Troops welcomed to stop looting in defeated Germany

Phyllis was still unwell.

6 December 1918

Heard fair account of P[hyllis]… Then on to P. Fond Seymour with her. She feverish after high temp. at night, 104.8. Had doctor up, & had aspirin. Felt rather wretched, head bad. I bathed it with eau de vie & water & Caveau orange. Stayed till nearly 5…

Our troops marching into Cologne. We welcomed to stop looting!!


Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey (D/EX73/3/17/9)

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“We were cadets so they sent us at once to the Belgian front”

A refugee teenager ended up involved in the final push of the war, and helped to liberate his homeland.

The Head Master has recently received the following letter from Devos. We all remember how good a sportsman Devos was, and how thoroughly he entered into the spirit of English School life. It is good the think that he carries home with him some pleasant memories of his exile. We hope he will come and see us again.

Dear Mr Keeton,

It is already a long time I have not written you, but don’t think I have forgotten about Reading School. No, for my greatest pleasure is when I am at home to look at the old Reading School Magazine again. It reminds me of my former English teacher, whom I will never forget, the boys and the School where I had such a happy time.

Since I wrote you last time a lot of things have happened and the big war is over. Let me tell just what became of me. In the beginning of 1918, about the month of April, they sent me to the Belgian Sub-Lieutenant School near Treport (along the coast). I stopped there for six months, when the offensive broke out. We were cadets so they sent us at once to the Belgian front. I came too late for the first push, but the second was mine. On the 6th of October I was in front of Roulers. On the 14th at 5.35 our artillery began and we pushed forward. My battery was with the English people. After about three hours everything became quiet. Our troops were advancing and I went to a British ambulance nearby, to help carry the wounded.

The next day I had to move again, this time to Iseghem, where the French came to take our positions. Later on we came down to Thourout for two day’s rest. Hearing that our troops had entered Ostend I asked for one night and a day’s leave and went walking to Ostend where I arrived at night. You could never imagine what a sensation you have to enter your birthplace again after having left it for five years, not knowing anything about it and fearing not to find anything but ruins. Luckily for me I found everything back, except for the small pieces of furniture and copper they took away. I stopped in Ostend till the next day, when I met my brother, then came back to the battery. They had just received orders to move.

We had to go to Bruges to a small village called Ursel to the north of Ghent. We did not stop long, for we were trying not to the Germans time to breathe. On the 31st of October we made an attack but we could not pass the canal de derivation. We tried again the same morning, but again we could not get through. That day we had rather heavy losses. Two days later, on the 2nd of November, we heard the Germans had left their positions in front of us and were retreating. At once the cavalry began to chase them as far as Ghent. Our artillery pressure had become useless there and we moved to the south of Ghent. Everything was ready to make our big push on the 13th of November early in the morning. We had seen our infantry going up to the line in order to start at daybreak. Our guns and munitions were ready – (at that time I had to look out for the munitions of my battery) – even the men were already at the guns, when the order came that we had to return to our quarters, for the Armistice was signed. Luckily for Fritz ! For his worst time was coming, especially now because we had French and English reinforcements behind us.

From Ghent I went to Brussels and stopped there for about two months. Then we had the re-opening of our universities. I went in for Mechanical Engineering at the Brussels University, and have just finished my first year. I have still three others to do.

Please remember me to Mr. Newport, Mr . Thorpe, &c. Give them my kind regards, and tell them I have I have not forgotten all about the School. I suppose games have begun.

I hope that the list of casualties of Old Reading School Boys is not too heavy.

Yours Sincerely,
G. DEVOS.

October 18th, 1919.

Reading School Magazine, December 1919 (SCH3/14/34)

The work of vandal hands

Sydney Spencer was distressed by the signs of looting and damage by the enemy, but could still delight in natural beauty.

Friday 26 April 1918

I got up at 7.30 & Peyton & I went into the cook-house, & we sat by the fire & talked about Oxford & had a cup of tea, & then we had breakfast. Morning spent in gas drill, rifle inspection & mouching [sic] round & lying about.

After lunch we went down to the platoons & O ticked them off about camouflage. Then went for a ‘scrounge’ with Harvey through the town. Very pathetic. In one house I found beautiful books, furniture & china all pelmel [sic] smashed & broken & torn by vandal hands on the ground. Upstairs large cupboards ruthlessly torn open, quantities of women’s apparel lying thick on the floors, & [illegible] lying full sprawl on the apparel a massive black dog with weak brown eyes, also looked long & sadly at me. In a ruined chateau I found a curious letter written on Sept 25 1915 from here.

After tea rations came. While I was away at D company HQ, 2, 15 point 9 shells got used. B company HQ. No damage to life but a hole in wall just outside the cellar. Tonight Rolfe and [illegible] have gone on working parties.

I gathered some lovely apple blossom from an apple tree blown up by a shell today. Also some forgetmenots, wallflowers, [peonies?], cowslips & bunches of blossoming branches of Tulip Tree.


Diary of Sydney Spencer, 1918 (D/EZ177/8/15)

False rumours of looting in Iran

A Christian missionary with Reading connections wrote to report on how the war had affected her in Persia (Iran). Persia was theoretically neutral, but there was a certain amount of military activity.

EXTRACTS FROM LETTER FROM MISS BIGGS, ISPAHAN.

Here at Ispahan practically all our property is intact. We received rumour after rumour of damage and looting, but most of it has proved false. All our personal property is safe, except things stored in the boys’ school. The Persians under German command commandeered the school as barracks, and have done a good deal of superficial damage. Except for this and the Russian Red Cross having occupied our women’s hospital and Dr Stuart’s house, everything is locked up and sealed as we left it.

Reading St. John parish magazine, September 1916 (D/P172/28A/24)

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)