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Belgian Refugees in the UK

In the summer of 1914, at the start of the First World War, much of Europe was in turmoil as troops and civilians were mobilized for the war effort. In many countries, the outbreak of war resulted in danger and displacement for ordinary people. In Belgium, the invading German army arrested Belgian citizens and seized property and possessions.  Many Belgians fled, travelling to neighbouring countries - The Netherlands and France.  A further 225,000 to 265,000 Belgian refugees ventured further afield, to the UK. 

British newspapers carried stories of German atrocities against civilians, which resulted, initially, in a warm welcome being given to the Belgians. The War Refugees Committee was established to deal with the new arrivals with temporary camps established in centres such as Alexandra Palace in North London. As the refugees were dispersed around the country, approximately 2,500 local refugee committees were established.

Some of the refugees could contribute to the war effort by working in factories and carrying out farm work. Others were entirely dependent on support from regional refugee groups.

The exact number of Jewish Belgian refugees is unknown but synagogue and Jewish newspaper records indicate that they were among the new arrivals. In some cases, Jewish Belgian refugees were not Belgian at all. They were Eastern European Jews who had been resident in Belgium when Germany invaded and feared being picked up as foreigners from countries now at war with Germany.

After 1918, the majority of the refugees returned home, encouraged to do so by both the British and Belgian Governments. It is estimated that around 10,000 remained, having settled in the UK and married local people. Within a short period, this group had entirely disappeared from view as they assimilated into their new surroundings. 

After the war, people in the UK who had helped the refugees were recognised with The Medal of the National Committee for Assistance and Food Supply - Medaille du Comite National de Secours et d'Alimentation. (1914-1918). It was created in four classes; 1st class, gilt finish with a rosette on the ribbon; 2nd class, gilt finish (no rosette); 3rd class, silver finish; 4th class, bronze. A list of recipients was published in The Belgian Monitor (the Belgian equivalent of the London  Gazette).

The medal was known to some as the Haricot Bean Medal because the vegetable was used as a regular food staple for the refugees. 

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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