Following the recent post about the arrival of Belgian refugees in Birmingham in autumn 1914 one of our other volunteer researchers, Marian, has found this fascinating story about one unaccompanied minor and we were able to find his entry in the Refugee register held in Birmingham archives.
Among the 347 Belgian refugees arriving at the depot in Birmingham on the 14th of October 1914 was Jean Baptiste Despiegelaere, a boy scout from Louvain. From his picture he may look like an innocent boy but he had already experienced the harsh realities of the war. A hundred years later his experiences read like something from the pages of a Boy’s Own adventure story but this was real life. At just 16 years old he had already fled his hometown before it’s destruction by the German army, served in the Belgian army, been captured and interrogated and escaped, shot three German soldiers while on spying missions and been wounded himself!
He told the “Picture World” reporter how he had used his scout training when sent to take a message to the burgomaster of Brussels – “I remembered our scout game of despatch running and hid the note, folded small, in the heel of my boot, sewing down the leather over it”. That’s when he was caught and questioned by a German patrol then imprisoned for three days before escaping to deliver the note.
The gunshot wound to his leg could actually be seen as a stroke of good luck as he was sent to a hospital in Antwerp. Between 28th September 1914 when the Germans started shelling the city and the 8th of October when it surrendered up to a million Belgian refugees left Antwerp heading for the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In Birmingham a Belgian Refugee Committee was quickly established with assistance being provided by local people, religious communities and trade unions. Jean Baptiste was listed as number 998 in the committee’s register, arriving as part of a group from Louvain. He was immediately taken to the Dudley Road Infirmary and a note was later made on his record that he had returned to London.