The young woman was shot dead in front of her child, just after her husband had been taken away to be shot. And that happened hundreds and thousands of times...

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

During the summer of 1914, many people in Europe went on holiday as usual. When war broke out, some found themselves in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Doris Beaghan’s family holiday in Santec, France was interrupted by the opening of hostilities.

And then the war broke, France and Germany. And of course the French people then didn’t know which side the British were coming in on, if at all. So we were treated with grave suspicion and as aliens. And every day my father had to report to Roscoff which was about 3 miles away and all along the beach there were soldiers with fixed bayonets. And there was a curfew – no bathing after dark! And eventually we were told that we could go.

Herbe Haase, from Frankfurt in Germany, was holidaying with her mother and sister on one of the islands in the North Sea when they received an urgent message.

And then one day we came home and there was a telegram waiting for my mother, in which my father said: ‘Take next boat, come home at once.’ So my mother had to make arrangements and pack all the things. And next morning the whole holiday population, an enormous crowd, went all to the quays because everybody had to leave on three boats and the crowd was terrific. And my mother with a small child on her arms and a small child clinging to her skirts of course couldn’t get on to the boat, everybody was pushing and pressing. A lady came and said: ‘Would you like to take a seat on the luggage boat, because there is some space?’, and on the luggage boat we crossed.

Angela Limerick’s parents were visiting Germany and only just made it out of the country in time.

My parents were in Germany doing one of these cures and we were then conscious at the end of July that war was imminent. And we kept on sending telegrams to them saying come home quickly, which they never got of course. And eventually they did get through: they were on the last train through Belgium and they saw all the troops marching up and everything else in Germany as they passed through. And were very, very lucky to get through. But they heard nothing there; the papers didn’t give them any indication of what was coming. And it was only on the, I suppose it was the third of August, that the doctor rushed into their room and said ‘You must get out and pack at once and be gone in an hour if you mean to get away at all’.

German infantry crossing the Place Charles Rogier in Brussels as civilians look on following the invasion of Belgium, August 1914.
German infantry crossing the Place Charles Rogier in Brussels as civilians look on following the invasion of Belgium, August 1914. © IWM (Q 88431)

At the start of the war, German military strategy relied on a swift invasion of France – via Belgium. The Belgian Army, though heavily outnumbered, put up a brave resistance. This soldier took part in the defence of Liège.

I was one of the youngest classes so I was in the front line and they put us up in little trenches what was made there all in a hurry, because there was nothing prepared, near the Fort of Barchon. It was a few metres away from the fort that we were stationed and that’s where we had our first christening from German shrapnel fire. And after we had been there a little while, not very long, that officers really understood what was happening that it was meant really war that it was not playing about so we had already a few casualties.

Civilians fled from the German Army as it advanced through Belgium. Alice Brand describes having to leave her life behind.

Well then, the thing was I think was worse than anything was when we got on the boat, all the refugees – all kinds – that was a dreadful thing. People we’d never met of course, didn’t know anything about it. I mean, it’s an awful experience, you know, when you have to shut your door, nice home we had, a nice house, fully furnished. Beautiful, everything. Nice doll I had! Sounds funny doesn’t it but I had it. It was a beautiful home and I’ve often thought that now, it does seem a shame really the things we could have done with, you know.

As Belgium fell to the Germans, many atrocities were committed against civilians. Germaine Soltau heard of such incidents.

But then our government was gone and meanwhile the fortress of Liège had fallen. Then the Germans were on their way to Brussels, preceded by streams of refugees telling us about more stories of atrocities which all happened in the little villages and small towns of the Ardennes. Well everybody knows about Visé and Dinant and Tamines and all that.Personally, we heard about friends who were living in a little village in the Ardennes.The young woman was shot dead in front of her child, just after her husband had been taken away to be shot. And that happened hundreds and thousands of times. Always the same story.

The violation of Belgian neutrality caused Britain to enter the war. Within days, British soldiers were on the continent.  Many who witnessed the plight of Belgian refugees, such as Frederick Atkinson, were inspired to fight for them.

A bit further on we came to the woods and there were thousands of them, thousands of refugees in those woods with their scanty belongings, taking refuge in the woods for the night. These woods were silhouetted in the great flames of the destroyed villages and towns which lit up in front of them. On seeing these people, these refugees, we forgot our troubles, we forgot our hunger, we forgot our thirst, we forgot everything but we set our chins forward in order to try and do something to alleviate this suffering.

Ernest White found that the sheer numbers of refugees held up the advance of his regiment, the 18th Hussars.

The refugees delayed us quite a lot on the roads. And it was really very hard to get through some of these places with the refugees coming down. I can remember bicycles and handcarts and cars loaded up, coming away. And going up through there, there was estaminets, all empty. Houses. I myself went into one estaminet and it was empty. I filled up my water bottle with rum.

Families of Belgian refugees prepare to leave Ostend in a trawler, 16 October 1914.
Families of Belgian refugees prepare to leave Ostend in a trawler, 16 October 1914. © IWM (Q 53340)

Many Belgians escaped to Britain on crowded boats. Paul Bareau, from Antwerp, describes the welcome his family received.

Well we left Belgium in dejection and we arrived in England and suddenly found ourselves heroes, the brave little Belgians. I remember being welcomed in Folkestone by what must have been the chairman of the reception committee, a large woman who embraced my sister and myself, and this for me epitomised the welcome which we received then and which we were to receive for months and months afterwards. We stayed with friends of my father and I can’t speak enough of the kindness which I received in England.

For any German people in Britain, there was no such kindness. Instead, they found themselves labelled as the enemy. Dorothy Lester explains how this affected her.

There was one family whose house we had to pass on the way home from school and there were three boys in this family, and I don’t even know what their name was! But they used to throw stones at us. Now how they knew that my mother was German, I don’t know. But I mean, we didn’t cover up anything and my sister may have let it out to one of the boys at school. So my sister and I found another way home – we used to go a long way home so as not to pass this.

There were many other examples of violence against Germans in Britain. But in some cases, the hatred manifested itself in a different way, as Eric Dott recalls.

My father disapproved of the war altogether and had great sympathy for those who were ostracized because they were German. And among them was a notable man, Dr. Otto Schlapp, who was the lecturer in German Literature at Edinburgh University. Now he was a fine man, a great character and a very gifted scholar. But his friends just fell off because he was German and the war was on. People who knew what a fine man he was but the prejudice of the war over-ruled it all and people who he knew well wouldn’t speak to him.

British people in Germany were also affected. Thousands of men spent the war in Ruhleben, a civilian detention camp near Berlin. They included Eleanora Pemberton’s brother.

I always remember that in 1913 my brother was working in Germany, got engaged and was eventually married and was in England with his wife and baby from the autumn of 1913. He was working for the London Assurance Company and in July 1914, he and his wife and the baby and an English nurse and their furniture all went out to Hamburg. My poor brother spent the rest of the war at Ruhleben, he was interned of course. My sister in law, her parents were in Germany and so she lived with them while my brother was interned.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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