Conference Call for Papers: Where Do We Go From Here?

Belgians B copy

At the start of the First World War most British people were convinced that most, if not all, Belgians spoke French. From the third weekend of August 1914 onwards and especially in October tens of thousands of Belgians arrived on British shores, by Christmas approximately 100,000 having sought refuge in Britain. They were met by a vast wave of empathy, fulfilled a very useful role for British propaganda and reminded people across the country why Britain had gone to war in the first place, but the many destitute families, three quarters of whom had come from mainly Dutch-speaking Flanders, were initially mostly addressed in French. Many charity organisations, semi-official associations and government officials soon resorted to an equal opportunities approach and attempted to address Belgians in Britain in three languages, English, French and Dutch.


The Belgian community in exile in the Netherlands was mainly accommodated in Dutch, whereas Belgians in France – a much larger proportion of them spoke French – were addressed in French. On the matter of languages used to receive and accommodate the refugees the three main destination countries differed, adding to the diverging experiences of the respective communities in exile.

Throughout the Centenary years the transnational history of Belgian refugees and the First World War has been receiving increasing attention, especially in relation to those in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom. Many (inter)national, regional and local history projects have emerged, each with its own valuable contribution to the overall history of First World War displacement. Many academic research projects have appeared too, resulting in numerous publications referring to Belgians in exile, but only few publications have covered the specific history in detail. There is still ample ground to cover the history of the Belgian refugees.

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On 13 September, the day after the Brussels leg of the Languages and the First World War conference, Christophe Declercq and Julian Walker will be the hosts of a one-day symposium on Belgian refugees. The aim of this one-day symposium is therefore to position the displacement and temporary settlement of Belgian refugees during the First World War within a double framework. Firstly, within the context of the Centenary period and its local projects or academic output, papers are invited that expand existing knowledge and/or provide context and analysis to ongoing research. Secondly, the symposium aims to open up new pathways into the histories of the respective Belgian refugee communities, in particular within a comparative context or with a focus on legacy.

The symposium will aim at a double outcome. First, further dissemination and sharing of information should place participants in a better place to progress with issues they might be experiencing, and should take stock of the current state of research into Belgian refugees, an important requirement before moving onto a post-centenary lifetime. Second, questions are being asked about the darker edges of the entire history of the various Belgian communities in exile, not least their return, and about the legacy, not least those who remained in the host country, or returned there.

Although the symposium aims to reflect on past (hi)stories, contributions that relate historical research Belgian refugees to current-day refugee situations are encouraged to submit. Further details about the Call for Papers, Call for Posters, and Call for Panels can be found below.

 Call For Papers 

Papers are welcomed that provide a perspective on existing research, elaborate on ongoing projects or uncover further primary sources on Belgian refugees. Papers can be holistic as well as interdisciplinary, drawing on research such as memory studies, reception studies, trauma studies and linguistic research, but not exclusively. The event will very likely focus mainly on Belgian refugees in exile in the UK and on those in the Netherlands.

The aim of the symposium is to attract academic papers that look into spatial and/or temporal analyses, including (but not exclusively):

  • First World War Belgian refugees’ communities other than those UK and NL, more in particular France and Switzerland.
  • The repatriation, return and resettlement issues of Belgian refugees from end of 1918 onwards. (Was a level of reintegration needed? Differences in local activism between the reception of refugees in their host nation and upon return home.)
  • Comparison between Belgian refugees’ displacement and resettlement in 1918/1919 and 1944/1945.
  • Comparison between xenophobic responses that emerged over time and today’s refugee situation.

Papers are invited on more thematic approaches as well, including (but not exclusively):

  • Social, political, cultural, religious, financial or industrial networks relevant to the histories of Belgian refugees (readily available networks before, newly established during, and those lasting until well after the First World War).
  • The spatial and/or social mobility of the Belgian refugees, within host nations and across countries.
  • The influence of early repatriation efforts and organisations (autumn 1914) on the image of the Belgians and their temporary sojourn.
  • The influence of the many parts of the fragmented Belgian nation on its post-war socio-political strivings.
  • Refugee stigma in the years after the Armistice.
  • Bonding with the reception country (specific networks or associations, lifelong Anglo-Saxon affiliations, intermarriages, pensions…).
  • Why were refugee stories weakened or even silenced in family histories and in general histories? (The legacy of the First World War soldier – Belgian or British – or returned forced labourer, silent at home, and how it affected family refugee history? The complex reconstruction of a fragmented Belgian nation in which no space was available for the imagined communities that were the Belgian communities in exile?).
  • Analyses of stories about those remained in their host country after 1919, or returned there in the years immediately after the First World War.

Panels are equally invited, focusing ideally on several papers that share specific characteristics (this can be spatial, temporal but also along specific features of a Belgian exile community, such as social class).

As the symposium aims to provide a platform where interested parties can exchange information on their projects and interests with relevant other interested parties, research projects – academic as well as local ones – are invited to present a poster during the break sessions.

The language of the symposium is English.

Papers are invited

  • for 25 minute presentations, send a 300 word abstract and brief bio;
  • for a one-hour panel, send a 300 word proposal and a 100-word bio per participant;
  • for a poster, send a summary of your project or what you would like to present.

The deadline for abstracts, panel proposals and posters is Thursday 7 June, to be sent to Confirmation of acceptance Monday 18 June.

Organising committee: Christophe Declercq, Julian Walker.  @belgianrefugees @languagesFWW

Both the Letteren department of KU Leuven, Brussels Campus, and the Centre for Reception Studies have kindly agreed to supporting the event.

Peter Cahalan has kindly accepted to act as honorary chairman of the scientific committee. The scientific committee will be fully disclosed with the second Call for Papers (mid-May). The symposium expresses its sincere gratitude to Pat Heron and Marleen Van Ouytsel, who both did not live to enjoy the fruits of their efforts in relation to Belgian refugees research and related commemorations.

Belgians A copy

The images are from De Gerlache De Gomery’s Belgium in Wartime, 1917; the views show Belgian refugees arriving at Amsterdam and at Ostend Harbour Station; the drawing of refugees at the Aldwych is by W Hatherell.

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