In August 1914 German frustration at Belgium’s resistance to the planned transit of their 1st, 2nd and 3rd armies through to North East France led to a policy of schrecklichkeit – frightfulness – against Belgian civilians. Massacres, executions and the burning of towns and villages drove hundreds of thousands of Belgians from their homes. To boost recruitment into the armed forces, the British press may have played up the atrocity stories but the fears of the British public seemed to be realised in late August when the first of 200,000 refugees reached British shores, the biggest influx of foreigners since the Huguenots arrived in the late 1600s. In London depots were established at Alexandra Palace and at Earls Court. Settlement committees were careful to keep the separate Belgian populations of Walloons and Flemings apart. Everyone wanted their share of refugees and some guests certainly took advantage of their hosts’ sympathies, running up hefty bills of the best butter, eggs and pork. Mostly however the hosts were happy to put this down to the frightful experiences their guests had gone through. The poet Rupert Brook served in the Royal Naval Division helping to defend a doomed Antwerp and reported thousands of civilians in full flight lit by spires of flames. His experiences inspired his Five Sonnets winning him immortality with ‘If I should die think only this of me …’
Another literary inspiration from Belgium’s plight was Hercule Poirot, crime writer Agatha Christie’s most famous creation. His Belgian nationality made him plausible and interesting to a British public well used to Belgians in their midst during the war years.
After the war a grateful Belgium government erected a monument to British hospitality on London’s Embankment.