post £9.00 within the UK, £11.50 within the rest of the EU). This is the first of several initiatives planned by the Society to mark this year’s centenary of the outbreak of the War.
Peter, born in Ghent in 1959, studied English and Dutch at the university there. He lives in De Pinte, nearby, and has worked for the Flemish Government since 1995.
In all, 68 Belgians, of all ages, found refuge in and around the town, fewer than those in the Ashford, Deal and Hythe areas, but more than in Canterbury, Sittingbourne and Whitstable. They included a Baron (Edgar Forgeur) who was an engineer by profession. With his family he found accommodation – which he found ‘charming’ – at Mountfield in Hernhill, kindly made available by the Dawes family of Mount Ephraim. Most were middle-class professional people, the lawyers among them finding it difficult to gain employment because the Belgian and British legal systems were different and their command of the English language was insufficient. Emiel Vandenabeele himself ended up as a shipwright.
The local refugee relief committee, headed up by local solicitor Arthur Smith as Hon Secretary, found Faversham people generous with cash gifts. In some other towns local committees had to look for funding from the national committee, but – true to form – the Faversham committee managed without. The members were mainly women, like Nephzebah Vinson, wife of a local farmer, and Carrie Alexander, wife of the Mayor, but also included three men, one of whom was Father Rhead, priest of the small Catholic church in Plantation Road. Since most, or all, of the refugees were Catholic, they brought a welcome boost to his congregation.
Belgian Refugees in Faversham in the Great War by Peter Vandenabeele, Faversham Society, 2014 ISBN 1 900214 75 X
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