Fleeing Belgium with a handbag

A Belgian refugee gave the members of the Dodeka Club an eyewitness account, delivered in halting English, of the German invasion, which he escaped with only hand baggage.

December 4th 1914

After refreshments, the host [Morris], who had not prepared a paper, introduced a friend, M Rifon, a Belgian refugee who would, he said, give us an account of some of the fighting in Belgium from an eye-witness point of view. M. Rifon stated he had been in England now about 6 weeks and all he knew of our language had been picked up during that time but would do his best to make himself understood.

Quite 4 years ago there was a strong feeling in Belgium that Germany had eyes upon the Belgian Congo and if trouble ever arose with Germany it would be through this cause. We now know the reasons for the declaration of war by Germany on Belgium was for the latter’s pluckiness in standing up against the Prussian bully and refusing to permit the German army access to France through their territory. Belgium has paid and is paying still a big price, to their never ending glory, for this refusal.

The suddenness of the declaration of war by Germany on the Allied Countries found France and Britain unprepared. Invasion and attacks on Belgium by the Germans followed quickly. At Liege they were held up for days and it was not until the 23rd day from the outbreak of hostilities that these forts were silenced by the superior artillery of the Germans. The unpreparedness of England and France gave Germany time to press forward her programme to overrun Belgium.

M. Rifon gave several instances of the Germans violating all the accepted rules of warfare, by outrage, pillage and the general wrecking of unfortified towns. He mentioned Malines in particular where he said the shooting of the Germans was excellent: the centre of the town was destroyed at the first bombardment and the might of the town at the 2nd bombardment, as many as 30 shells falling a minute. M. Rifon did not brave Malines until the shells began to fall and had only time to pack a handbag and taking his little daughter and mother-in-law made his way to Rheims, thence to Ghent, on to Ostend and to England.

Dodeka Club minutes (D/EX2160/1/3)

Only a fortnight, but it seems an eternity

The early weeks of the war saw a lot of anxious waiting for news. Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham expressed the thoughts of the country when she confided in her diary:

17 August 1914
No real news – when will it come? Only a fortnight but it seems an eternity. Liege forts not taken.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Death by haystacks

William Hallam of Swindon (formerly of Lockinge in Berkshire) found himself host to three young soldiers:

10 August 1914
A lot of the troops were brought into the town early this morning or last night and some of our fellows were awakened between 3 & 4 o clock this morning to put up their billetts. Amongst them the Bedford Yeomanry & the Berks, Bucks, & Oxon Terriers. These were put up down Rodbourne Lane and Gorse Hill. At 8 o clock to-night the Worcestershire Regiment of Terriers were brought in up this part of town. The D. Company were quartered in this road. We had 3 young Evesham chaps put with us and made them most comfortable & turned out of our front room for them and we got them a good supper. They went down to roll call at 10 o clock at bottom of the street, then came in and to bed.

Diary of William Hallam (D/EX1415/22)

Meanwhile in Bisham, Florence Vansittart Neale was hunting down materials for the war hospital due to be opened in Bisham Abbey:

10 August 1914
Awful description of siege of Liege. Forts still holding out. Death by haystacks!…

Edith & I drove up to Pinkneys Green. Saw Mrs Thornber & Mrs Kersey: found her arranging a work party. Had tea there. Got a good haul, bedding, old rags, etc. Mrs Hunt to be nurse.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

Is the anguish of war a message from God?

Sydney Spencer, who hoped to become a clergyman some day, confided to his diary his wish to assist with nursing the wounded, and his concern for them.

10th August 1914
I called at Mr Street’s on the way home [from playing at Stubbings], & stopped chatting till about 9.15. Mrs Frank Street’s son Roland has volunteered. The more one thinks of things the more incredible does it seem that Europe is in the throes of a huge war. Today’s paper tells of a great battle in Liege between Germany & France where thousands have been lost on either side. Yesterday I had a letter from dear old “Jumbo” (Oliphant of Exeter Coll), & he tells me that most of the colleges are now barracks & the Examination Schools are turned into hospitals. Also he tells me that rumours are floating that Oxford will not meet next term but that nothing official has yet been announced. Soon we must expect to hear of an engagement between England and Germany. So far naval engagements only have occurred between us & even those were of that cold deadly slaughtering type – the hidden mine type – but soon the armies must meet & then our hospitals must be filled with men wounded & dying. How I do long to be able to go to them & help them. I am no good as a fighter: I have no strength in my arms, but I long to be able to attend to the sick & wounded, & to help them spiritually.

I do feel so strongly the desire to talk to them of those deeper things of life. There is so much talk nowadays of practical help. You must attend to the bodily wants. Yes that is true, but is there not a deep want & hunger for someone to cure these mental disorders too? What does it profit a man if he save his body & lose his soul? I am sure that underneath all the bluff & “don’t care” of the ordinary man there lies hidden a very real desire to learn of spiritual things. I feel that the harvest is truly plenteous but the labourers very few. This war with all its horrors & its terrible tale of desolated homes & death, now seems like a message from God, not now a gentle pleading, but the Voice of his Trumpet commanding attention. How long Oh Lord hast thou pleaded in gentle tones, can I now feel bitter that Thou dost command? No. It is only the warning noise for a loving Father who so yearns for his wayward children that he may stop at nothing in His determination to make them feel His presence.

Oh England, my England, how I love your hills & vales, your softly flowing streams, your smiling pastures & meads, your “burding” brooks & tumbling waterfalls, your mountains wrapped in mystery! How too I love you, my English countrymen with your breezy English atmosphere, & your big hearts full of the potentiality for good! My Oxford, over which I seem to see hang a cloud of golden softness, my Alma Mater in whose soft arms I have been caressed for a short time, & may be again if God so wishes it! Men of Oxford who have so kindly treated & so manfully despised all those things in me which wanted altering! My heart goes out, & out to all, to My England, & I feel very sad, for the very love I have for her & for Oxford & for her people, is made sad by the vapid frivolity, the utter selfishness, & the endless whirligig of pleasure seeking which I see all around me. Shallow superficiality masquerades as “practical optimism”, vapid pleasure seeking as common sense, healthy mindedness & serious thought is dubbed morbidity, & religion “mere weakmindedness”. When are people going to wake up to their utter need? Will they do so now in this time of dire distress & anguish?

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)

A ready response from Bisham’s women

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey was ready to turn her home into a hospital for wounded soldiers if required. The village women were willing to pitch in and help with the extra laundry which would be needed. But the lack of real news was frustrating.

7 August 1914
Edith & I in village to ask people to be laundresses if we are a hospital. Found ready response. After luncheon all VAD came & our trained nurse to be attached to us. Then all worked at making swabs & splints & covering them…

Kitchener War Minister. Wants 500,000 more soldiers, 75000 sailors.
No news – we hear nothing. Except Belgium victory at Liege & large defeat of Germans seems true.

Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/37/8)