Event Report: ‘The sudden experience of defencelessness: civilians facing invasion, Belgium, 1914’

The second event in the series of collaborative workshops on First World War civilian war trauma funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was a lecture by Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Pennsylvania State University (currently Leverhulme visiting Professor University of Kent), entitled ‘The sudden experience of defencelessness: civilians facing invasion, Belgium, 1914’.

The event was well attended by historians and researchers, as well as postgraduate and undergraduate students.

Sophie’s though provoking and moving lecture discussed the sudden trauma experienced during the outbreak of extreme violence following the German invasion. Sophie used Aarschot in Brabant which was invaded in August 1914 as her exemplar. Mass killings of civilians provoked feelings of defencelessness and mass flight elsewhere in Belgium and within days flight to the Netherlands, France and Great Britain.

Sophie pointed out that even during mass flight there was a desire to uphold the structures of the state with local authorities and particularly local mayors acting as figureheads for the upkeep of normality and for preserving the dignity of survivors and resisting the effects of the invasion by local communities. Sophie also discussed the refugee exodus and differences in treatment of refugees in the Netherlands, France and Great Britain. She ended her lecture by discussing the return of refugees who were often left homeless, and faced resentment among those who had remained in Belgium. By the early interwar period the German atrocities against civilians in Belgium and France which provoked the mass exodus were being forgotten and have only been recognised once again in the context of civilians targeting in more recent wars.

Sophie’s lecture was followed by a sustained period of questions from attendees which included a group of Dr Jenkinson’s final year undergraduates taking her special subject course, Immigration to Britain from the 1880s to the 1980s. The Q&A session revealed the limited support for traumatised civilians during the invasion period and the fact that the suffering and losses of refugees were unmemorialised in their communities in contrast to the monuments recognising the sacrifices of military and civilian casualties.

After this excellent lecture our next event will be Workshop 3 – on Friday 13 October, (time to be confirmed), when Dr Tracy Loughran, University of Cardiff, will give a lecture followed by a discussion on ‘Mediating Emotion, Making Trauma: Doctors, Patients and the Construction of “Shell-Shock” in First World War Britain, at the University of Strathclyde, which will be held jointly with the Centre for the Study of Health and Healthcare, Universities of Strathclyde/Glasgow Caledonian University. This event is free but, for catering purposes, we ask that you please register by sending an email to l.c.robinson@stir.ac.uk.

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