My aunt was Miss May Ethelreda Crick, born in 1886, so was approximately 28 years old on the outbreak of the First World War. I knew her as Auntie Ettie; the local newspaper in the interview set out below calls her Hettie. She was in Belgium for most of the war until she was repatriated to England on 1st November 1918. By coincidence, it was to her own home town of Boston that she returned, Boston having been selected as the English port in the Red Cross scheme arranged with the Germans for the exchange of civilians and badly wounded prisoners of war. The Germans used a port in the Netherlands.
My aunt was the eldest of six children; my mother was the youngest. Their father was a modestly prosperous builder. It was a Roman Catholic family.
My mother told me many stories of her family's involvement in the war. She told of my aunt as being 'governess to a little girl in the Château d'Hyon' when war broke out. At that time Hyon was a village on the southeastern outskirts of Mons. Mother talked of 'Gordon Highlander officers being at the château on the evening before the battle, British wounded there next morning (23rd August 1914), and German wounded in the afternoon'. This all coincides with official accounts of the battle; heavy fighting did take place in this area.
My aunt remained at Hyon, under German supervision, for over three more years. It should be remembered that another English lady trapped in Belgium at this time, Edith Cavell, was shot by the Germans for helping British soldiers trapped after The Retreat from Mons. There were also many stories of German atrocities against Belgian civilians. It was understandably a time of great strain for her family in England. While my aunt was in Belgium, her eldest brother, a sergeant in the 1/4th Lincolns, died of wounds in 1915 and was buried at Remi Siding Cemetery (now called Lijssenthoek) near Poperinge, only 50 miles away from Mons but on the other side of the trench lines. Another brother was gassed and taken prisoner in the German Spring Offensive on the Somme in France in 1918. Also, their father, my grandfather, died in a failed hernia operation in 1918. It is not surprising that the Great War left such a deep impression on my mother.
Initially, it was not clear where, exactly, my aunt's 'château' at Hyon was. In the interview she talks of leaving 'our little château' and going to 'the big one'. The interview makes reference to another lady, Miss Agnes O'Connell, also trapped in the Mons area, described as being at another château 'in the woods about an hour's walk away'. There were several châteaux in and around Hyon. Investigations by the Mons Tourist Office, then a tour of the area in 2002 in the company of an official from the Tourist Office, failed to establish the exact location of my aunt's wartime home. Further research on a visit in 2003 showed that her château was close to the village but has since been demolished. One of the surviving châteaux in that area is now the official residence of the Supreme Commander of all NATO forces; it is a very grand affair; could that be the 'big one' to which my aunt went on the day of the battle in August 1914? We will never know.
My aunt never married. I remember her as a reserved, strict lady. I never took the opportunity to talk to her about her wartime years in Belgium before she died in 1963; this was before my interest in the war seriously commenced after my first visit to the Western Front in 1967.
The day after her return in the evacuation organised by the Red Cross in November 1918, a reporter from the Boston Guardian, a local newspaper, interviewed her. No one knew at that time that the war would be over in ten day's time. This is a transcript of the newspaper report. The reporter's questions are shown in italics. Any editing by me is only of a minor nature.
When did you leave England?
It was in April 1914, the year war broke out. I went straight to Mons. I lived there until March of this year, when I got a passport from the Germans and went to live in Brussels.
Were you at Mons when the war broke out?
Yes I was, and well I knew it, and I shall not forget it for a while.
What were the conditions like?
Well, they were pretty bad in the early part of the war. I was near to Miss Agnes O'Connell, whom you interviewed, and we were companions the whole time. She was living in a château in the woods about an hour's walk from Mons.
We were absolutely controlled by the Germans, and every now and then we had to go to the Kontrol, as it was called, to report. Twice I missed and on one occasion I had 50 marks to pay by way of a fine. They said, "The third time you do this, you will have to go to Germany". At the beginning of the war we only went once a month but, afterwards, it got to be once a week. We had to be there at 8 o'clock in the morning. If you were not there when your name was called out, you were fined.
Speaking generally, how were you treated?
Fairly well. You see, they could not do otherwise, as we were under the protection of the Americans.
And when America entered the war?
When the Americans joined the Allies and they all left Belgium, we were put under the protection of the Dutch Legation. As long as we complied with the regulations we were alright. In Brussels one did not feel it so much, but in Mons, you see, I was almost alone.
How does Fritz in Belgium seem to be taking the news of the Allies'
recent advances and victories?
They are clearing out of Brussels as fast as they can go. Yet, on the other hand, the last day I was there they were making new hospitals for the wounded. It was also said that the Belgians were clearing out the King's Palace and were saying that the King would soon be back. I don't know how true that is though.
And how have the prices of foodstuffs been affected?
When they were talking of peace the prices went down a good deal but, when there was nothing decided, they went up again, higher than ever. Fats and lard you can hardly find, and beef dripping is as much as 60 francs a kilo. Coffee is 80 francs a kilo and tea as much as 210 francs. You think you are badly off here, but it is nothing. There were people who came over with us on the ship last night, people in a good position, and they said they could not live in Belgium. Meat is very dear too. Ham and bacon and anything like that are a tremendous price, and pork and mutton too. We could only get beef, and that only when it had been put through the mincing machine. For that you had to pay 10 or 12 francs a kilo. Other meat went up to 32 francs a kilo. Eggs were 1/4d each, 1 franc, 60 centimes. [Ed: The exchange rate seems to have been 13.3 Belgian francs to £1 sterling. Eggs at 1/4d. (one shilling and four pence) each is nearly 7 pence each in to-day's decimal currency.] Every Friday we had just one egg for lunch. Butter, too, you could scarcely get, and that at 50 francs a kilo. You see, you were liable to be searched any time in the street. The women resorted to some curious plans to get butter. I know of some who had long pockets under their skirts in which they placed articles they had obtained, and so when they were searched they apparently had nothing on them.
The Germans had commandeered everything?
Oh yes. They had taken the wool from the mattresses as well as the brass from the doors. They had even taken the bicycle tyres. We had to use old tyres even to mend our boots. They commandeered all the motor cars and people even buried them to prevent the Germans getting them. They took all the horses too. Our château was turned into a Red Cross hospital and we had one horse for the Croix Rouge, but they took that too.
You could hear the firing for the Battle of Mons?
Yes, we heard the firing of the cannon, first thing on the Sunday morning. A lot of our troops went past - the Artillery. We then left our little chateau and went to the big one. The Germans went to the house [the "little chateau"?], and I wish you could have seen the place when we went back. It was terrible. Madame's linen was all on the floor and had been trodden on. They had taken the beds from upstairs and put them in the lounge and all over the place. It was terrible and they had drunk all the wine. They were all drunk.
Miss Crick told me some stories of terrible treatment by the Germans, but she had no proof of the truth of the stories, as she was not there. One incident which she knows to be true is as follows:
There were half a dozen British soldiers buried near to the château and I used to attend to the graves, keep them tidy and plant flowers on them. However, the Germans came and dug up the bodies to enable them to rifle the pockets. They took the money and the watches, etcetera, and then buried them again. A day or two later, when I raked the soil over, I found a little packet of bandages, similar to what the soldiers carry, and a pocket-knife. They were quite near to the top of the soil. There were thirteen or fourteen buried there, in a big dyke near to; that was a beautiful grave. There were some lovely crocuses and the Union Jack. Later, the bodies were taken up again and reburied in the little cemetery at St Symphorium. [Ed: Now the enlarged, and very beautiful, Commonwealth War Graves Commision (CWGC) St Symphorien Military Cemetery, three kilometres away from where my aunt was at Hyon.]
Part of St. Symphorien Military Cemetery
Photo by courtesy of Pierre Vandervelden
You were not maltreated at all yourself?
No, but you may guess that I am glad to get home again. It will seem strange to be able to walk about without being watched. We were never able to talk freely because there were so many spies about. It was very bad in the early days of the war and the Germans did a lot of damage. They were all drunk and it has been said that a lot of them had been let out of prison to join the army.
Were you able to hear the cannon lately?
Yes, you can hear them in Brussels.
You were away from home when Miss O'Connell left for England?
Yes, I was staying near Antwerp for about three weeks. When I got news that she had gone, I went back and prepared as well. I received my passport last Wednesday morning. A German brought it to me. They were much more lenient than when Miss O'Connell came over. They allowed us to bring 350 francs in money and 45 kilos of luggage. They did not weigh it. I think we got over easier; they did not strip us, or anything. They did not examine some people's luggage at all. We went to Rotterdam and were well treated. We sailed on Thursday morning. There were thirty-seven on our ship, the Studora - all women with the exception of three or four children. One lady, a Mrs Ellington, was allowed to stay in Boston, where she was met by her husband who returned later. He had been in Germany for four years.
In recent years, a researcher at the National Archives found documents showing how my grandfather was in communication with the Foreign Office, attempting to get my aunt repatriated from Belgium at various times throughout the war.
The then neutral United States diplomats in Brussels were contacted by the Foreign Office and various letters were exchanged. But the Germans refused the request because Mons was classified by them as being in 'The Zone of Operations'. (I think that was the title; I do not have the copies of the correspondence now.) If she had been in a more distant part of Belgium she may have been allowed to return earlier.
After the United States entered the war in 1917, the exchange of letters ceased.
Copyright © Martin Middlebrook, November, 2012.
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