Belgians in Somerset

It is common knowledge that as the German army advanced through Belgium in 1914 refugees fled their progress, but who would have expected that so many Belgian families would seek refuge in Somerset.

During the course of the war 250,000 Belgian nationals came to the UK. Most landed at the eastern sea ports; Folkestone, Tilbury, Margate, Dover, Hull and Grimsby. In some places ‘Belgian villages’ were created, which were run by the Belgian authorities, but few communities across the country remained unaffected by the influx from Europe.

The War Refugees Committee (WRC) coordinated a wide network of voluntary relief work. Appeals for accommodation and support were published, and within two weeks they had received 100,000 offers.

Research by the Somerset Remembers volunteers has shown how the largest ever refugee influx to our country affected Somerset.

An extract from Lullington School log book, showing the admittance of two Belgian pupils in January 1915.

An extract from Lullington School log book, showing the admittance of two Belgian pupils in January 1915.

On the 10 October 1914 the Weston Mercury newspaper reported that twelve refugees had been given accommodation at The Shrubbery. Two days later around seventy Belgians arrived in Taunton, where they were welcomed by Mayor George Hinton and a Boy Scout Guard of Honour, at a ceremony at the Municipal Buildings. On 19 October a number of Belgian Refugee arrived in Wells and were housed in Chamberlain Street and at Portway Lodge. Whilst Yeovil provided homes for 250 individuals and families, who arrived throughout October.

An extract from the Burrowbridge School log book of 6 Nov 1914, showing fund raising by the school pupils for Belgian refugees.

An extract from the Burrowbridge School log book of 6 Nov 1914, showing fund raising by the school pupils for Belgian refugees.

But it wasn’t just the large towns that played host. In Barrington a vacant cottage, known as ‘Victoria’ was donated to the cause. It was painted and furnished through charitable donations and on 1 January 1915 at “only 8 hours’ notice, a family of Refugees arrived:  Alphonse Vin aged 24 polisher from Berchem, near Antwerp, his wife Josephine and their child Alphaise aged 18 months with only a small hand bag.” Whilst the Weston Mercury reports throughout autumn 1914 of the arrival of refugees, being houses in Weare, Churchill and East Brent. Other parishes who provided accommodation were Aller, Ashwick, Blagdon, Castle Cary, Chapel Allerton, Chard, Creech St Michael, Henstridge, Ilminster, Midsomer Norton, Portishead and Street.

A group collecting for Belgian Refugees at the corner of George Street and Norbins Road, Glastonbury, c. 1915.

A group collecting for Belgian Refugees at the corner of George Street and Norbins Road, Glastonbury, c. 1915.

Throughout the war fund raising continued to support the Belgians who had remained at home, but also to provide for those who had come to England. In seems that the families were maintained by charitable donation, often in houses given rent and rate free, until they were able to support themselves. This extract from the Baltonsborough parish return illustrates this:

The money-raising efforts of the village have been many and various. In the autumn of 1914 the plight of the Belgian refugees stirred the village to action. A public meeting was held, and it was decided to offer hospitality to one family. One resident lent a house rent free; others lent furniture, house linen crockery etc; and sufficient weekly subscriptions were promised to provide maintenance in food and clothing.

The first family received, father, mother, and five small sons stayed six months; but the man, who was a waiter, not being strong enough for agricultural work, and being unable to obtain work locally at his own calling, they returned to London, and a second family took their place. This family of father, mother and nine children the eldest only thirteen, had been land workers in their own country, and quickly adapted themselves to their new conditions. They were still in the village at Midsummer 1918 but had been self-supporting for nearly two years, the family having increased meanwhile by the birth of another son and daughter.

In total we know of 51 Somerset communities who housed Belgian refugees and undoubtedly far more gave monetary support to the various charities, but apart from the references to them in the archives held at the Somerset Heritage Centre, little other evidence of them has been left behind.


Picture of the Week: Images from Somerset during the First World War

sports committee

The Sports Committee of 259 Motor Transport (MT) Company (Coy), Army Service Corps (ASC). c.1916                                                                                              Courtesy of Wells Museum


Somerset Remembers on Tour #3

On Monday  22 December the Somerset Remembers touring display and showcase were removed from Glastonbury Abbey, the last venue for this exhibition.

The display consisted of three identical banners and two showcases with eight different objects. This allowed it to be seen in 30 venues across Somerset.

The tour started in March at Taunton library, and the first showcase was displayed at Chard Museum in April.

Banner and Show Case at Chard Museum in April

Banner and Showcase at Chard Museum in April

The display was designed to promote the project throughout the county and the temporary exhibition at the Museum of Somerset.

It was also used by venues to complement their own First World War exhibitions.

In Frome Museum in October

The second set of objects as seen in Frome Museum during October

A wide variety of venues displayed the exhibition including major county events such as The Royal Bath & West Show in May, and RNAS Yeovilton Air Day in July.

It is estimated that over 85000 people visited the touring exhibition during 2014.

“A Very Peaceful Day”: The Somerset Light Infantry and the Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce of 1914 has entered the common mythology of the First World War and has been well documented as a result. The 1st Battalion Somerset Light Infantry were in the front line at Ploegsteert Wood and witnessed the truce first hand.

The Christmas Truce has become the title of a series of unofficial ceasefires which happened along the Western Front in December 1914. It did not reach the whole length of the Front; in some areas the two sides mingled, whilst in others the fighting continued.

The Christmas Truce was not the first and only truce of the war, as the armies had started to entrench a ‘live and let live’ attitude had developed and on occasion fraternisation occurred. However the Christmas Truce stands out due to its longevity and the number of men involved.

The early months of the war had been characterised by movement, with both German and Allied forces trying to gain ground and advantage. However, by November this movement had stagnated and the defensive trench system was developed. In many places the two armies were so close that they could hear each other, and this at times led to conversation and the exchange of the dead.

The Trenches at Ploegsteert, Autumn/Winter 1914

The Trenches at Ploegsteert, Autumn/Winter 1914

It is thought that the wet weather and poor conditions in November and December was a catalyst leading to the truce. The war diary of the 1st Battalion confirms this belief:

13 November 1914 Rained Hard all day… We moved into trenches in PLOEGSTEERT WOOD – The sides in the Wood were about 3ft deep in mud and movement was most difficult…15 November 1914 Rained hard all day – Very wretched for men in the trenches, which are mostly half full of water…19 November 1914 Very cold indeed today. Snow and frost…26 November 1914 Thaw continued today and everywhere it is very muddy…1 December 1914 C. Coys trench was flooded in one part today by a spring of water…any attempt to dig seems only to bring more water in. Very muddy everywhere today…7 December 1914 Trenches in very bad state after last night’s rain. Continual pumping and bailing does not suffice to keep the water down

 The diary continues:

 25 December 1914 There was much singing in the trenches last night by both sides. Germans opposite us brought up their Regimental Band and played theirs and our National Anthems followed by “Home Sweet Home”. A truce was mutually arranged by the men in the trenches. During the morning Officers met the German Officers half way between the trenches and it was arranged that we should bring in our dead who were lying between the trenches. The bodies of Capt Maud, Capt Orr and 2/Lt Henson were brought in also those of 18 NCO’s and men. They were buried the same day. The Germans informed us that they had captured wounded officer and this was thought to be 2/Lt K GG Dennys who commanded one of the attacking platoons of B Coy on the 19th. There was a sharp frost last night, which continued during the day, and the weather very seasonable. Not a shot or a shell was fired by either side in our neighbourhood; and both sides walked about outside their trenches quite concernedly. It afforded a good opportunity for inspecting our trenches by day light. The enemy’s works were noticed to be very strong. A very peaceful day.

 26 December 1914 A day very similar to yesterday, but thaw started in afternoon. Truce still continued. No firing of any description…

 28 December 1914 The truce continued today but about 8pm the Germans sent over to say they were going to continue firing at midnight. However no shots were fired in our vicinity…

 30 December 1914 Truce still continues…The Germans sent in the following message to the Left Trench this morning “Dear Comerades, I beg to inform you that is forbidden us to go over to you but we will remain good comerades. If we shall be forced to fire we will fire to high. Please tell me if you are English or Irishmen. Offering you some cigars. I remain yours truly camerade – X.Y.” No answer was given to this communication.

 31 December 1914 The Germans celebrated the New Year with Great vigour. Trumpets were sounded and other instruments played and there was much singing. They also had lanterns hung on their wire entanglements. At 11pm they fired a feu-de-joie over our heads. This was taken by our guns to mean an intended attack and they started shelling…

 11 January 1915 The truce came to an abrupt end today and snipping started again in earnest – The presumption is that our “friendly” enemy of the last fortnight has been relieved

The truce is also recorded in the personal diary of Corporal Arthur Cook of A Company, who records:

Fri Dec 25 Very sharp frost last night. Have received plenty gifts of puddings and cakes. Was also presented with Princess Mary Gift containing tobacco, cigarettes and pipes. Had a walk round Ploegsteert, the roads are lovely and hard with the frost. The troops in the front line are having a very quiet time.

Sat Dec 26 Was on fatigues timber carrying in the morning. Relieved C Coy in the front line 4pm it is very quiet here, both sides have been fraternizing with each other and exchanging souvenirs

Sun Dec 27 Had to demolish our shelter this morning to allow the RE’s to build up a breast work. There is no firing to our front. The Germans and our fellows are walking about outside the trenches quite free and easy. A lot of our fellows went out and met Fritz who came half way, a lot of hand shaking took place, followed by exchange of cigarettes for cigars and then paired off and walked up and down no mans land, I went out myself later on and had a chat with several of them, quite a lot of them can speak fair English. I had a cigarette off one of them, they all look well and told us as long as we don’t shoot , they wont, so I don’t know who will start the ball rolling here again, it is quite amusing to look on the scene and to think that a few hours ago, they were at one another’s throats and probably in a few hours time they will be again then tell us they don’t want to shoot. There appear to be plenty of Germans here, by the number knocking about. Having this time here our fellows took advantage of and picked up all our dead which had been lying in no man land since Dec 19th, and buried them in the cemetery in Plogesteert Wood near to Somerset House (Bn HQ). The Germans themselves handed us the body of Capt C E Maud DSA and told us he was a very brave man. Was relieved by ‘B’ Coy and went back to S.B. Farm. My section was on guard all night and next day.

 Captain Maud in 1913

Captain Maud in 1913

 The Grave of Captain Maud and other men of the Somerset Light Infantry

The Grave of Captain Maud and other men of the Somerset Light Infantry

Private Edward Packe tells a similar story in his diary:

A very curious state of affairs reigned here on Christmas Day, I don’t know how it started but anyhow Germans and English were walking about in between the two trenches, hobnobbing and exchanging cigarettes etc…There were a good many German dead near our trenches and these we brought into the middle and then they took them away to bury them and we did the same to ours

 (The diary of Private Packe is part of the Liddle Collection, University of Leeds Library)

The published regimental history of the Somerset Light Infantry makes no mention of the truce or the fraternisation.

 Article from the Shepton Mallet Journal reporting the truce in a letter home from the front, 15 Jan 1915

Article from the Shepton Mallet Journal reporting the truce in a letter home from the front, 15 Jan 1915

The following year, December 1915, the Allied Commanders ordered that no fraternisation was to take place and many artillery barrages were used to dissuade the enemy from communicating.

Heritage Centre Welcomes New Collection

We are very grateful to receive an interesting new collection of photographs relating to the work of the Wiveliscombe Mule Depot.

The Mule Depot in Wiveliscombe was set up in early 1915 in addition to existing Mule Depots in the county under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel G. H. Badcock.

The people of Somerset were told to look out for the animals moving around the county, as reported in the Devon and Exeter Gazette:

The Devon & Exeter Gazette 9 January 1915 reporting the presence of mules in the county.

The Devon & Exeter Gazette 9 January 1915

Mule Depots were created in West Somerset due to the proximity to Avonmouth docks. The animals entered the country via the docks, and went on to rest on Somerset farms before going to their duties in Europe.

In the Devon and Exeter Gazette of March 25 1915, ‘Tenders are invited‘ by Lieut.Col. Badcock to supply the Mule Depots hay, grain, and oats ‘between 1st May and 31st July 1915.’ No.10 Depot is based at ‘Messrs.J. and W. Dunn’s, Jew’s Farm, Wiveliscombe‘.

A few of the photographs are featured here:

Further information about Mule Depots please see:





Last Chance to see Somerset Remembers Exhibition

There is just a couple weeks left to see the Somerset Remembers exhibition at the Museum of Somerset. The exhibition is on display until 3 January 2015.

The exhibition tells the story of how the county was affected by the events of 1914-18 and how people have remembered the war, and those lost in it. It focuses on the wider impact of the war on the county and looks at themes such as women and children, agriculture and local efforts to support troops.



There are objects, photographs and costumes for visitors to enjoy, as well as telegraphs, medals and weapons. The exhibition also features artwork by Somerset artist Jon England.

The museum is open from 10.00 am to 5.00 pm (last entry 4.30 pm) Tuesday to Saturday, and Bank Holiday Mondays. Entry to the museum and the exhibition is free.