Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Countdown to the Centenary

As the Centenary of the First World War approaches, I am posting extracts from my new book, Bristol in the Great War, which is out next month. Using military events as background, it describes what life was like in the city between 1914 and 1918 and takes a look behind the scenes to see how ordinary people coped. As always on this blog, the extracts use the words of people who were actually there. Today's post describes the arrival in Bristol of Belgian refugees. For more details about Bristol in the Great War, click the link on the left.

'Many of the first arrivals were of the peasant class'

Belgian refugees arrive in Bristol,
many looked drained and bewildered
Credit: Bristol Reference Library
AS 1914 drew to a close, the reality of war was becoming clear. Wounded soldiers were now arriving back at Temple Meads Station, filthy, bloodied and bandaged. One Bristol paper published this soldier’s letter which described conditions at the Front: ‘In the daytime it is a butcher shop and at night it is like Madam Tussaud’s, nothing but dead and wounded, dead horses, burning towns and villages, murderers and refugees...It is painful to see women and children seeking a place of safety when shells go over and blow them to pieces. We are in a farm at the present time...and a Belgian refugee is here with three children on his own. His wife got shelled as they were flying for their lives.’

Belgian refugees were now seeking refuge in Britain and Bristol would accommodate 2,000. They were found homes and jobs, education was provided for the children, and money was raised to support them. The first Belgians arrived in the city on 22 September and were cheered by waving crowds. But as they paraded through the centre by tram many looked drained and bewildered.

For some like Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Clifton, the culture difference took a bit of getting used to. ‘Many of the first arrivals were of the peasant class and most of the women wore large shawls and no hats, and were generally standing at the gates and doors of their homes,’ she wrote in her journal. ‘The family which came later on to Tyndall’s Park were of the better class but had been obliged to leave their homes and had buried most of their possessions and treasures somewhere in Belgium. (That is as the story goes.) They had been able to bring practically nothing with them and as their family consisted of from ten to fifteen children in number, they were very glad of such a comfortable home as was provided for them.’

(Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Wadsworth)
NEXT POST: 'A most acceptable present for soldiers' - 1915

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