Ida Darwin and the refugees, 1914

Refugees_from_Belgium_in_Paris,_1914.jpg

Ida Darwin and her husband Horace were staying at a spa in the Haute Savoie, south-eastern France, when the Great War broke out on 4 August 1914. At first they thought they would wait until things settled down – only on 19 August did they decide to set out for home. This story is based on a letter that Ida wrote in September 1914 to her son Erasmus.

Ida and Horace arrived in Paris early on Tuesday 25 August, exhausted by their long train journey from Lyons and intending to rest in a hotel for a day or two. The streets that they knew well were now eerily empty. One shop on the Rue de la Paix carried a notice on its plate glass window saying that the owner and employees had gone off to war and asking the public to protect his property. Outside their hotel Ida observed people ‘eagerly buying the fresh editions of the papers with the accounts of the German advance & the beginnings of the fighting at Mons & standing still on the pavement to read them.’ They decided that it would be wise to leave Paris on the first train available, so Ida left Horace in their hotel room and went to have their passports stamped at the British Consulate.

They boarded a train leaving Paris that evening. As the train headed north Ida was struck by what she saw from her carriage window.

Our train stopped at every station & the carriages were besieged by soldiers begging for French newspapers. As we went along we saw rows & rows of horses and artillery silhouetted on the evening sky, & at Chantilly as we passed through the station was full of women & children camping out. These were the first of the refugees that we had seen.

They disembarked at Amiens at 11pm, where another train was supposed to take them on to the ferry port of Boulogne. The promised train did not arrive. Ida managed to find a porter, who told them that a trainload of wounded soldiers was expected at any moment and all other trains had been held up. It was the second night of the Battle of Mons and most of Amiens’s larger buildings had been turned into impromptu hospitals.

As they stood on the platform, unsure of what to do, Ida watched uniformed British Red Cross men darting about making preparations. Train upon train pulled in, each disgorging not wounded men, but more and more refugee families, who were then shunted on to other trains. Their porter stared at the bedraggled women and children crowding the platforms, muttering ‘Ah! Mais ce n’est pas gai.’ Ida described the pitiful scene to Erasmus.

Many of the people looked very poor & others were well to do. All with children or dogs. One sick woman was being carried on her bed by 2 priests, another by her friends – there were little nuns too, & farm labourers and their bundles. The whole station was full of the shrill sound of women’s and children’s voices, until that lot was sent off & another was poured out afresh onto the platform. And all the time there was a slow procession on the further side of trains carrying gun carriages, covered carts & other war material & endless strings of the Nord engines, being withdrawn from the enemy.

Ida and Horace took turns sitting on their trunk and bags, not daring to move far from each other for fear of getting separated in the crush of people. Their porter waited with them. Ida told Erasmus how ‘that long night 25th to 26th – the second of the battle of Mons – in the great black station with its couching arc lights & its panting engines & its ever growing crowds of refugees, is burnt into one’s memory for ever.’ She tried hard not to think about plume-helmeted Prussian troops on horseback, riding into the station with their bayonets aloft.

When dawn came Ida shared out their remaining chocolate and biscuits with the mothers of crying babies, and wondered if she would ever see England again. Then, just after 6.30am, the train to Boulogne arrived, and their faithful porter managed to bundle them into a carriage with their luggage. Ida couldn’t help noticing that it was a third class carriage, but she did not mind.

They travelled with five weeping women and their children. One mother with a baby girl and two young boys told Ida that she had been given an hour’s notice to leave her home near Cambrai on the French-Belgian border. She told Ida that they had spent all of the previous hot day travelling by train, and when they stopped at one station, kind English soldiers had run along the platform, passing their tin mugs of water up to the thirsty children.

Ida and Horace sailed from Boulogne on Wednesday afternoon, six English gunboats guarding their ship’s passage across the Channel. She told Erasmus how strange it was to look out of their Folkestone hotel window on Thursday morning and see Englishmen and women, towels under their arms, peacefully strolling down to the beach. Three days later the cross-Channel ships stopped running.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 15 November 2018

My next post will be about Ida and her friends’ (including Eliza von Hügel)  involvement with Belgian refugees in 1914-18. This year’s ‘A Window On The War’ project has more information about a wide range of Cambridge women’s work during the Great War, with an excellent photographic exhibition now at Michaelhouse Café until 24 November. Its curator J. E. Bounford’s fascinating blog is here

Sources: Ida Darwin, Making for home, August 1914 (Blackwater Press, 1995). For more information about Ida Darwin, see Headway Cambridgeshire’s timeline.

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