When World War I began, Germany invaded neutral Belgium and Luxembourg as part of the Schlieffen Plan, in an attempt to capture Paris quickly by catching the French off guard by invading through neutral countries. The British were still bound by the 1839 agreement to protect Belgium in the event of a war. On 2nd August 1914, the German government demanded free passage through Belgian territory. The Belgian government refused so on 4th August German troops invaded Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany.
Many refugees from Belgium went to the Netherlands and France but over 200,000 came to Britain. By August 20th about 64,000 Belgians had arrived through Folkestone and on October 16th 1914 two Belgian fishing smacks from Ostend arrived in Ramsgate Harbour. Having been two days and nights at sea with very little food and soaked wet clothes the refugees were in a pitiful state. Mr Moses offered his sail loft under the arches in Military Road for their temporary shelter and the Belgians were soon warming themselves around a big fire. Hot drinks were brought from the Sailors’ Home nearby and very soon Mrs Clutton arrived with provisions and a group of lady helpers. Up to 260 refugees were looked after in the Sailors’ Home before being moved to more permanent accommodation elsewhere. Margate did all it possibly could to welcome the Belgians as well and a large house at Westbrook was opened to accommodate them. St Augustine’s Abbey School in Ramsgate opened its doors to Belgian refugee boys.
Belgian refugees were very quickly repatriated after the Armistice so that by the 1921 census less than 10,000 Belgians were recorded as living in Britain. Marriages between local people and the refugees were just one indication of the close bonds that developed. Flemish speakers were particularly reluctant to return to rebuild their country, which admittedly was in a pretty dire state by the end of 1918. The Belgians never forgot their Kent hosts, many of whom received letters of eternal gratitude. The King of Belgium also wrote to thank the people of East Kent for their hospitality in Belgium’s hour of need.0In August 1918 Miss Edith Glenny of Ramsgate received the Medaille de la Reine Elizabeth from the King of the Belgians in recognition of her work assisting Belgian refugees.
Belgian refugees helped to pay for the building of St Ethelbert’s Catholic Church Hall in Hereson Road in 1924. The local paper reported:-
“People think the Catholic body is a very rich one. That is an erroneous idea altogether. What they are is generous.” said Abbot Egan at the opening ceremony in connection with the new Parish Hall of SS Ethelbert and Gertrude in Hereson Road, Ramsgate, on Thursday He pointed out that that money contributed by members of their faith was often given at a great sacrifice to themselves to promote the glory of God. It was generosity and not richness that made the scheme of building their parish hall possible.