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REFUGEES WELCOME HERE Caring for Belgian refugees in Scotland during the First World War

Jacqueline Jenkinson uncovers the fascinating story of how Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, responded to the influx of Belgian refugees during the First World War, thousands of whom came to Britain in order to escape German occupation of their homeland

Jacqueline Jenkinson

Scotland in the First World War

Refugees leaving Belgium (c.1917-19)

Germany’s invasion of Belgium on 4 August 1914 was swiftly followed by Britain’s declaration of war against Germany to defend Belgian neutrality. Belgian civilians began a move to the coast and towards the borders with France and neutral Netherlands seeking refuge from the German military assault. Civilians fled their homes under real threat of violence – over 5,500 Belgian civilians of all ages were killed in unprovoked attacks, in many cases in mass executions, by German troops.

The first arrivals to Britain came within days of the outbreak of the war in August and were those who made their way individually, escaping the first German advances. In September, the British government followed the lead of the Belgian government, which announced that all foreigners would be given the same assistance as native Belgians, when secretary of the local government board Herbert Samuel announced that all Belgians in Britain would be entitled to the same relief as native Britons. The number of refugees arriving in Britain increased dramatically in October 1914 after the surrender of the garrison city of Antwerp to German troops following a week-long siege. This was followed by the rapid fall of the port of Ostend. German occupation of the whole Belgian coastline led to themain outflow of refugees to France, the Netherlands and Britain.

Within days, refugees were settled in the homes of local families and in hotels, hostels and grand houses in Glasgow and in towns and villages around west and central Scotland such as Paisley, Rutherglen, Hamilton, Dumbarton, Helensburgh, Crieff, Falkirk and Perth

In the first weeks of the war the London exhibition arenas of Alexandra Palace and Earls Court, workhouses and hotels had been set up as receiving and dispersal centres for Belgian refugees by the charitable war refugees committee, reliant on public support for what was seen as a just cause to help innocent victims of German wartime aggression; however, the numbers of arrivals was so great by October that the local government board decided on immediate and direct dispersal of refugees. Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow were key areas for dispersal for refugees arriving via Dover, Folkestone and Hull.

Glasgow’s response

During the course of the First World War, Glasgow received close to 19,000 civilian refugees. This was around eight percent of the 240,000 refugees who came to Britain. The main body of Belgian refugee arrivals in Britain came in the period from October 1914 to mid-1915, although others came later in the war, often via refugee camps in the Netherlands and France. The arrival of refugees peaked in the first three months of 1915. There was a steady outflow of men of military age going back to Belgium and adults called up for war work in Belgian factories set up in France, however refugees were moved around the Britain for work and resettlement purposes so that Scotland had new arrivals of Belgian refugees in all the war years.

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About History Scotland

In the May/June issue of History Scotland we present the latest research from experts in the fields of Scottish history, heritage and archaeology, as well as news, opinion, book reviews and upcoming history events. Highlights include: · The tragic attempt by the tobacco heir David Guthrie Dunn to sail around the world in his small yacht, Southern Cross, in 1930 · A fresh contribution to the ongoing debate as to where the elusive abbey of Selkirk was situated during its brief existence in the early 12th century · A new study of the causes and consequences of the devastating famine of 1623 Plus: Family history advice, archaeology dig reports and finds analysis, National Records of Scotland column and lots more…