Belgian Refugees in Wales: Calling Hidden Histories

by Craig Owen

Belgian Refugees Lecture

Christophe Declercq on the ‘hidden histories’ of Belgian refugees in Wales

WCIA‘s Wales for Peace project in partnership with the David Davies Memorial Institute at Aberystwyth University have launched a call to gather together the ‘hidden histories’ of over 4,500 Belgian Refugees for Wales became home through the First World War –  stimulated by a public lecture by Christophe Declercq, one of the UK’s leading experts on the topic from UCL and the Amsab Institute /University of Ghent, and UK liaison of Belgian Refugees 1914-18.

The Wales for Peace project is supporting community groups and volunteers to explore one big question:

In the 100 years since the First World War, how has Wales contributed to the search for peace?  

The impacts of the war led to the creation of peace movements that have shaped Wales’ national psyche to this day. WCIA have worked with the National Library of Wales to develop the ‘Remembering for Peace’ exhibition, on display at the Nastional Library from 16 Jan-16 April, and this is the first of 3 parallel Aberystywyth lectures exploring the impact of war on Wales. The lecture is the key point of a Wales for Peace tour, in which Christophe has visited communities and schools in Bangor, Menai Bridge, Trawsfynydd, Barmouth and Aberystwyth to deepen the Welsh #BelgianRefugees story.

Christophe’s lecture explored:

  • The context of the Belgian Refugee crisis in 1914, as 1/6 of the population fled the advancing fronts of First World War armies – that would battle in Flanders Fields for the next 4 years.
  • How, why and where people escaped across Europe, how refugees reached the UK and Wales – and influences of politics, privilege and class.
  • Many communities’ rapturous receptions of Belgian Refugees through 1914, including examples from Aberystwyth and Rhyl.
  • Where were Welsh refugees? Host communities, special settlements, schools and industry.
  • The challenges of support, integration and loss as the First World War – expected to last a few months – drew to years.
  • The contribution of Belgian Refugees to Wales, Welsh culture, music, art and education, and trade unionism.
  • ‘Sudden disappearance’ – how and why the Belgian refugees disappeared so quickly from view and memory.
  • Personal stories of refugees and what they went on to do after the war.
  • Why are Belgian Refugees memories of Wales so much richer than other parts of the UK?
  • Gratitude then and now: intergenerational memories.

Among the audience, a mix of students and many people from communities in Ceredigion, the Q&A highlighted just how many ‘hidden histories’ are on our doorstep. Participants included the family now living in Ty’n y Lon, home of Belgian artist Valerius de Saedeleer from 1915-21; and the team involved in the renovation of Yr Ysgwrn, home of Welsh War Poet Hedd Wyn and the iconic Black Chair, symbol of a lost generation.

Participants studying International Politics at Aberystwyth also drew parallels over the contrast between the media and communities’ responses to Belgian Refugees in 1914-15, and the responses to the European Refugee crisis today. The lecture was preceded by a centenary concert at Capel y Garn in Aberystwyth, marking 100 years to the day that a concert was held for Belgian Refugees – but with the funds in 2016 supporting Syrian Refugees. Aberystwyth made national headlines leading up to Christmas 2015 by welcoming some of the first Syrian families to be relocated after fleeing the conflict.

Craig Owen, Head of the Wales for Peace project at the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, said in wrapping up the event, “to know what direction we are going, we have to know where we’re coming from. 35,000 Welshmen gave their lives in the First World War – a lost generation for whom the pursuit of peace is the ultimate memorial and legacy. Wales has a rich history of peace movements, of people and communities who have made an incredible contribution to the world, often under the radar.

It is the WCIA’s aspiration that, by learning from Wales’ peace heritage of the last 100 years, we can inspire a new generation of internationalists who will shape Wales’ role in the world for the next 100 years.”


View the Twitter feed of the lecture, and of Christophe Declercq’s Wales for Peace #BelgianRefugees tour.

Watch a short interview with Christophe Declercq on what lessons can be drawn for the current European refugee crisis.

In March it is hoped to make available recordings of the lecture on Youtube, as a podcast, and in transcription, as a resource for future study and for Welsh community roups and volunteers exploring their hidden histories.

If you would like to volunteer to help Wales for Peace with editing and producin podcasts, youtube clips, transcriptions or hidden history blogs, please email

Researching Hidden Histories

  • Do you know a Hidden History about Belgian Refugees in Wales?
  • Would you be interested in helping Wales for Peace to research hidden histories as a volunteer / contributor, or towards your studies?
  • Would you be interested in applied training / workshops on skills such as digitisation, transcription, or gathering & sharing oral histories?

Visit our Hidden Histories resources page ; Volunteering page ; or get in touch by email to or ring 02920821051 / 01248 672104.

Remembering for Peace Exhibition and Lecture Series 

  • The ‘Remembering for Peace’ exhibition will be at the National Library for Wales until 16th April 2016. The next 2 guest lectures are:
  • Conscientious Objection: 2 March 2016, DDMI (Aberystwyth University) – on the centenary of conscription, former BBC Wales Head of News and Current Affairs Aled Eurig will deliver this lecture on belief and action, conscience and choice.
  • Opposition to the First World War in the British context: 16 March 2016 @2pm, Morlan, Aberystwyth – by Rupert Gude, Tavistock Peace Action Group.

Further Resources on Belgian Refugees in Wales