The Belgian Refugees of WW1

One of the contributors to my anthology, Children of A Different Sky, tells how she came to write her moving short story.

They came by the thousands

By Jacey Bedford

When Alma asked if I’d be interested in writing a story for her upcoming refugees anthology, Children of A Different Sky, I jumped at the chance. There are so many refugee crises in the world right now that a writer is almost spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing a setting for a story, and all of them are worth writing about, but I wanted to step back from 2017. I chose a little-remembered refugee crisis, something that happened way back in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War.

Thomas Bennett in uniformWe’re in the middle of a strange time period, wondering whether to commemorate or celebrate the centenary of the First World War. Instead of celebrating something so tragic we do well to remember it, and try not to repeat it, while paying our respects to those who fought and died as well as to those who were displaced. My own grandfather, Tommy Bennett, fought in that conflict. He was a British infantry soldier who took part in one of those famous football matches on Christmas Eve in 1914. He survived Ypres and the Somme, and was invalided out at Passchendaele in 1917 with half his calf shot away. I mention this only because I learned about the First World War directly from someone who’d been in it.

Dorothy Una Ratcliffe photoI only knew about the Belgian refugees, however, because a few years ago I did some biographical research on a minor Yorkshire poet called Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. Dorothy was a member of Yorkshire society.

She married into the Ratcliffe/Brotherton family. Her husband, Charles Ratcliffe, was the nephew of, and heir to, Edward Allan Brotherton, self-made chemical magnate and—in 1913-14—Lord Mayor of Leeds. (Later MP for Wakefield and made a peer of the realm as Lord Brotherton of Wakefield.)

Being a widower and having no closer female relative, Brotherton asked Dorothy to be his Lady Mayoress and so, at the outbreak of World War One, Dorothy, age twenty-six, was firmly in the hot seat.

On 1st August 1914 the German Army invaded Belgium, seeking an easy passage to France. The Belgians didn’t oblige them. They fought back, but they didn’t withstand the might of Germany. The Germans shelled and sacked cities, and slaughtered civilians. For those who could reach the coast, Britain offered safety. The Belgians came in their thousands. In all as many as 250,000 escaped to Britain. On October 14 1914 alone, sixteen thousand Belgians arrived at Folkestone, Kent.

And we took them in without question.

Let me say that again…

We took them in.

It was the largest influx of refugees that Britain has ever seen. The War Refugees Committee appealed for accommodation and over 100,000 offers flooded in. Some to the South West, others to South Wales. Refugees were sent north by train, and that’s where Dorothy Una Ratcliffe comes back into the story.

Because she was a fluent French speaker (having been to finishing school in Paris before the war), Dorothy headed a committee of ladies welcoming the Belgian refugees arriving in Leeds by train.

And that’s the opening scene for my story. Dorothy even appears in it herself, but I’ve told everything through the eyes of her secretary. Did she have a secretary? Almost certainly she did. (I met one of her secretaries many years later.)

My story starts wide and focuses down to what’s left of one small, shattered Flemish family. A barely grown young man and his deeply disturbed sister are helped by a young Yorkshire woman. It’s a story that must have been repeated time and time again as the Belgians came and settled.

Yet they were not to stay. After the war they vanished almost without trace.
In early 1919, after the close of hostilities, the British government in its infinite wisdom decided that enough was enough. British soldiers were being demobbed and needed homes and jobs. The Belgians were offered free passage home, with a strict time limit. Basically the government said: Go home now or pay your own fare. The Belgians were quick to take a hint. Within a few months of the end of the First World War ninety percent of Belgians had gone back home to rebuild, and within a very short space of time their presence here faded from memory.

Writing this story for Children of a Different Sky led me to do more research on the Belgians, and from there to the First World War, in particular the Leeds Pals, a volunteer regiment raised in Leeds and equipped by Edward Allen Brotherton with the aid of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, the only female on the committee. That led to another short story, Make Me Immortal with a Kiss, soon to appear in Second Round – Tales from the Ur-Bar, edited by Joshua Palmatier, and I feel a third First World War story coming on because three is a nice round number. Alma Alexander, you’ve really started something.

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Jacey Bedford photoJacey Bedford is a British writer whose short stories have been published in an odd assortment of languages including Estonian, Galician and Polish. Her latest book is NIMBUS, the third in a trilogy in which a bunch of renegade Psi-Techs (humans implanted with telepath technology) come up against the might of the Megacorporations.

You can keep up with Jacey in several different ways:
· Facebook
· Twitter: @jaceybedford
· Pinterest
· Or via her writing website which includes a link to her mailing list.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

It cost too much, staying human.” ~ Bruce Sterling

More from Wired HERE

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