As First World War commemorations begin Birtley Belgians are remembered

Retired doctor Leon Le Dune is soon to make a poignant journey to Belgium with his son and grandson to re-trace the flight of family members from advancing German troops during the Battle of Mons in 1914. Barbara Hodgson spoke to him

Leon Le Dune, Philip Le Dune and Ben Le Dune
Leon Le Dune, Philip Le Dune and Ben Le Dune

This week sees retired doctor Leon Le Dune preparing for a very poignant journey.

Joined by his son Philip, also a GP, and grandson Ben, the 80-year-old from Chester-le-Street will soon be travelling to Belgium to re-trace the footsteps of family members who fled the country from advancing German troops during the Battle of Mons in 1914.

It’s a desperate and dramatic story he knows only too well.

His grandparents and uncle had just sat down to lunch when the warning came from a Scottish soldier hammering at their home in Frameries that German soldiers, advancing to northern France, were almost upon them and they simply stood up from the table and ran.

“They were under artillery bombardment and found themselves on the front line,” he says.

“They just fled in the clothes they were standing in. My grandfather just had a napkin and my grandmother took a salt cellar which I still have.”

They raced non-stop to the nearest railway station and managed to stow away in a cattle truck on the last train out of Belgium.


Dr Le Dune and his family have visited his ancestors’ homeland many times over the years but, commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Mons which saw the first British action of the war, this will be the first time they have followed the escape route and, having managed to track down the railway station, all three generations will pay their respects there.

“We’re going over there on August 22, to coincide with the very day my family fled and we’ll be re-tracing their path from their home to the railway station - that will be a first for us,” says Dr Le Dune.

“We propose to stand on the same platform from where they caught the last train in the nick of time.

“They had to literally run about three quarters of a mile; they just rushed away as quickly as they could. I often thought my grandfather had great presence of mind to do that as people were fleeing in terror in all directions.”

The escape proved the start of a journey that took them to France then eventually brought them to England as refugees and saw them settle in the North East among a community known as Birtley Belgians.

His grandfather and uncle came first to Elisabethville, a self-contained gated village specially built in Birtley for wounded Belgian soldiers, refugees and their families who came to join the war effort by working at its armaments factory which played a vital role during the Great War.

While now half-forgotten, it was once home to 6,000 Belgians and the factory, designed to look from the air like a housing estate, was one of the most productive in Britain; even among Europe’s best.

Elisabethville was classed as a sovereign Belgian enclave and nobody was allowed in or out without a pass inspected by gendarmes. The French and Flemish-speaking community had their own school, church, cemetery and shops and single men lived in hut-like hostels while families had cottages.

But for the Le Dunes, tragedy lay in store. Uncle Edmund, just 23, was killed in an industrial accident. The grandfather was grief-stricken so he was allowed to have the rest of his family join him from Belgium. Dr Le Dune’s father was just 17 at the time.

The family did return to Belgium after the war but could no longer settle there - he thinks because they were still grieving - and they returned to the region where his father went on to marry a local girl and established a wool manufacturing business with his father in Gateshead’s Jewish community.

“I no longer have a link with the people who went through it since my father died,” says Dr Le Dune but he is pleased 23-year-old grandson Ben has taken it upon himself to arrange with Belgian authorities to lay a wreath at the Menin Gate in memory of the young uncle who died.

Raymond Winder, of Ellington, Northumberland, pictured in 1955 at the age of 17 with his uncle Jean Franquinet, a former Belgian soldier in the First World War
Raymond Winder, of Ellington, Northumberland, pictured in 1955 at the age of 17 with his uncle Jean Franquinet, a former Belgian soldier in the First World War

“My grandson had a school trip to Belgium and has been very touched and moved by it all and, being relevant to our own family history, this seemed an appropriate thing to do,” he says.

Dr Le Dune, who grew up bilingual as his French-speaking grandmother didn’t learn English, worked as a GP for 34 years before retiring in 1994 and also contributed to local radio broadcasts which aired to hospitals.

He recalls meeting a young Kate Adie, now heavily involved in the year’s centenary commemorations, and never expected to be the focus of a programme himself. But since his family story came to light during the BBC’s World War One At Home project he’s been interviewed by the Sunderland-born former war correspondent.

He adds: “I’ve been really very touched that there’s been so much interest and people are very engaged with the story; that they’ve identified with the crisis point in our family history.”

Also living in Chester-le-Street is 86-year-old Doreen Bell, another descendent of the Birtley Belgians whose father Oscar Charles Van Gaver arrived here as a badly wounded soldier whose battlefield experiences earned him five medals including a Croix de Guerre - equivalent to our Victoria Cross - received more than 30 years later when the Belgian authorities tracked him down to England.

Sitting in her living room, surrounded by mementoes including her father’s medal, details of his military history, her own 1950s Belgian passport and keepsakes from her annual trips to Belgium - the last one to celebrate her 80th birthday, she says: “There’s a lot of history”.

Growing up, she was very close to her father and recalls his stories of leaving his family's farm at 18 to join up and being shot in the trenches of Flanders by a German soldier in 1915, the bullet rebounding back through the wound and leaving a hole in his chest.

“He crawled from the trenches, a long way in all this blood, to the Red Cross - and they were going to shoot him for being a deserter!”

With Belgian field and military hospitals fit to bursting, he came to England to convalesce: first to Bath where Lady Bath was a regular visitor to the wounded and taught him his first words of English.

“He was in all these different hospitals then finished up in Elisabethville for a while. It was wonderful - they had their own doctors and school.”

It was at the local Post Office where he would go to buy stamps that he met her mother, Margaret Harrison, who worked there.

When the couple married, his best man at the wedding was from Elisabethville.

Leon Le Dune, Philip Le Dune and Ben Le Dune
Leon Le Dune, Philip Le Dune and Ben Le Dune

Mrs Bell, who is widowed and has a daughter, Karen, son Frank and talented granddaughter Sarah who hopes to study languages at university, is one of their five children.

Cheerful and uncomplaining, it seems she has inherited the Belgians’ creative flair - she worked for 12 years at Shepherds of Gateshead, winning competitions for window dressing displays - as well as her Flemish-speaking family’s tough streak.

“I think farm people don’t have much fear,” she says, telling how her grandmother was shot dead by German soldiers. “She was hiding two British airmen on the farm when the Germans came.”

She added: “I never heard my father call the Germans”.

The North East became his home. “If he’d gone back after the war he would have had free education, a free house and free travel,” she says. “But he’d made so many friends here; he just wanted to stop. He was happy.”

He would travel back regularly to see his big family and following the Second World War she too would visit the farm, mentioning: “After the war I went to Dunkirk - it was flattened. I’ve never seen anything like it; the only thing standing was the church. Then I went back the next year and couldn’t believe it: everything had been built back up.”

Her father found work at Birtley Ironworks, the site which became Caterpillar, but his wartime injury troubled him all his life.

“He suffered terribly. People couldn’t believe he had a deep hole in his chest. It must have been a tough family. He suffered all that and lived until he was 62.”

It wasn’t until 1954 that her father, then in poor health, received his Croix de Guerre for “bravery fighting Hussars” at an investiture at the Belgian Embassy in London.

The citation describes how he silenced and captured an enemy machine gun position and a newspaper article of the time describes him as “one of his country’s greatest heroes” .

In it he’s quoted as saying: “Doubtless the Belgian authorities lost trace of my whereabouts until not so long ago when inquiries were made about my pension.

“My case was investigated and I was informed that I was to receive suitable recognition for bravery in action.”

The authorities made up for lost time by sending details of his full military history which Doreen now has.

Among others with connections to the Birtley Belgians is Ray Winder, of Ellington in Northumberland, who tells of the sad ending to his own family tale.

His mother was Edith Sword, of Walkergate, whose sister Lizzie worked in a store in Newcastle where she met Belgian soldier Jean Franquinet.

“He was billeted at Birtley and recovering from wounds sustained in the First World War when he came to shop. He got to know Lizzie and always insisted she served him,” says Ray, who worked in various North East branches of Midland bank until he took early retirement in 1991 at the age of 53 then ran a garage door and motor repair business for about 13 years.

“They eventually married and, when the war ended, she moved with him to his home in Andenne, near Namur in Belgium.” His mother Edith, then around 13, joined them and attended school there until she was 18.

The couple had a son, Raymond, after whom Ray was named, then family life was disrupted by the Second World War when the Germans threatened to destroy their village and ordered them to vacate their homes.

In the turmoil of war the family were split up - and the couple never got back together. Lizzie is said to have finally died in the south of France of a broken heart.

Ray, who retired again in 2004 and moved with his wife to the Dordogne area of France before returning in 2008 after suffering a heart attack, remembers how in the fifties he and his parents would visit his uncle Jean, staying at his home in Andenne, but “it was always quite a tearful reunion because of the loss of my aunt”.

Jean later remarried and cousin Raymond became a well-known architect. The two sides of the family eventually lost touch but, says Ray, there was another tragic ending in store.

“Although Jean remarried, he never forgot Elizabeth,” he says. “Sadly, he was found hanged in his garage.”

After the war Elisabethville continued to be used as housing for local people and two properties are said to still stand today, while a nearby cemetery has a memorial remembering the Belgian soldiers.


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