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. The stories are now on display in the Tourist Information Centre in Rhyl.
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: