Thursday, 3 July 2014

From Belgium to Budleigh Salterton


Above: A 1915 poster published by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, London. It shows a soldier standing defiant as a woman and child flee a burning village. Image credit:

At the outset of hostilities there was much to incite public support for war.  The invasion of Belgium by the Kaiser’s army on 4 August 1914 caused outrage. It was followed immediately by the British government’s declaration of war on Germany.

 Public shock and anger in Britain grew as the news of atrocities committed by the German army made themselves known.  In retaliation for the Belgian resistance at Liège civilian inhabitants of the surrounding villages were rounded up and shot. By 8 August nearly 850 civilians were dead. The worst massacre was at Dinant on 23 August, where 674 people or one out of every ten inhabitants were murdered.


The ruins of the Library of the  Catholic University of Leuven after it was destroyed in 1914
Image credit: N.J. Boon, from Project Gutenberg eBook, The New York Times Current History: the European War, February, 1915.

In the university town of Leuven the library with its priceless collection of medieval manuscripts and more than 1,000 incunabula - books printed before 1501 - was set on fire by the Germans, using petrol and incendiary devices.  By the next day, 26 August, the building had been reduced to ashes. 248 civilians were killed.

One and half million Belgians - 20% of the entire population - fled from the invading German army.  Tens of thousands of refugees crossed the Channel, to be dispersed across the British Isles.  


In Britain and, significantly, in America, propagandists were quick to seize on the stories of German atrocities, with images such as this depiction by the Belgian artist Evariste Carpentier of the execution on 16 August 1914 of the leading citizens of Blégny being widely circulated.   
Image credit:


Pages from Alice Clapp's black notebook
Image credit: Michael Clapp

On 24 August, the War Refugees Committee was set up as a relief organisation for all the war refugees in the UK.  Exeter was a central distribution point for those who had come to SW England. Some 500 of them are listed in a black notebook kept by Alice Clapp, wife of the Sheriff of Exeter at the time.  She played a leading role in helping to settle them in Devon and Cornwall as well as further afield and was awarded the Médaille de la Reine Elisabeth by the Belgian government.

Much research is being undertaken to assess the impact of the new arrivals. Alice Clapp’s grandson, retired naval captain Michael Clapp, believes that one of them may even have inspired Agatha Christie in her portrayal of the fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.


The black notebook kept by Alice Clapp lists four refugees who settled in Budleigh Salterton.
They were, seemingly, Constant Janssens, 27, a mechanic or train driver, together with his wife, his mother-in-law and their daughter aged 18 months. The family had been living at 15 Avenue Prince Albert in Antwerp.

The refugees were sympathetically received. Miss Mathieson, of Otterbourne, on Coastguard Road, Secretary of the South Western Federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, set aside her cottage for them, as did a Mr Carter.


'Moorcroft', Lansdowne Road, Budleigh Salterton

In a letter of October to the Chairman of the Urban District Council Lord Clinton offered his house ‘Moorcroft’ on Lansdowne Road to the Belgian Relief Committee, including the use and produce of the garden. 

The following year, Budleigh Salterton Croquet Club decided that Belgians residing in the town and wishing to play should be admitted 'on half fee and no Entrance', a concession which was extended 'to Officers on service in the district.'

Away from Budleigh, the relationship between the Belgians and their hosts was not always as harmonious as it should have been.

There were many who mistrusted all foreigners, even if they were our allies. An example was the case of Belgian fishermen who had taken refuge in Britain, quoted by Richard Batten in his Devon and the First World War [2013, University of Exeter PhD thesis].  Many young Devon fishermen had joined the Navy in the first year of the war, raising the spectre of a sudden decline in the home fishing industry.

Such was the alarm at the falling numbers of fishermen that at the meeting of the Devon Sea Fisheries Committee (DSFC) on 7 January 1915, one committee member proposed, as a solution to the problem, that Belgian refugees who had been fishermen could be used as replacement labour on Devon’s fishing boats. After consulting with the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries (BAF) on the matter, Dr H. C. Martin, the DSFC’s representative for Exmouth, revealed that the BAF could not allow “aliens with our fishing fleet.”  A compromise was proposed, which meant that three quarters of all fishing vessels should be crewed by Englishmen and the “remainder properly certified Belgians.” After considering the matter, the DSFC decided to carry the motion unanimously.

  In Devon, the Crediton Belgian Refugee Committee complained that ‘many refugees seemed to have the impression that because they had helped England, they had the right to indefinite support from the English’.  [Report of the work of Crediton Belgian Refugee Committee, n.d. Imperial War Museum BEL 6 64/3 quoted by Professor Peter Gatrell in Europe on the move: refugees and World War One]

Exasperated by the pressure of dealing with the issue of the county’s Belgian refugees, Earl Fortescue, Lord Lieutenant of Devon, even concluded that they were “not a very nice lot.” In his view, quoted by Richard Batten, they were “exacting and tiresome, and a proportion were criminal and amoral.”

 With the centenary of the invasion of Belgium, more will no doubt be learnt about this aspect of the Great War in the coming years. The  Online Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees is one useful resource that has been set up at

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 


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