Nostalgia: Refugees of war

POW barracks, Wagon Works, Lancaster
POW barracks, Wagon Works, Lancaster

While the First World War rumbled on in Europe, millions of displaced people became a logistical challenge for the British authorities, from refugees fleeing the fighting to captured prisoners of war.

Lancashire County Council community heritage manager ANDREW WALMSLEY looks back on the local impacts.

Prisoners of War

The Imperial War Museum website tells us that, within the first six months of the war, there were more than 1.3m prisoners held across Europe – almost the equivalent of the current population of Lancashire.

Some reports in Lancashire’s papers about our own soldiers’ experiences don’t make pleasant reading.

Private Fred McMinn was the first local solder to be repatriated in the Fylde area in January 1918, and the Fleetwood Express reports on particularly harsh treatment at the hands of a doctor in a German PoW camp who thought he was ‘swinging in the lead’.

He was actually in a lot of pain as shrapnel had lodged in one of his knees. In spite of such reports, the knowledge your son, brother of father was in a PoW camp could offer some degree of comfort. Better that than killed, or the horrible uncertainty of being ‘Missing in Action’.

Using census and other records on Ancestry (which is freely available in all our libraries) we find that, prior to the war, the 1911 census records him as being an architect’s assistant and the newspaper article about his release tells that subsequently he became a clerk on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. His story does have a happy ending, as marriage records show he was married to a May Logan soon after he was repatriated.

During the course of the war, a staggering 10m combatants and civilians were imprisoned or interned. By February 1919 all of the 185,000 British PoWs had been repatriated.

Belgian Refugees

In the early stages of the war large numbers of Belgian refugees arrived in Britain after the German invasion, and the plight of the Belgian people was used throughout the war to encourage recruitment and the defence of our own country.

Around 250,000 Belgians sought sanctuary in this country. The vast majority returned after the armistice, but some did stay, often to get married and make lives here.

Their arrival caused much excitement. Across the country, organising committees were set up to process new arrivals and sort out accommodation and work for them. Towns across Lancashire saw groups of refugees arriving, gave them civic receptions and welcomed them into their homes.

The Lancaster Guardian reported the arrival of a group of Belgians who arrived at the railway station and were taken to a reception at the Town Hall on Dalton Square. The paper stated: “The streets were crowded with spectators and the sight of the helpless women and children brought tears to many eyes.”

As well as giving details of practicalities as to where people might be housed, there are insights into issues which arose in dealing with refugees. One is a reference to letters sent to unmarried male refugees of fighting age in January 1915,, in which the committee questioned their reluctance to join the Belgian Army.

The letters stated “the committee are very much disappointed that they have refused to help their country in this present crisis” and asked them to reconsider their position.

Some of those contacted were awaiting parental consent and, interestingly, two stated they were trying to join forces in what was then the Belgian Congo. As this shows, inevitably the situation was more nuanced and not simply a case of our welcoming heroic victims of the German invaders.

After the war finished, the refugees were encouraged to return home quickly and given free passage for a limited period. This probably suited Britain whose troops were returning home, as well as Belgium which needed to rebuild after the conflict.

Aliens and British Citizens of German Descent

There were many difficulties for German nationals who were living in this country, as well as people of German descent who were naturalized British citizens.

There was a very real fear of spies, which was reflected in the requirement for all aliens over 16 to register at local police stations and to demonstrate a good character and knowledge of English at the outbreak of war.

In total about 32,000 ‘alien’ men were detained during the war and held in camps across the country, such as the Wagon Works on Caton Road in Lancaster. In the early stages of the war the Wagon Works was used as temporary barracks for Territorial Force soldiers, but by October of 1914 it became a detention centre for POWs and internal aliens. Originally, it had been premises for the Lancaster Railway Carriage and Wagon Company and was built by Lancaster architect E G Paley.

The site is particularly noteworthy as Robert Graves, poet and author, was stationed there and refers to it in his biography, Goodbye to all That. He comments: “After only three weeks on the Square, I went off on detachment duty, to a newly-formed internment camp for enemy aliens at Lancaster. The camp was a disused wagon-works near the river, a dirty, draughty place, littered with old scrap metal and guarded by high barbed –wire fences.

“About 3,000 prisoners had already arrived there and more and more crowded in every day. Seamen arrested on German vessels in Liverpool harbour, waiters from large hotels, an odd German band or two, harmless German commercial travellers and shopkeepers.

“The prisoners resented being interned, particularly family men who had lived at peace in England for many years. The one comfort we could offer them was: ‘You are safer inside than out’. For anti-German feeling had begun to run high; shops with German names were continually raided; and even German women made to feel that they were personally responsible for the alleged Belgian atrocities.”

You can see more details and images of the wagon works at the website of the Lancaster’s King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum –

As well as aliens, there were many people in Lancashire of German descent whose lives were made difficult by threats and mob violence. German shop premises were often attacked, and there were full-scale riots in Manchester, as well as lesser disorder in Liverpool and Lancaster.