From the beginning of WWI, Belgium was occupied by the German army and devastated by continual fighting. As with the wars of today, this resulted in great numbers of civilian refugees. Many Belgian citizens were forced to flee their homeland throughout the war. Overall, around 600,000 Belgian citizens sought refuge in Britain, France, and the Netherlands.
Belgian refugees in 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
In New Zealand, a number of charitable associations and patriotic societies had been created to help raise money and gather supplies to support soldiers at the front. When news of the plight of people fleeing Belgium filtered through to New Zealand, people engaged in supporting the war effort through fundraising turned their attention to helping Belgian refugees as well.
Belgian refugees in Paris, 1914. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
New Zealanders were particularly sympathetic to the displaced Belgians due to the perception that the Belgian Army had slowed Germany’s advance towards France, allowing Britain and France to prepare their counterassault. Newspapers highlighted the suffering of the Belgian people, particularly Belgium’s war orphans, which roused peoples’ sense of empathy.
Poster, ’Remember Belgium’, November 1914, United Kingdom, by Henry Jenkinson Ltd., Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Gift of Department of Defence, 1919. Te Papa (GH016304)
Women in particular contributed significantly to the fundraising effort for Belgium, and made up most of the membership of patriotic societies. As they were not permitted to go and fight, fundraising and relief work was a way women could contribute to the war effort. Donations of clothing, blankets and food were sent abroad throughout the war. Women baked, knitted and grew produce to make money for the Belgian Relief Fund. They planned fairs, games and events, and donated the proceeds of those.
‘Brave Belgium’ fundraising badge, 1914-1919, Australia. Auckland War Memorial Museum (1992.326)
In 1915, Henry Edward Partridge offered 80 paintings by Gottfried Lindauer to the people of Auckland, on the condition that they raise £10,000 for the Belgian Relief Fund. The target was exceeded in just a few weeks. The paintings now form part of Auckland Art Gallery’s Partridge collection.
By early 1915, New Zealanders had sent over £37,000 to Europe for Belgium, equivalent to about $5.4 million today. By the end of the war, New Zealanders’ donations to the Belgian Relief Fund reached around £805,000 (approximately $100 million today) – a staggering amount of money even now.
In September 1915, the Belgian government established the Medaille de la Reine Elisabeth (Queen Elisabeth Medal) to recognise the efforts of women in providing aid for Belgian refugees. The Queen Elisabeth Medal is known to have been awarded to 31 New Zealand women.
Queen Elisabeth Medal (Belgium). By Fdutil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
nzhistory.net – Supporting the war effort, 1914-1919
nzhistory.net – Supporting Belgium during WWI
International Encyclopaedia of the First World War – Women’s mobilisation for war (New Zealand)
Tamara Patten, Content and Resource Adviser, National Services Te Paerangi