Irma Daems was a Belgian girl who fled her home city of Antwerp when it came under bombardment in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War. Irma came to Morecambe and attended Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School (LGGS). She wrote about her experiences in the 1917 edition of the LGGS school magazine, The Chronicle. Thanks go to LGGS for permission to reproduce this article.
Our Flight to England by Irma Daems
From The Chronicle of the Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School, 1917
Our Flight to England
Several weeks after the war had broken out many of the nice places in Belgium were destroyed by the Germans. But Antwerp had been spared until then, and most of the inhabitants of the ruined places came to Antwerp because they thought they would be safe there, for everybody said that it would take the Germans six months to capture the city.
Many English soldiers came to Antwerp; we were all so glad to see them, for we had been waiting for the English to come and help us. But two days after the newspaper said that everybody who wanted to go away could go, and those who preferred to stop had to go into the cellars, for they were going to bombard the city between 9 and 10 o’clock. Many people had made their cellars ready before they were told, because of the Zeppelins which came over the city nearly every night. We had ours ready as well, in case anything happened. Two days before we left we were wakened at half-past three in the morning by the firing of guns, but we did not know what it was, so we got up and went outside to see what was happening. We saw crowds of people watching the Zeppelin which had just gone over the top of our house. Many bombs dropped that night, but they all dropped in the fields, so that not much damage was done.
That same day, in the afternoon, we could see about ten yards away from our house a fight in the air between German, French, and Belgian aeroplanes. The day on which we read in the paper of the bombardment we made some bundles ready to leave home and go away, but on the way we saw people sitting in the streets on their luggage, for they could not get away; so we thought we had better go back, and see what the next day would bring. We were glad to be at home again, and we hoped to be able to stay there.
But alas! at midnight the bombardment began and we had to fly – father, mother and my two brothers, one eight and the other four years old. Just when we were going out there dropped a bomb on the cemetery, not quite five minutes from our house, and everything caught fire. Nearly everybody left their houses; it was pitch black, and you could hardly see to walk. The Belgian soldiers had made a bridge of boats with wood across for the people to cross the river. When we had crossed the bridge we had to walk eight hours before we could get a train. All the way there were people in flight. It was terrible to see how they had to fly with the old and sick people who were not able to walk. All that time we could hear them bombarding the city. When we had walked for about two hours we turned back, and then we could see nothing but flames.
We walked as far as St. Nicholas, about eight hours from Antwerp; there we had the luck to get a train, which was packed with people. We were going to turn back and wait for the next train, but they told us that it was the last train going through, so we got in. We had to stand the whole of the journey. We went in the train to Lokeren, about two hours further, and were stopped there for about an hour, for they thought the Germans had done something to the lines, but they found it was nothing, so we went on to Ghent. There we meant to get out and stay for the night, but they told us that the train would go straight on to Ostend, so we thought it would be best to go straight on. We arrived there at about six o’clock; it was getting dark and we could not find a place to sleep in; at last we found a very small room, where stayed for five days with eleven others. We had to sleep on the flood, for they had not one single bed empty. We stopped there so long, for we still thought we should be able to go back. But after waiting those five days we were obliged to come to England.
We had to wait for 24 hours in the station, and all that time we had nothing to eat but brown bread that the soldiers gave us, and some water to drink. The place was full of wounded soldiers. There were more people than the boat could contain, and everybody wanted to get on board, so we had great trouble in getting away. There were so many people that some were pushed into the water. We left the coast at seven o’clock. Just when we were setting off there came a German aeroplane and everybody was frightened, for they thought bombs would be dropped. Most of the time we were on the boat we could hear firing; we were about six hours on the boat.
We landed at Folkestone at one o’clock. English people were waiting to welcome us, and we all got something to eat and drink, and they gave fruit and chocolates to the children and milk to the babies. We had to wait there about two hours before we could get a train to London, where we arrived at ten o’clock. They took us to the Alexandra Palace, which was full of refugees. We stayed there two days and then we were taken to Manchester, where we arrived at night just to sleep there. In the morning we left then and went to St. Annes, near Blackpool, where we stayed four days. There were eighty-five Belgians there.
Then some gentlemen came from Morecambe to fetch some Belgians; they chose sixteen, and we were among them.
They then took us to a house in Balmoral Road where we lived with sixteen Belgians together. The English people have always been very kind to us, and I am sure we shall never forget what they have done for us, and remember them always when we get back to our country, when the war is over, which we wish to be very soon.