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BIRTLEY BELGIANS - MEMORIAL RECORDS
A Working Paper by Bill Lawrence
The Soldiers buried at Elisabethville cemetery, St. Joseph’s Catholic churchyard and commemorated in Birtley Crematorium cemetery and notes on other records of the Communities Births, Marriages & Deaths.

A Working Paper from Bill Lawrence June 2009 – Comments, Corrections & Questions are welcomed at workerswrites@yahoo.co.uk or wlmlawrence@yahoo.co.uk

All reports on the Belgians soldiers who died while at the National Projectile Factory at Birtley say there were 13 and their burials had been in the Belgian community cemetery at Elisabethville , but during my researches for the Beamish Museum supported project in winter-spring 2008/9 two more soldiers gravestones were seen in the Birtley Catholic parish St. Joseph’s churchyard.
Belgian Soldiers' gravestones in the graveyard of St Joseph's RC Church, Birtley, Tyne & Wear (17Kb)
St. Joseph’s has two gravestones for Belgian ‘soldats’ along its walls, together with another one for an English soldier. These stones have inscriptions saying they are buried elsewhere in the cemetery - one in French reads “Enterre ailleurs dans ce cemetiere” and the other in Flemish “Begraven op een ander plaats”. The churchyard was cleared of its gravestones which were then placed along the side walls and the grave yard turfed over in the 1960’s according to the parish website.(www.stjosephs-birtley.co.uk) The style of the gravestones is very different from those with bronze nameplates and coloured Belgian flag plaques which were originally in the Elisabethville cemetery and resemble the simpler stones later erected in the cemetery after the originals had been vandalised.

The Belgians are: Soldat A.Fournier bn.25.7.1883 d.7.8.1916 (left) Soldat J.B. Vyane bn. 1.7.1876 d. 3.2.1916 (centre) and the English soldier on the right is Private 3866 T.Smith of the Durham Light Infantry who died 6.11.1915 aged 44. They are mentioned by the NE War Memorial Project as: “In St Joseph’s are family graves and CWG headstones: including Belgians who lived in a settlement called Elizabethville (see District Notes Birtley[Gateshead] www.newmp.org.uk ).

It would appear that Fournier and Vyane died before the Elisabethville community cemetery was opened although Fournier is listed as Albertus Fournier, D6 in an “Alphabetical Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths Birtley-Elisabethville Liste d’Egl/Kerk Lijst”. From my searches into works accidents and compensation paid to the Belgians in the NPF it is clear Vyane is Joseph Benedictus Vyane killed in the works and whose widow Jeanette and her seven children were awarded £300 compensation. Vyanes death is not recorded in the baptisms, marriages and deaths register as is that of Fournier. (for accident & compensation details see my working paper “The Birtley Belgians – a working paper towards a record of sickness, injury and death among the workers of the NPF during WW1”, first Dec 2008, latest update May 2009) (The ‘author’ of the “Alphabetical Register…..” is unclear. John Bygate gave me a copy in April 2009 believing it came from Schlesinger & McMurtrie’ s archives)

The commemoration ‘pylon’ to the Belgians unveiled on Armistice Day 2004 in the Birtley Crematorium cemetery lists the 13 soldiers who had been recognised earlier:

Soldat Brogniez; Brigadier Brunet; Soldats Claessens, Cools, de Waet, de Wilds, de Geyter, Sergent Hasevoets, Soldat Lovinfosse, Corporal M’Bondo, Soldats Preels, Raymaker and Roelandt.

(As listed in Schlesinger & McMurtrie (1988); Bygate (2005); in the website of the NE War Memorials Project B127/11; and in www.forumeerstewereldoorglog.nl [a Dutch & Flanders WW1 history site which is critical of the condition of the Elisabethville cemetery])

Five of these soldiers died between 20th November and 5th December 1918, and one other on 19th January 1919 as the pandemic Spanish Flu raged so it must be supposed they died from that illness rather than war wounds, or factory accidents. Why Fournier and Vyane are not shown among the dead soldiers is unclear – it can not be because the memorials only recognised those dying from active service or war wounds otherwise the Spanish Flu victims would not have been recorded either.

It is interesting to note the DLI Private 3866 T. Smith is not listed on the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (among more than 500 T. Smiths) although he appears in the “Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-1919” list prepared by the War Office in 1921. Thomas Smith was serving in the 2/9th Battalion DLI which was formed at Ravensworth Park, Gateshead on 11th September 1914 as a ‘second line unit’ which was retained for training formations and as part of the home defences. It moved to Leam Camp, Heworth, as part of the 190th Brigade in the 63rd(2nd Northumbrian) Division and again to Doncaster in November 1915 around the time Smith died. In the “Soldiers Died, etc” list Smith is said to be from Durham and to have died at home (d.Home). Even though he has a gravestone in the churchyard his name does not appear on the Piety memorial record (B127/02 NE War Memorials Project), nor on the Birtley Cenotaph (B127.01). However there is a listing on plaques in the church (B127.09) to a Private Frank Smith who died on 6th November 1916 (a year to the day after Thomas’s recorded death) but as a Private 3307 F.Smith who served with the 1st/8th Bn.DLI is buried in Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension and is recorded by the CWGC (#92 among list of F.Smith’s) it is unlikely these two Birtley soldiers T. Smith and F. Smith are the same person. (Smith notes complied from various sources including “Soldiers Died, etc” DLI part 62 Hayward & Son with IWM 1989; “The Long, Long Trail” www.1914-1918.net; NE War Memorials Project www.newmp.org.uk )

All the known military graves are in Catholic cemeteries but although it might be supposed the Catholic faith was the dominant religion among the Elisabethville community one wonders if there were any Protestant Christians, agnostics or atheists in military service who may have died and been buried elsewhere in the Birtley district. Among the factory workforce there must have been a number of radical Socialists not following religious faiths given the known background of some trades union activists in the works, and the speakers who came to their meetings, among whom was Camille Huysmans, the secretary to the Communist 2nd International who corresponded with Sun Yat-sen, leader of the first Chinese Revolution and for many years with V.I.Lenin, the Russian Bolshevic leader and first head of the Soviet Union.

Little thought has been given before now to the significant religious and political differences which existed among the Belgian population at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. Traditionally Belgium had been divided into two halves – the Flemish speaking, conservative, Catholic agricultural north, and the French speaking, anti-Catholic, Socialist, industrial south, or Walloon area. In 1905 there were more than 34,000 in the emerging Socialist trades unions, but only 10,000 among the Catholic unions – when war broke out the numbers had risen to 127,000 Socialists and 110,000 Catholics although in 1911 it was said there was practically no social intercourse between the two group.
(see Tony Cliff ‘Belgium:Strike to Revolution’, Int’l Socialism, No4 spring 1961, pp10-17)

These differences must have existed at Elisabethville, at least in the early days even though the socialist minded Walloon nationalist Camille Fabry was anxious to overcome the divisions he would write about the children’s school: “We have one criticism of the school, however. We regret the teaching is done by nuns. The local school did not have room for all our children. Soldiers, Roman Catholic or not, fought against the common foe. All should be equal in the eyes of the law of a land liberated by everyone.” Bygate who translated Farbry’s 1919 text says (p125): “Fabry had a point, perhaps , but certainly Protestants were never anything other than a very small part of the (Elisabethville) population.”

Bygate writing about the community church says although the majority of the inhabitants professed to be Catholics, it was reported attendance at church was generally very small. Lieutenant Algrian, the military commandant, explained this was because in Belgium going to church was a political act: ‘to go to church means you are of the Clerical Party’. Bygate supposed the few who preferred to keep up their Protestant traditions must have gone to one or other of the several chapels in Birtley and that these existed, even in a small village like Birtley, in such large numbers must have come as a shock to the Belgians, who were more used to finding just one place of worship in their villages back home, and that was usually the Catholic church. (Bygate p132)

When the war ended and the colony was closing Elisabethville’s priest, Father Michael Verpoorten is said by Bygate to have reported to the diocesan authorities there had been 48 deaths during the lifetime of the Belgian church of St Michael (May 1916 – February 1919). Yet in works director Hubert Debauche’s closing report to the Belgian authorities he included a plan of 76 graves at Elisabethville cemetery – a figure which nearly matches the 77 deaths in the “Alphabetical Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths” mentioned above. From this data it appears there was a burial in the community Catholic cemetery on average every 10 days. Bygate (p136) deduces from Father Verpoorten’s report there was a burial once every three weeks, adding: “…..although just how many were buried in the cemetery is not easily ascertained, …………….A large number of Elisabeth’s deceased were however buried at Chester-le-Street.” Father Verpoorten’s report “Status Animarum” is in ‘Northern Catholic History’ No.31, Spring 1990 but has not been seen in preparing this paper. The “Alphabetical Register……..” was probably compiled during Schlesinger and McMurtrie’s work for the North East Centre for Education about Europe between 1985 and 1988 having been transcribed from papers almost certainly handwritten more than 70 years earlier and possibly in foreign languages. Care must now be taken interpreting these figures.

In ‘The Birtley Belgians – a Working Paper towards a record of sickness, injury and death among the workers at the National Projectile Factory during WW1’ (Dec 2008 updated May 2009) I have written about the deaths in the community based on the records of the Elisabethville community cemetery and the municipal cemetery in Chester-le-Street.

The Chester-le-Street search was prompted by the fatal works accident suffered by Edmund Ledune on 4th November, 1916 whose family were members of a pioneer Christian fundamentalist body the Darby Bretheren. His nephew, Dr Leon Ledune is a member of the current research group and their family story is one of the display panels in the exhibition which has been put together with the help of Beamish Museum.

After Edmunds death Fabry (p69) wrote: Mr Ledune, a sincere and fervent Christian, has had to bear the pain of losing his son Edmond here, killed at his machine. His faith has sustained him magnificently……Since February, 1917 Mr Leon Ledune has invited into his modest home fellow Protestants, ‘children of God’. The Darby Brethren, study the Word, preach and maintain their independence and were reminiscent of Wesleyan Chapels.”

This body met in their homes and perhaps it can be supposed other “non conformists” came together in such a way if there was no chapel for their religious denomination in the Birtley district. Edmund Ledune being a “non comformist” to the Catholic faith was buried at Chester-le-Street and the search of more than 9000 Chester-le-Street cemetery records gave 20 burials of people with “foreign names” who seem not to have been residents in England before 1914/16, in addition to those of the Ledune family who after returning to Belgium came back to County Durham in the mid-1920’s and have settled here since that time.

From an analysis of the “Alphabetical Register……” left by the Catholic community the first death was the infant Barbara Christaens on 18th December 1916. The last burial recorded at Elisabethville was for 26 years old soldier Arthur Degayter who had died on 19th January, 1919 most likely from Spanish Flu. In all there were 76 deaths recorded when as the community was being closed down the works managing director got permission from the Belgian Consul to grant £500 to the Catholic parish of St. Joseph in Birtley – a congregation of more than 2000 – for the maintenance of the cemetery.

On a happier side the first wedding recorded seems to be Anglo-Belgian when on 23rd May 1916 a Joseph Migaet married Anna O’Riley. The last marriage – the communities 84th - took place in St Michaels church on 18th January 1919 when Hector De Coster married Joanna Van der Plas – perhaps they then travelled to Hull and sailed two days later on the “Ajax” which carried the last 300 refugees from Birtley home to Belgium.

The first baptism was for Elisabetha Maria Van Put on 10th May 1916 who sadly died less than 5 months later. There were 275 baptisms among the community – the last being Odilis Verbrugge on 4th January, 1919.

Bill Lawrence
10th June 2009

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