The events unfolding before us today (Russia invading Ukraine March 2022) resonate.
How soon we forget the lessons.
I’m talking particularly about where ordinary folk come to the aid of those who so desperately need it. Such scenes as we sit and watch on our screens today are heartbreaking.
That was the case during WWI when Weymouth & Portland on England’s south coast was in the front line of any invasion. thankfully it never happened on our shores, but we sure made certain that those arriving, fleeing the fighting, often with little more than they stood up in, were welcomed with open arms and taken care of.
What follows is an exert from my second book, Nothe Fort & Way Beyond, in the midsts of editing. As I sit and rework the words, all I can think about is the similarities between what I’m writing and what I’m watching.
‘We might not have been in the physical battle zone, but we became a destination for many of war’s casualties. Of course, it goes without saying, what goes up must come down. More troops went off to fight, but many more returned home battle scarred and war weary. Things were being put in place ready for those returning wounded from the battle front.
End of October 1914 one hundred and twenty wounded Belgian soldiers arrived at Weymouth station on a Red Cross train from Southampton. They were met by the 5th Dorset Voluntary Aid Detachment who oversaw their transfer from carriage to waiting transport and onto Weymouth’s Sanatorium where they were to undergo treatment for wounds that ‘told only too plainly that they had been singled out for attention from the German heavy guns.’
A little later in the report spoke of how ‘Many of the Belgiums are making a quick recovery’ going on to talk about them ‘taking recreation along the promenade. They are easily distinguishable by the blue kepis that they wear.’ With little else to give to show gratitude for the kind treatment they’d received ‘in most cases the buttons or regimental numbers on their uniforms have been distributed as souvenirs amongst those who have attended them.’ I wonder how many local families still possess such treasured souvenirs of those terrible times. Again this article ends with a most poignant paragraph. ‘Wondrously pitiful are the stories that most of them have to tell. Some of them have wives and families, but where they know not, though the hope clings that though with home gone they may reach the hospitable shores of England, and that re-union is not far distant.’
The arrival of wounded Belgian soldiers struck a chord with Weymouth’s residents, who did all they could to help these survivors ripped from their war ravaged country. A lecture was held at the Burdon hotel attended by a large crowd, the proceeds of which were donated to the Belgian Relief Fund. Present at the fund-raising evening was Weymouth’s Belgian Vice-Council, Monsieur Cowdell Barret, who gave a vote of thanks for support of the town. He went on to reveal how ‘distress amongst Belgium people was most appalling.[…] large numbers of his fellow people were at the present time leading the lives of savages in the forests of Southern Belgium, practically without clothing and starving, but for the amount of relief that was being sent out to them from this country.’
Many locals simply presented the walking wounded with gifts of fruit, cigarettes, even money, which seeing as they arrived on our shores destitute was a God send, enabling them to purchase small things for themselves.
One distinguished Belgian mother arrived desperately searching for her son. Having already scoured the country far and wide, she eventually found him safely amongst the wounded soldiers at Weymouth.
Over the following months train after train arrived with war damaged soldiers from the front, most from the British, French and Belgian armies. On arrival they were dispersed to the many hospitals and convalescent homes set up in operation around the town.
As necessity of sheer numbers dictated, some were generated in larger public buildings such as the Sidney Hall, Convent Hospital (Convent of Sacred Hearts) and Burdon Hotel, or they were given space at Weymouth hospitals already in operation like the Sanatorium or Weymouth Royal hospital.
The Christmas day edition of the Western Gazette 1914 tells of
‘MORE WOUNDED ARRIVE AT WEYMOUTH.-A special hospital train from Southampton brought just over 70 more wounded soldiers to Weymouth on Friday for treatment at the Princess Christian hospital. They had been conveyed straight from the Front with as much expedition as possible, and they bore conspicuous signs of not only hard fighting, but also of the severity of the weather experienced in the northern part of France, several suffering from frost-bite.’
Oh such heart rending scenes our ancestors must have witnessed during those dark days. But time and time again they rose to the occasion, helped where help was needed.’
Will we be able to say the same?