Friday, 6 March 2015

'Pitiable plight' of Belgian refugees who fled brutal invasion

Belgians were driven out of their homes by the
advancing German army
When we look back at women during the First World War, it's usually the nurses, the munitionettes, or the land girls whose praises we sing. So I thought I'd mark International Women's Day (Sunday, 8 March) by paying tribute to a section of society who rarely get a mention - the ordinary women who stayed at home to look after their families and quietly help the war effort in whatever way they could.

One such was Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Bristol who worked tirelessly for good causes throughout the war and encouraged her daughters to do the same. From the very start, her home was a hive of industry as 'comforts' for the troops were knitted and sewn, and good deeds were planned for those in need.

Unfortunately no photograph of Maude survives, but her compassion is clear in the scrapbook / journal she kept between 1914 and 1919, which is now held by Bristol Record Office. It comprises 21volumes, which were invaluable when I was writing my books 'Letters from the Trenches' and 'Bristol in the Great War' (see book tabs above for more details).

Below is an extract from Maude's journal that describes the sympathy she felt for the Belgian refugees who fled the brutal German invasion of their country in 1914 and found safety abroad. Official records estimate that around 250,000 Belgians took refuge in Britain; nearly all returned home when the conflict was over.

Maude Boucher's journal, September 1914

'The poor Belgium people who had been turned out of their homes, or whose homes had been destroyed, were beginning to come to England in the early part of September, in very large numbers. Some had lost practically everything they had and were in a pitiable plight, and some had had the most terrible experiences. Everyone felt so sorry for them, and that they would do all they could. Charlie [Maude's husband, who ran a pharmacy business] came home one day and asked me to see if I could find some clothes for very tiny children, so I searched and found a few things which were sent off at once to Folkestone.

'We were asked at first if we would give a home to one or two refugees in our own homes, but later several people offered the loan of houses, and it was considered preferable that they should live together in these houses rather than be distributed about amongst different  families where perhaps they would feel very strange and if they could not speak English, very lonely ... The upkeep of these various houses was met very often by the congregations of various churches and chapels and later on, the inhabitants of different villages undertook to look after a  party, or family, of refugees.

'The first party of refugees arrived in Bristol at the end of September. People on the route from the station were asked to hang out Belgian flags, and there were hundreds of people lining the streets who cheered and waved to them as they passed along in order to give them a good welcome.

Belgian refugees settle in at Yate, north of Bristol
(Courtesy of Yate Heritage Trust)
'The Belgians seemed very grateful for all that was being done for them, and so pleased to get into houses again after all their wanderings and having been homeless for so long. 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.

'The family which came later on to Tyndall’s Park [where Maude and her family lived] 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, and for all the help they got.'

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth

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