An inquisitive visitor to the council chamber might notice an unusual Union Jack bearing a shield with French inscription, mounted in a frame high above one of the doors. The origins of this flag date back to WW1.
Following the invasion of Belgium by Germany on 4th August 1914, 250,000 refugees fled to this country, the largest contingent in British history, to escape carnage and devastation. Captain Clive, the MP for Ross and South Herefordshire, anticipating such a crisis enquired of the Mayor G B Greenland whether the city could assist between 50 – 100 refugees. He received a positive reply and so Hereford thus gained the distinction of being the first city to offer hospitality to them.
From September 1914 – January 1915 the number of refugees settling here varied but records of the day suggest that 300 stayed in the city and a further 100 in the county. To assist them Belgian Refugee Committees were formed throughout the country. The woeful refugees arrived telling tales of atrocities they had witnessed but were comforted by the support offered to them of accommodation, money, clothing and food. A Christmas party, organised by the Mayoress Mrs Greenland, held at the Shire Hall was attended by 350 refugees; the building looked like a fairyland with a large Christmas tree festooned with lights and presents.
During a visit on 31st March 1915 the Archbishop of Malines met his fellow compatriots and reported to the Mayor that everyone he had encountered felt they were at home, an indication as to how happy they were. On 9th November that same year, at the Town Hall, following the re -election of Councillor Greenland, a small delegation expressed their gratitude to the Mayor and Mayoress and members of the Refugee Committee in Hereford. “We shall never forget your incessant kindness to us during the time we have been here. The Belgians on their return to their country will tell of the generosity of the noble English people, they will tell their children, their grandchildren, to honour your great nation.” A presentation was then made to the Mayor of a double sided flag made of silk measuring 193cm (76”)x 107cm (42”). On one side was the Union Jack and on the reverse the Belgian colours black, yellow and red with a shield and embossed French inscription “Tribute of gratitude to our benefactors Mr and Mrs Greenland, and members of the committee, Belgian Refugees, in Hereford, on Nov 9th 1915”. The Mayor was taken aback but gave a suitable acknowledgment and said that the City of Hereford would treasure the flag; he promised that it would be placed in a prominent position in the Town Hall as a perpetual reminder of days of stress and storm, battle and pain and as a link of friendship between two great nations, never to be severed. He also paid tribute to Mrs Von. Torhaudt, for her magnificent efforts.
This unique artefact is of immense historical importance as it is the only legacy the city has of the Belgian Refugees’ time here.
The Belgian Refugees remained in Hereford and the county until 1919 and during this period they assisted with the war effort, helping with agriculture. Those who transferred to other parts of the country were employed in the 500 armaments factories. On his departure a refugee said “Nothing has been left undone to make as nice as possible our temporary exile among you – Vive l’ Angleterre, who has been to us our second home, we shall never forget your incessant kindness during the time we’ve been here.”
The Belgians on their return to their country will tell of the generosity of the noble English people, they will tell their children and their grandchildren to honour your great nation”
The inscription on the shield reads “Expression of our gratitude to our benefactors Mr & Mrs GB Greenland and members of the Committee – Belgian refugees in Hereford, Nov 9th 1915”.
The Mayor was taken aback, he thanked the refugees for the beautiful silk flag which would always be treasured and would be placed in a prominent position in the Town Hall as a bond of friendship between two great nations, never to be severed.
Words by Stuart Dove
A timeline of Hereford’s Proud Record – Belgian Refugees 1914 – 1919 (The Forgotten Story):
- Following an agreement on 22nd August 1914 between Captain Clive MP for Ross and the Mayor Cllr GB Greenland, “Hereford….won the distinction of being the first city to offer hospitality to Belgian refugees.” The original proposal was for at least a week’s stay, they remained until March 1919.
- There was no shortage of accommodation but matching guests with their hosts was more difficult; refugees came from all strata of society – the well-heeled were the first to arrive.
- From September 1914 – January 1915 approximately 400 refugees made Hereford and the surrounding towns (Leominster, Ross and Ledbury) their homes. Many including wounded soldiers told of atrocities committed by the Germans.
- £2,250 was raised by public subscription plus generous donations given by the public included rent free accommodation, money, clothing and food.
- Mayoress (Mrs GB Greenland) greeted the refugees at Barrs Court Railway Station and provided refreshments at the Town Hall; afterwards they were taken to their new homes by their hosts.
- On December 30th 1914 a Christmas party was organised by the Mayoress. The scene in the Shire Hall looked like a fairy land with a magnificent Christmas tree with sparkling electric lights and loaded with gifts. “We almost forgotten we were exiled in a foreign country” said a priest. Afterwards the 350 guests received presents.
- A Red Letter Day for the Belgians was the visit on March 31st 1915 by Monsignor de Wachter, Auxiliary to Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines. After addressing them he met with the Mayor GB Greenland and expressed his gratitude and those of his fellow countryman. The Mayor stated the English owed a great debit to the Belgians and felt it was the duty of this country “To help her homeless and distressed people”.
- Throughout the year “Wonderful hospitality was extended to the refugees, many of whom had lost their homes and all the associations that were precious to them”. A relief fund raised £950.00 – a considerable sum.
- Following the Mayor’s re-election, a small party of refugees met with Mr GB Greenland and presented a handmade silk flag. The Mayor thanked all those involved – for further details please see the article entitled “The Riddle of Hereford’s Belgian Flag.”
- For most of the war the refugees in Herefordshire worked on farms replacing the men in colours.
- 21st July Belgian National Day was commemorated by the selling of national flags.
- Children integrated well in school but their parents were concerned they might forget their own language, religion and culture.
- An ultimatum was issued by the Germans to those refugees who had businesses – return home or else your property will be confiscated – a concerned jeweller heeded the warning!
- For a small number of refugees life had become intolerable – the local press reported a number of suicides.
- The refugees continued to receive support in many ways. However, when the war ended the Government put pressure on them to return home. On leaving Hereford one refugee said “Vive L’Angleterre who has been to us our second home”.
- By 1919 only two families remained in Herefordshire.
- The 250,000 refugees departed as swiftly as they came. Why they didn’t leave an indelible mark on the history of this country is another issue.
- Due to the devastation of their country many on their return were forced to sleep in trenches and were despised by their fellow countrymen for leaving.
- Mr John Birch (City Accountant and Honorary Secretary to the County and City of Hereford Belgian Committee) and Mrs GB Greenland were awarded the “Medialle du Roi Albert” for their humanitarian work by King Albert; Mr Birch was awarded the MBE by King George V.