In 2017, when Alma Alexander asked if I’d be interested in writing a story for her refugees anthology, Children of A Different Sky, I jumped at the chance. There are so many refugee crises in the world 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 the world of now. I chose a little-remembered refugee crisis, something that happened way back in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War.
When the centenary of the end of the First World War came around we didn’t know whether to commemorate or celebrate. 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 was in the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and survived Ypres and the Somme, but was invalided out at Passchendaele in 1917 with half his calf muscles shot away. I mention this only because I learned about some aspects of the First World War directly from someone who’d been in it. (Though like many soldiers, he glossed over the really rough bits.)
I only knew about the Belgian refugees, however, because a few years ago I did some biographical research on a Yorkshire dialect poet called Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. Dorothy was a high-ranking, and wealthy, member of Yorkshire high society. She was born in Brighton, but married into the Ratcliffe/Brotherton family in 1909. 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 Germany 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 the German army. 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. As many as 250,000 escaped to Britain. On October 14 1914 alone, 16,000 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 went to the South West, others to South Wales. (Famously the fictional detective, Hercule Poirot’s backstory was that he was a Belgian refugee in England.) 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 back to Belgium, with a strict time limit. Basically the government said: Go home now or pay your own fare. The Belgians were quick to take the 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.
More First World War stories…
Writing my refugee story for Children of a Different Sky led me to do more research on the Belgians, and from there to the local effects of 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 writing another short story, Make Me Immortal with a Kiss, which was published in Second Round – A Return to the Ur-Bar, edited by Patricia Bray and Joshua Palmatier. It’s set on the eve of the battle of the Somme in which the Leeds Pals regiment (along with many others) was destroyed.It tells the story of a soldier in the Pals and an army nurse.
Not being able to stop at two stories (because three is a nice round number) my third First World War story, A Land Fit For Heroes, was published in Portals, another anthology from the excellent Zombies Need Brains Press. This time it’s about the aftermath and what the ordinary British Tommies came home to. And, yes, there’s a portal which looks like nothing more than an ordinary garden gate.