“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,

October 18th, 1919.

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


German submarine base useless

The Vansittart Neales took their Australian guest out to tea.

12 May 1918

Henry & I & Captain Goudie to tea at Higginsons…

Ostend harbour filled up by the Vindictive. Submarine base useless.

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

Watching ships in camouflage

HMS Vindictive was deliberately sunk to block the port of Ostend.

9 May 1918

Eastchurch… Lay out on cliffs. Watched ships, camouflaged & others. Also “Archies” in the sky & aeroplanes. After tea to see [illegible] & trenches.

Blocked Ostend by the old “Vindictive”, most successful.

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

Big battle still raging

Florence Vansittart Neale paid attention to the latest war news. HMS Lion was the British flagship.

27 August 1915
No more news, but believe big battle still raging. Germans trying to break through English & French lines. Russia pushing on. Marines landed at Ostend.

Hear a Division gone to Servia [sic].

Heard when “Lion” injured, got on wireless at Admiralty. Constructor gave directions all the time & so saved it.

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

Wonderful aviators’ feat

British airmen struck a blow back at the German Zeppelin programme.

25 August 1915

Wonderful aviators’ feat – destroyed Zeppelin by Ostend.

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

“Feeding and clothing excellent; only need peace and fine weather”

Florence Vansittart Neale has more news of the war, and is given an explosive souvenir:

Another aerial raid – 40 over Zeebrugge-Ostend. 4 French helped. Guarded German aerodrome. Another French despatches.

Hear Kitchener has commandeered 120,000 boats. In France by May 1st.

Received bit of German shrapnel & German high explosive from Harry Paine. Says feeding & clothing excellent. Only need peace & fine weather.

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

Russians retreating, worse luck

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham records the latest war news, a mix of good and bad:

Russians retired from east Prussia, worse luck.

Fine aeroplane raid of ours over Zeebrugge & Ostend to destroy naval bases – about 34 & all returned.

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

“I was a stranger”: meet the Belgian refugees welcomed to Maidenhead

In October and November we heard about Maidenhead Congregational Church’s involvement with supporting Belgian refugees in the town. We can now update the story, and introduce the families the church supported:


The response to our appeal for weekly contributions towards the support of a Belgian Refugees’ Home of our own was prompt and generous. The committee appointed by the Church took 14, Fairford Road (the rent of which was guaranteed by the Adult School) and determined to invite a family of about eight persons to occupy it. On inquiry at Folkestone, three families, related by marriage, comprising ten persons in all, were allotted to us, and since Mr. and Mrs. Dykes of Hill Farm, Taplow, had generously offered to receive two refugees into their home while the need lasted, we accepted the allotment, placing eight in Fairfield Road, and two of the men at Taplow. But the two wives pleaded that they might not be separated from their husbands, and the committee felt that the request was reasonable, and must be met. So we have now ten in our home, three married couples and four little girls.

They all lived at Boom, a small town of about 18,000 inhabitants some 12 miles from Antwerp. M. Asselberghs was traveller for a milling firm; M. Van Hoof was the proprietor of a boot and shoe shop; and M. Van der Plannken was a boatbuilder on the banks of the river Rupel. They fled from their home on the approach of the Germans on September 29th and found a temporary refuge in Antwerp. On the day before the bombardment of that city, they were compelled to fly once more, together with tens of thousands of other homeless people, and went on foot to Ostend. After waiting two or three days, they were compelled to throw themselves upon the hospitality of the English people. They have received information that M. Van der Plannken’s house was demolished by shell fire immediately after they fled, and M. Van Hoof’s shop was looted by the soldiery. M Asselberghs and his sister Mme. Van Hoof are acquainted with the French language, the other speak nothing but Flemish. They all profess the Roman Catholic religion. The children attend the Roman Catholic school in Maidenhead, where a Belgian teacher (also a refugee) has been engaged to teach the many refugee children who are now resident in this neighbourhood. In doing what we can help our guests during their stay with us we shall feel that we are not only fulfilling the spirit of our Lord’s words when he said “I was a stranger and ye took me in,” but we are repaying to Belgium a small part of an obligation which seems greater the more we think of it.

Maidenhead Congregational Church magazine, December 1914 (D/N33/12/1/4)

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)

Soldiers and Belgians fill the schools

Lower Sandhurst School was facing difficulties and disruption due to the war.  On 4 November the head teacher received two rather annoying letters, one explaining why the fuel used for heating the building was unsatisfactory, the other potentially threatening the possible loss of the school building altogether:

November 4th 1914

Received letter of explanation from the Coke Contractors, Messrs. Drake & Mount, in which they stated that the unbroken coke delivered was owing to the railway traffic being disorganised by movement of troops…

Received letter of the Correspondent enclosing a communication from the Assistant Quarter-Master-General of the Aldershot Command in which it is stated that it may be found necessary to billet troops in the school.

Further west, Stanford Dingley welcomed its share of the Belgian refugees. The head teacher of the Church of England School reported on 4 November 1914:

Three Belgian children admitted today – one from Ostend, two from Antwerp.

Lower Sandhurst School Log Book (C/EL66/1, p. 301); Stanford Dingley National School log book (D/P117/28/2, p. 285)

Turkey declares war on Russia

The war news was bad, with the German cruiser Emden triumphant and a hospital ship wrecked by storms.

30 October 1914

“Emden” again sank Russian and French cruisers. Turkey declared war on Russia. Allies near Ostend. Red X ship destroyed on rocks by Whitby – heavy gale in North Sea. Real Russian advance.

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

Life and death struggle near Ostend

Florence Vansittart Neale of Bisham Abbey continued to follow the war news.

23 October 1914

Still awful battle going on – land, sea & air. Life & death struggle of Germans near Ostend. Curious prophecy of Antichrist! Dated 1620…

Therese came. 17 hour journey from Paris, Dieppe to Folkestone. Sent veg & pots [potatoes?] to Belgians.

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

Rumour we had recaptured Ostend not true

Florence Vansittart Neale records a mixture of good and bad news.

18 October 1914
Early church Marlow. Poor Dr & Mrs Dickson there….

Heard we had sunk 4 German destroyers. Cecil Fox Commander. We lost only 2 men & 5 wounded. Rumoured we recaptured Ostend but not true.

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

Thousands of Belgians flee to England

Florence Vansittart Neale’s diary mentions the influx of refugees from a Belgium overrun by the German army.

14 October 1914
Germans marching to Ostend. Thousands of Belgians come [to] England. Belgian Government moved to Havre.

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

Paris is bombed

The Germans advance concerned Florence Vansittart Neale, as family friends came under fire and Paris was bombed from the air.

12 October 1914

Heard Charlie been under fire. Do not know where or when. Sep’s corps interned in Holland! Glad he not there. Germans going to Ostend – repulsed at Ghent. Bombs (20) over Paris, injured Notre Dame, killed & wounded 24 people.

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