A Scrap of Paper. Un Chiffon de Papier
When Gilles Jordan Joseph Verduijn went to war it was, as the German Chancellor sneered, ‘over a scrap of paper.’ When he was demobbed in 1919, his birth, service and medals are recorded on a remarkable document “Tribute from a Grateful Nation”.
His granddaughter, Chrissie Verduyn [the spelling has been anglicised] lives in Clun. She and her siblings are, we believe, the happy and enduring results of the First World War. By chance, where she has chosen to live has her also linked to the final hours of peace. Before 1914 Chrissie’s grandfather, born January 1886, son of a farmer, had lived in Oost Nieuwkerke, a village in West Flanders not far from Roeselare. In 1913 he moved to Bruges. He had been in the Belgian army reserve and was re-called to the colours, aged 28, as the threat of German invasion mounted.
It was the German strategic plan which had Jordan Verduijn back in the army. In order to knock France out of the war in 42 days, before turning their attention to Russia, they needed to trample through neutral Belgium. George Goschen [Hopesay churchyard RIP] was an attaché in our Embassy in Berlin. His father, the Ambassador, was at the centre of things just days before war was declared. “Sir E. Goschen to Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Secretary). Berlin, August 1, 1914. D. 12:20 P.M. Military Attaché confident in event of war Germany will pass part of her forces through Belgium.”
Hours before the British ultimatum expired, the Imperial German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, expressed astonishment that Britain would go to war over the Treaty of London 1839 guaranteeing the perpetual neutrality of Belgium. At the Chancellery, Sir Edward Goschen, our ambassador, was on the receiving end “His Excellency at once began a (twenty minute) harangue … the steps taken by His Majesty’s Government were terrible to a degree; just for a word — “neutrality” a word which in war time had so often been disregarded — just for a scrap of paper, Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.” Sir Edward replied that this country attached importance to a scrap of paper ‘because it bore her signature, as well as that of Germany.’ When Sir Edward returned to the Embassy, as the minutes of the British ultimatum ticked away, a mob attacked. George Gerard Goschen, the Ambassador’s son, and an attaché in the Berlin Embassy is buried in Hopesay churchyard, just seven miles from where Chrissie lives.
The Belgian government received 4th August 1914 a remarkably hypocritical note from the German authorities “… as a result of the rejection by Her Majesty’s (King Leopold II) Government of the well-intentioned proposals from the Imperial German government, it finds itself, to its great regret, obliged, if necessary by force of arms, to take measures necessary for its security, which have become indispensable in the face of French threats.”
On the 4th August the German armies rolled over the borders. Overwhelmed by superior numbers and too soon for the promised support from the French or British, the Belgian field army fell back on Antwerp. Jordan Verduijn was amongst them.
Antwerp was the “National Redoubt.” With a dozen forts three miles from the town and a ring of 21 more some six miles outside the city, it had the feel of a First World War Maginot Line. It was considered ‘impregnable’. But 1914 was the era of powerful Siege Guns – Krupp’s Big Bertha howitzers were moved into position. The bombardment of the forts began on 28th September. Inexorably, forts were destroyed and the defenders fell back.
The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, ordered two brigades of the Royal Naval Division to assist in the defence of Antwerp “as long as possible.” But the Belgian garrison had no hope of relief; the Germans penetrated the outer ring of forts. When contact with the rest of unoccupied Belgium was threatened, the Belgian field army retired westwards towards the coast. On 9 October, the remaining garrison surrendered, the Germans occupied the city. Belgian troops from Antwerp withdrew to the Yser, close to the French border and dug in, to begin the defence of the last unoccupied part of Belgium. The Belgian army held the area until late in 1918, when it participated in the Allied liberation of Belgium.
The Royal Naval Division units also managed to withdraw from Antwerp. They returned to England, arriving 11 October. One young officer was Rupert Brooke, the poet. His war poems are based on the action he saw in and around Antwerp. He describes the withdrawal to Ostend “…we at last got away—most of us. It really was a very mild experience; except the thirty miles march out through the night and the blazing city. Antwerp that night was like several different kinds of hell—the broken houses and dead horses lit up by an infernal glare. The refugees were the worst sight. … out of that city of half a million, when it was decided to surrender Antwerp, not ten thousand would stay. They put their goods on carts, barrows, perambulators, anything. Often the carts had no horses, and they just stayed there in the street, waiting for a miracle. There were all the country refugees, too, from the villages, who had been coming through our lines all day and half the night. I’ll never forget that white-faced, endless procession in the night, pressed aside to let the military—us—pass, crawling forward at some hundred yards an hour, quite hopeless, the old men crying, and the women with hard drawn faces. What a crime!”
“It was the largest influx of refugees in British history but it’s a story that is almost totally ignored,” says Tony Kushner, professor of modern history at the University of Southampton. By the end of the war a quarter of a million Belgian refugees had spent some time in the UK and about 165,000 were resident here for the entire period of the War. Belgian convalescent soldiers were also looked after by British refugee committees. Chrissie’s grandfather may have been one of them. “He was wounded at the Siege of Antwerp on 24th September [and] sent to hospital somewhere in the south of England.”
This was no doubt his first contact with this country and its inhabitants. He must have liked what he saw. It was the beginning of a near 40 year relationship. When he had convalesced, he returned to the army working behind the front organising supplies.
He was demobbed in the rank of corporal with four medals in 1919. He was made a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold II, awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Victory Medal and the Commemorative Medal for the 1914-18 war, which brings us back to his Tribute from a Grateful Nation. It takes the form of a painting by Anto Carte [1886 – 1954], depicting Belgian soldiers defending their position during the Battle of the Yser. After two months of defeats and retreats, success in halting the German advance was of great psychological significance and a source of pride both to the King and the Belgian nation. Although left in control of only 5% of their national territory, they would successfully defend it throughout the War.
The Verduyn family believe during their grandfather’s convalescence he had met Daisy Russell in a post office where she was employed as a clerk. This would explain his return to this country after completing military service. They were married in December 1920 in London. Jordan was 34 and Daisy 27. He is described as a ‘Chief Commercial Clerk’, living in Pimlico; the daughter of a gardener, she was living in Bloomsbury.
Jordan no doubt put his languages, French and Flemish, to good use having taken up employment in Covent Garden market in an import-export business trading with Belgium. He was, or became, an accountant.
Chrissie Verduyn concludes his story “Although intensely pro-British; in the Second World War he was classified as an alien and had to inform the police of his whereabouts. The factory he worked at was bombed in the Blitz. He, my grandmother and my father left London. They moved to Trowell in Derbyshire, where his company had another factory. My grandmother died in a traffic accident in 1942..My grandfather stayed in that house until he moved with us to Birmingham, where he lived with my father, his only child, my mother, sister and me. He died the next year 1957, aged 71.”
The portrait is of Jordan, his parents and siblings.
Along the back row: Samuel (farmer died of TB 1928, 4th child), Alice the eldest (teacher 1884-1933 died of TB, Jordan (second child), Margaret (6th child, whom Chrissie Verduyn of Clun knew best. teacher, b 1903 I think and died in 1980), Josue (3rd child, bookkeeper also died of TB), Lou (5th child, headmistress died 1981) and on the front row, Agnes (9th and youngest died of TB age 19) and parents Bruno (farmer 1849-1929) and Elisabeth (1850-1919).
And George Gerard Goschen [Hopesay churchyard RIP] our attaché in Berlin? He had died four years earlier than Jordan. The Times’ obituary was rather catty “he charmed his way through life with every gift but that of bread-winning.”