In September 1914, about a month after the war had reached Belgium, the first wave of refugees arrived in the BIE-region. Because most of them had come from the area around Leuven, Brussels and Antwerp, and many from the city of Mechelen, they were nicknamed “De Mechelenaars” by the local population. During the first month of the war, refugees were housed in schools in Lichtervelde and Moorslede. They told the most gruesome stories of German massacres and atrocities. 

To accommodate the influx of refugees, help committees were founded and public buildings — mostly convents and schools — were converted into shelters. From September 1914 onwards, the Arsenaal in Roeslare was used to this end. When many of Moorslede's citizens were made to leave their homes in November, they were received there. The refugees in the Arsenaal lived in abominable conditions, facilitating the spread of deadly diseases among them. The lack of hygiene quickly became unbearable. For fear of an outbreak of plague, the Germans eventually released the refugees from the Arsenaal and transferred them to the houses of civilians in the area.

As German troops advanced through Belgium in the early stages of the war, many of its inhabitants fled to France, passing through Calais to reach the unoccupied areas beyond. There are no precise figures, but an estimated 325.000 Belgians were residing in France by the time the war came to a closing. 35.000 Belgians fled to Folkestone, England, during the first months of the war. Furthermore, a significant number of Belgian citizens attempted to reach the neutral territory of The Netherlands. Their efforts were strongly counteracted by the Germans, who raised security along the border by employing patrolmen in sentry boxes and by setting up barbed wire fences.

Inhabitants of the BIE-region, too, fled their home ground in great numbers. Some of them left in the early days of the war and were able to return to their towns and villages at a later point. Others remained on the run for the entire duration of the war. Civilians were generally forced to leave hearth and home when their safety could no longer be guaranteed. This was the case for the people of Dadizele, who were transferred to the municipality of Balen, over 170 kilometres away in the province of Antwerp.

Photo: collection Johan Vandekerkhove