Our “Burghfield Belgians” are trying to return home

A refugee family who had found asylum in Berkshire were now hoping to return home.

Our “Burghfield Belgians”

It will be remembered that our honoured guests, the Laurent family of Louvain, after a year’s sojourn in the Old Schools, migrated on October 19th, 1915, to Reading, partly for Mme Laurent’s health and partly to get work. The step was successful in both respects. But still better prospects opening up in London they moved there after about 15 months, and have since supported themselves entirely. The enemy having been driven out of Belgium, they are now trying to return to their native country, for though their home at Louvain is destroyed, they have friends in Antwerp and mean to go there, at any rate for a time.

At the last meeting of our Committee it was resolved that any funds left after the payment of small bills should be retained by the Treasurer and handed to the family on repatriation.

The balance in question has grown by interest accretions, from £16 4s 4d to £18 9s 0d, which latter sum was paid by Mr Willink, the Hon. Treasurer, on 13th February, and he holds the receipt. The whole family begged him to thank the Committee and all Burghfield friends very warmly for their help in time of need.

They will probably set up a boot shop again – they had the biggest one in Louvain. The two sons have both served right up to the end of the war – Arthur in fact wishes to remain a soldier. We wish them all happiness and good fortune.

Burghfield parish magazine, March 1919 (D/EX725/4)

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“We shall never forget the English people”

The Laurent family from Belgian had been guests of the people of Burghfield for almost a year. Now they were moving on:

OUR BELGIAN FRIENDS AT THE OLD SCHOOLS

In the Magazine of November 1914 will be found an account of the arrival on 24th October of M and Mme Laurent, of 5 Rue de Diest, Louvain, and their two daughters, and last July they were joined by their young son (aged 16) who has been working in Wales. After almost exactly a year, they have now left us on 19th October, Mme Laurent being in very poor health and unable (in the opinion of Dr Lake of Brookfield, who has been very kind to her) to bear another winter in the Old Schools.

They have passed now under the care of the Mayor of Reading’s Belgian Relief Committee, who have found accommodation for them at 102 London Road, where we hope they will be comfortable until the happy times of peace, and return to their own land.

All of us who have know them are sorry to lose them, and it is pleasant to know that our warm feelings are reciprocated, as may be gathered from the following rather free translation of a farewell letter written on their departure:

The Old Schools
19/10/1915

To the Committee of Burghfield

We, the Laurent family, wish to let readers (of the Magazine) know how much gratitude we feel is due from us to the Committee of Burghfield. It is a whole year since we took refuge in the parish, and from our arrival here down to the day of our departure, we cannot say how generous they have been to us. And at the last we cannot help expressing to all the members of the Committee our best thanks. And we shall never forget the English people, and we hope our compatriots will do the same.

La Famille Laurent, qui doit tant de reconnaissance au Comite de Burghfield.

Alphonse Laurent
Florence (nee Cazier) Laurent
Reine Laurent
Jeanne Eleanore Laurent
Arthur Laurent

Burghfield parish magazine, November 1915 (D/EX725/3)

Germany’s destruction of history mean it is no longer a civilised country

An unexpected insight into Berkshire people’s outrage at the unprecedented destruction from German air raids comes in a pamphlet written in June 1915 on historic Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire. Its author was Peter Ditchfield, the vicar of Barkham, who was a distinguished antiquarian and local historian.

The destruction wrought by German shells has created a storm of protest throughout the civilised world, from which we must now exclude the domains of the Kaiser. We have mourned over the devastation wrought at Louvain, Rheims, Ypres, Arras, Antwerp, and scores of other places where as pilgrims we have wandered and worshipped in those beautiful shrines. And now the bombardment of our own shores, the murder of innocent and inoffensive old men, women and children, and the destruction of our own relics of antiquity, has revealed to our wondering eyes the hideous extent of modern barbarism.

It was no chance shot that damaged that venerable and picturesque pile upon the Yorkshire coast. Alone it stood upon the hill overlooking Whitby town, near the edge of the cliff and the right bank of the Esk river, and not far from the quaint old church of St Mary. The German gunners must have aimed directly, wantonly and wickedly at the remains of the beautiful and historic monastery, and have thus lived up to the reputation which they have earned for themselves on the Continent by their dastardly outrages….

Pamphlet on Whitby Abbey by Peter H Ditchfield, June 1915 (R/D134/7/32)

A hearty welcome for fleeing Belgians

Burghfield was among the Berkshire villages to welcome Belgian families seeking refuge from the horrors of war, by making not only houses available, but also helping out with food and fuel for their guests.

It is not too much to say that the little country of Belgium has during the last months won the admiration and gained the sympathy of the whole civilised world. She has won our admiration because of the heroic stand which she made against the vast and aggressive military power of Germany and because she refused to become a party to breaking those solemn treaties by which the nations of Europe were bound. Belgium might have saved herself much disaster and suffering if she had at once yielded to the request of the German Emperor to allow his armies to begin their march of conquest across her territory, but she was too noble to break the treaty by which she was bound in order to “save her own skin”, and chose rather to fight and suffer in the cause of righteousness and justice. How greatly she has suffered we all know, for the German motto in warfare is that the conquered should be left “nothing but their eyes to weep with”. We all know that thousands of peaceful Belgians have lost nearly everything they possessed and have been driven from their homes in the towns and villages and have sought the hospitality of the friendly English shores. They have received a hearty and ready welcome, because Belgium has not only won our admiration by her heroism but has gained our sympathy because of her inevitable suffering.

Many of the refugees have found a temporary home in our own neighbourhood – in Reading, and at Mortimer, Aldermaston, and Sulhamstead – and now we can add Burghfield, for a party of four refugees have arrived at “Barnhay”, on the Common, who are brave and cheerful notwithstanding their misfortunes. The Trustees of the “Old Schools” have also granted the use of that building for a similar purpose, and on October 24th Monsieur and Madame Laurent and their two daughters arrived there. They came from Louvain, the beautiful Belgian town where the Germans wrought such fearful havoc. Monsieur Laurent was in business there and his was one of the houses which was burnt to the ground. On hearing of the proposed arrangement, many of our parishioners most kindly and promptly sent a variety of articles required for domestic uses, while Mr and Mrs E F Pilkington sent a ton of coal in order to endure a warm welcome for our guests. We understand that Mr and Mrs Willink are looking after the welfare of both parties for the present, and we are asked to say that any gifts in kind, e.g. fruits and vegetables, groceries, jam, etc, etc, will be most gladly received either at Barnhay or at the Old Schools.

In Bisham, meanwhile, Florence Vansittart Neale met a Belgian refugee family.

24 October 1914
E & I to tea [with] Himes to see their Belgians. Large party of 7. Baby born Antwerp Oct 1st, had to leave when a week old.

The Belgians at Marlow told me the Germans dug a hole, made a woman put her two children in & bayoneted them! Saw baby 3 weeks come from Antwerp. Mother had to move a week after the birth (little Albert).

Burghfield parish magazine, November 1914 (D/EX725/3); Diary of Florence Vansittart Neale (D/EX73/3/17/8)

“God forgive me if I have not played the man”

Sydney Spencer of Cookham visited Oxford, where he was an undergraduate, to investigate his options for service. His diary tells the tale of his anguished debate with hinmself.

September 3rd
Oxford

Now dies the saying ‘No news is good news’! I have had to keep away from you, Mr Diary, for a very long time, but because I have not been able to give you any news it does not mean that it is all good news. Red war still rides her bloody way, & the noise of her chariot wheels is dread & fearful. In her course she ruthlessly runs down thousands of poor men, ruining at the same time hearts & homes, puffing out the one little flame that lit the home, & snatching away the one pair of hands which earned the bread. Oh War, War, when will your end come? On all sides one hears “cursed Germans, wicked Kaiser! Oh that they were all butchered!” Who will find me a man to get up into the chariot of dread war & cast her down & trample her to the ground? That is what we want cursed in its cruelty, cursed in its cold modern methods, cursed root & branch is War, & yet here we are in modern Europe, in the civilized (?) twentieth century, making the whole of Europe shake, making a ghastly field of battle of miles of smiling country, devastating, destroying, wounding killing, yes & even Murdering! Louvain, the loveliest of cities, mellowed by its ancient buildings, beautiful for its memories of the past, [rivalling] Oxford for its traditions & its university; is no more. It has been ruthlessly levelled with the earth. It is almost unthinkable that all those homes – private citizen homes – beautiful for their memories of childhood & young married days, & days spent around the fires by hallowed old age, all, all gone! The spirits of hundreds of homes wander over desolate spots & find no habitation for themselves.

It is just striking three & I am seated on the Union Lawn to write. To write what? The chronicle of perhaps the greatest mental strain I have ever passed through. I came up here to Oxford to find out what work I could do. I did not for one minute think that service might be a point now. It came as a terrible shock & brought me up dead against “self”, when Hudgel of St John’s Street suggested that I should join as a private in the 2nd Bucks Light Infantry Territorials, which are offering to go out on active service. I passed through such a two hours from 9.30 till 11.30 this morning as I never hope to pass through again. It seemed that everything pointed to my going to the office in 20 Magdalen Street, & offering to be medically examined. Every nerve in my body & mind was at breaking tension, & I had determined to throw up all “thoughts” & join, when, passing by Keble College I saw the men I should have to join. It was terrible. My whole power of reasoning & my whole religious feeling cried out, “Play the man, & go in & take the consequences”. But my mind & self kept edging out that it would be unendurable to be always always in the company of those men. The hard living I can endure, the drilling I would have done my best to satisfy, in the dying even for my country & my God I could even support & endure, rather than the hourly & daily torture of being in the company of men whose minds although ennobled by willingness to serve their country, would be for ever grating on mine by their coarseness or even worse than that. God forgive me if I have not altogether played the man, but I have done my all at present.

Last night I was refused altogether by Colonel Ranking at the Hospital (the Examination School). This morning Dr Allen said he would see if there were [sic] any sort of work I could do on the Emergency Committee. Then came the proposal to join the body of men, & I went, confessedly to myself almost distracted by doubts & longings, by thoughts pulling & pushing me one way & another – to Dr Pope. He advised me to go to a Mr C Cookson of Magdalen College, so I went to his rooms. He told me that it was utterly foolish to think of doing such a thing as Hudgel suggested, that I was altogether unfitted for it, & that I should not only be useless but be in the way & do harm. He did not even suggest that I should do any such thing as join this new battalion for ex-public school men or university men, but that I should go home & rest quietly till term commenced & then join in the OTC at once. By this I found that according to him – I should be doing not only what was best for myself, but also the best thing all round. So my next step is to go home & get some drill from Maidenhead in preparation for joining the OTC next term. No one who has not passed through what I have passed through this morning can know what a relief it is to me to feel that I have done what I could possibly do, & that I know my duty plainly – having it set before me by men who are purposely chosen to give advice to such as myself. Dr Pope was very sweet & kind to me & I feel deeply grateful to him, as also to Mr Cookson, for the way in which they helped me through this terrible ordeal. If I want to get further information re the Public Schools & University Corps I can write to the Secretary of the Public School & University Force Committee, 46 Victoria Street, Westminster SW.

Diary of Sydney Spencer (D/EX801/12)