We discovered that the first family of Refugees in Rhyl came from a town in the Flanders region of Belgium called Aarschot. Aarschot is roughly the same size as Rhyl, and an internet search showed that it was quite a lovely town. We were still trying to figure out what form our project should take. We thought it would be a good idea if we found out something about the people from Aarschot who came here, so we looked at the Bryce reports – these were commissioned by Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith to find out exactly what had gone on in those terrible early days of World War One… We have re-written the witness statements to form a collection of stories.
Today (14/11/14) We have received the most wonderful letter from Aarschot:
A word of thanks …
The people of Aarschot wish to express their gratitude to the Rhyl Tourist Information Centre, and to Toni Vitti in particular, for keeping the ties between our two communities alive.
The project about the Belgian Refugees, who came to Rhyl in 1914 fleeing from the atrocities of the German invader, is and has been an eye opener for many in our communities on both sides of the Channel. The website pages are a testimony of how one group of people unselfishly came to the rescue of foreign refugees they didn’t know. And how these refugees came to be accepted and cared for by the generous people of Rhyl.
Aarschot was hit hard during WWI. In all some 170 civilians lost their lives. Most horrifying was the coldblooded execution of more than 100 of them on August 19 and 20, 1914, in reprisal of a German colonel being shot by a sniper on the balcony of one of the houses on the main square. Historians to this day have never been able to establish the identity of the sniper, some claiming that the colonel was shot by someone from his own ranks, as apparently there already had been signs of mutiny among the soldiers he commanded.
Just imagine being lined up with some 400 of your fellow citizens, among them fathers, sons, brothers …, waiting for every third man to be shot down from close range. Well, we can’t really, can we? After the massacre the town was burned down by the Germans and the rest of the community was dispersed. The American war correspondent Alexander Powel would later comment: “In many parts of the world I have seen terrible and revolting things, but nothing so ghastly, so horrifying as Aarschot”.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of what happened during those ill-fated days of August 19 and 20, 1914. Aarschot paid tribute to the victims in many ways. What the project and website about the Belgian refugees does, is to reveal what happened to the survivors of the atrocities. As is pretty normal, all of the focus centres around the innocent martyrs, rightly so, but what had actually happened to those who had survived and who had turned into refugees from one day to the next, was cloaked by the mists of time.
So thank you to the Rhyl Tourist Information Centre and to Toni Vitti for unveiling the story behind the refugees’ fate, and bringing it to our attention. On a more personal note, thank you also for sharing the soldiers’ stories of Herbert Henry Harding, Alois Van Craen and Colonel Gustave Joseph Albert Rens. Nice touch and greatly appreciated!
Paul Harding, Jean-Paul Ceulemans and Karine Rens
Paul Harding wrote this poem for the commemoration of the martyrs of Aarschot earlier this year:
The onset of war and the invasion of Belgium was a huge shock to the people of Aarschot. It was a brutal, relentless attack. Prior to the arrival of the invaders, notices had been sent out by the German Officers demanding that all firearms be surrendered, and the people of Aarschot complied. The Germans, and in particular a Colonel Johannes Stenger, Chief Commander of the 8th German Infantry Brigade, took over the house where Jozef Tielemans, the Burgomaster, lived with his family. (This house is on a street that is now called Martyr Street.)
The German army proceeded on its march forward and entered the town centre. Both army convoys met on the Market Place in order to continue their march to Louvain together. By this time almost all the Belgian soldiers had left Aarschot.
When an incident occurred that involved the fatal shooting of Colonel Stenger, the Germans accused the Burgomaster’s son, but as they had surrendered all weapons the townspeople knew that the blame was being laid in the wrong place. The Germans were drunk and dissenting, and opinion was that he was shot by one of his own soldiers. The German retaliation to this perceived attack was swift and bloody. Houses were looted and burned. Some of the women were violated. People were held captive or dragged along behind carts. The men were lined up along the river bank and every third one was shot dead. The Burgomaster, his brother and his son were killed in front of their family next to this water pump in the town square. The son was just 15 years old. The Demer became a river of blood that flowed through the heart of the town.
The women and children were made to stay on the Market Square amidst the burning houses all night long. Early the next morning they were finally allowed to go home. But not for long: the order came that the town was to be evacuated, every single person should leave immediately.
On the third of June 2014 we set off to Aarschot. We were funding the trip ourselves, so we’d found the best value way to get there. It was actually very reasonable – we flew from Manchester to Brussels Charleroi airport, and then caught a train via Brussels to Aarschot.
As you arrive in the town at the railway station, it’s obvious that this is a very well cared for place. The streets are spotless and the gardens are well looked after. We had arranged to be at the Tourist Office for one o’clock, so we had plenty of time to explore first.
The Martyr Cities app is a very handy little tool to enable you to plan a trail of the town. We followed the trail, and spent a good bit of time in the shopping area, which is quite busy and centres around the town square and church that you will read about in the stories. There is also a statue trail. Apparently the city council present a new statue to the town every year.
After having spent so much time researching and writing this project, it was difficult to walk around the town without thinking of the atrocities that happened there 100 years ago. We’d seen pictures of the church full of soldiers, and we knew what happened in the square and at the river, but Aarschot is a really peaceful place, and the people of the town were very friendly. We were made to feel very welcome.
That welcome extended to the Tourist Office too. Upon arrival, we were treated to a glass of the locally brewed beer, Aarschotse Bruine, which was very pleasant indeed, especially after a long journey. We met some of the officers of the council and presented them with Rhyl’s town crest. In turn, they gave us a statue of a Kasseistamper, the symbol of the town. You can see the statue in Rhyl Tourist Information Centre, and read about its history.
The Tourist Office shares the building with the brewery and museum. We were invited to tour the museum, and were fascinated to find out the history of the town. Not all of the museum is given over to the war, but that part is a particularly impressive display. There is a statue of M. Tielmans, who you will read about in the stories.
When we left the museum, we spent a good bit of time at the river. The Demer is a beautiful river that gently wends its way through the Flanders region. We sincerely wished we’d had more time to spend in Aarschot, but our train was waiting. It was a brilliant day, and we are very grateful to the city council for their wonderful hospitality. We may well return someday.
You can view our online photo album here: Aarschot Now