BELGIAN REFUGEES IN WITTON PARK
For about 2 years, from October 1914 to October 1916, Witton Park was the home to Belgian refugees. In August 1914, they fled from the village of Aarschot, north of Brussels, in the face of German atrocities and eventually 170 settled in Witton Park. After about a year and a half, most moved onto Elisabethville, near Birtley, to work in the munitions factory where they lived in purpose-built housing.
The German Invasion of Belgium
2 August 1914, having invaded neutral Grand-Duchy of Luxemburg, Germany declared war on France the following day. The German Army crossed the border into Belgium 4 August and marched towards France. In doing so, Germany violated Belgian neutrality guaranteed by the Treaty of London of 1839. The British government immediately drew the German government’s attention to its protective treaty with Belgium. The German Chancellor famously dismissed the treaty as a, “scrap of paper”, German troops were not withdrawn and accordingly, Britain declared war on Germany.
The Belgian King, Albert I, was unwilling to allow Germany access through his country. He offered firm protest and chose to stand and fight. The Belgian army, on a war-footing stood at about 158,000 men including those garrisoned in the fortress cities namely Liege, Namur and Antwerp. Bridges were destroyed, roads were blocked, barricades were erected, the army fought valiantly and managed to slow down the advance of German forces which comprised some 840,000 men in 4 Armies.
Between 4 and 17 August, the city of Liege and its fortifications was under siege, the capital Brussels surrendered 20 August and the Belgian Army retired westwards behind the Antwerp defences. Namur with its fortifications was under siege between 21 and 25 August. The village of Aarschot, situated to the north east of Brussels and about 10 miles from the university town of Louvain was behind the German front line by 20 August. The German attack was accompanied by “atrocities against the civilian population of Belgium, hostages being executed, towns pillaged and homes destroyed”.
Atrocities against the Civilian Population
This initial phase of the war, undoubtedly, was characterised by terror of the civilian population, the extent of which may have been exaggerated by propaganda on both sides but the fact of the matter is that there is too much evidence to dismiss it as, the usual violence of warfare. Below are 2 citations:
“The German right wing was the epicentre of violence in which other armies further south also participated and which resulted that summer and autumn with the murder of 5,521 Belgian and 906 French civilians and the deliberated demolition of between 15,000 and 20,000 buildings…Louvain…destroyed a sixth of the city, including the university library …and cost 248 citizens their lives…Vise, the first Belgian town to face systematic destruction with 23 civilian dead, Aarrschot, where 156 inhabitants were killed; Tamines with 383 massacred and Dinant which suffered 674 killed, almost 10% of its population; these quickly became notorious sites of German brutality.” 
“On August 19 after the Germans had crossed the Gette and found the Belgian Army withdrawn during the night, they vented their fury on Aerschot, a small town between Gette and Brussels, the first to suffer a mass execution. In Aerschott 150 civilians were shot. The numbers were to grow larger as the process was repeated by von Below’s army at Ardennes and Tamines, by von Hausen’s in the culminating massacre of 664 at Dinant.” 
To put this terror into context:
- The total Belgian deaths during the war amounted to some100,000 – 40,000 military deaths and 60,000 civilian deaths. Of those civilian deaths who died as a direct result of war, some 6,000 were executed.
- Nearly 1.5 million Belgians were displaced by the German occupation of their land, with impoverished refugees fleeing in every direction. Some 200,000 ended up in Britain and another 300,000 in France. The most, by far, nearly a million fled to the Netherlands. During the course of the war, 3,000 Belgians died attempting to escape to the Netherlands after the 200km long electrified fence along the border had been erected by the German army.
- 120,000 Belgian civilians were used as forced labour during the war, roughly half were deported to Germany to work in prison camps and factories and half worked behind the lines repairing damaged infrastructure, laying railway tracks, manufacturing weapons of war, even digging trenches.
The Germans argued that the Belgian authorities supported the, “francs-tireurs” (free shooters) or non-military partisans who organised guerrilla tactics against German troops and lines of communication thus it was justifiable to take retaliatory action.
Following reports in the Times, and weekly magazines such as “The Sphere” when it was reported that: 
“It was at Aerschot that Burgomaster Tielemans, his son, his brother and a whole group of their fellow citizens were shot dead.”
The Bryce Report was commissioned by HM Government to examine numerous outrages including those at Aarschot, Malines, Vivorde, Louvain and Gelrode. Evidence in the form of first-hand witness accounts such as those of Mme. Tielemans, the murdered Mayor’s wife, was collected. The report concluded that:
- There were systematically organised massacres of the civil population.
- Generally innocent civilians were murdered in large numbers.
- Looting, house burning, wanton destruction was countenanced by officers of the German Army.
- The rules of war were frequently abused.
“Murder, lust and pillage prevailed over many parts of Belgium on a scale unparalleled in any war between civilised nations during the last three centuries.”
19 August: Aarschot, Scenes of Civilian Terror
After the Battle of Aarschot-Ourodenberg, 19 August 1914, the German army marched into the centre of Aarschot. Two army convoys converged on the Market Place in order to continue their march to Louvain together. Belgian soldiers had already retreated from Aarschot. It is widely believed that German soldiers misbehaved and that houses were looted, some set alight, civilians beaten and some arrested. At about 3pm, Colonel Stenger, Chief Commander of the 8th German Infantry Brigade, together with 2 officers, Schwartz and Beyersdorff, occupied the Mayor’s house. They occupied a room with a balcony which overlooked the Market Place which was filled with wagons and soldiers. Gunfire was heard and it was claimed that German soldiers were fired upon by local citizens. There was panic in the convoy, wagons collided and German soldiers started firing indiscriminately. During a 20-minute spell of chaos, Colonel Stenger was shot dead. His officers concluded that he was killed by a Belgian sniper. Soldiers searched for a culprit. Houses were set on fire, escaping citizens were captured and brought together in the Market Place. A group of 75 men and boys were taken to Leuvensesteenweg and executed. Later, a second group, including the Mayor Tielemans, his 15 years old son Louis and 20 others were taken to Leuvensesteenweg, closer to Louvain, nearer Stockman’s farm, and shot. Women and children were herded into the Market Place and kept there overnight while the executions took place. Surrounding buildings were afire. In the morning, residents were ordered to evacuate the town, immediately. About 3,000 civilians were made refugees and fled the scene. 
Another account reports that after the initial shooting incident in the Market Place, mayhem ensued, buildings were set on fire, houses were looted, the “city treasury” was broken open, goods were stolen from citizens, people were rounded-up, around 7pm 80 prisoners were executed then later another group were taken away and the following morning, 39 civilians were killed. In total about 170 civilians were murdered. It was also claimed that a Belgian sniper did not shoot Colonel Stenger but it was carried out by a German soldier, allegedly, the officer was disliked among his men. 
Whatever the actuality, the fact remains that there was a mass execution including the mayor, the town was destroyed and 3000 Belgian civilians were made refugees.
The Peeters Family 
The Peeters family were residents of Aarschot and one member was to become a victim of the August executions. Joannes Baptist Peeters was the coach driver to the mayor, Josef Tielemans.
Joannes and Theresia Peeters had 7 children. By 1914, their first born, son Franciscus (Frans), was married to Maria Clementina Sidonia Verstrepen and they had a daughter, Sophia Joanna Francisca. Their other children were the twins Jan and Louis (born 1898), Anna (born 1900), Justine (born 1906), Mathilda (born 1910) and Edward (born 1913).
On the 20th August, Joannes and his twin sons, Jan and Louis, were rounded up and brought to Leuvensestraat. The mayor, his brother, his 2 sons and the Peeters family group were all lined up with others from the town. Every third person was selected for execution. It is understood that a young German officer pleaded for the lives of the 16 years old Peeters twins. Fortunately, they were released, but only to witness their father and 38 other civilians being shot. Joannes’ sons were ordered to bury their father. 
Aarschot to Witton Park 
Only sketchy details are known of the journey from Aarschot to Witton Park. The Peeters family, widowed Theresia and her 6 young children, loaded some of their belongings onto a wheelbarrow, and fled Aarschot through fields and byways, heading northwards. They arrived at Westerlo, the home of a nobleman called de Merode, where they were permitted to shelter for a while. The family then continued their journey to Antwerp. After receiving identity cards in Antwerp, Theresia Peeters and her children boarded a ship heading for London. It is understood that they moved from place to place in England, eventually settling in Witton Park. 6 October 1914, the Peeters family arrived in a group of 43 refugees.
The oldest son Frans, his wife Sidonia and their daughter Joanna also fled Aarschot but their whereabouts was unknown at this time. They arrived at Witton Park at a later date – they are not pictured on the 1914 photos.
Refugees at Witton Park 
19 May 1882, the Messrs. Bolckow and Vaughan iron works at Witton Park was closed down when the industrial enterprise was relocated to Middlesbrough. Many houses in the village were vacated as the workers moved to Middlesbrough to find work. Employment for coal miners was still available in the local area, particularly the George Pit at Escomb, so not all the properties were vacated.
Witton Park’s Roman Catholic priest, Father John Francis Krajicek was instrumental in finding houses for the Belgian refugees. A local story tells of him going to London to inform the authorities about the vacant houses in Witton Park and suggesting their occupation by the Belgian refugees. The validity of this story is lost in time. The MP for Barnard Castle, which included the village of Witton Park, was Arthur Henderson, a leading figure in the fledgling Labour Party and President of the Ironfounders Union. He would have been well acquainted with the former iron producing village of Witton Park. He supported the war, stirred by patriotism and by the violation of Belgian neutrality, he accepted Grey’s rationalisation for British intervention and felt that the honour of the nation was involved in defending innocent Belgium. It follows that he would want to help Belgian refugees. Ben Spoor was MP for the Auckland Division which included the neighbouring village of Escomb. He and Henderson were political allies. Between them, Spoor, Henderson and Krajicek, are likely to have promoted the homes at Witton Park.
A local account reported: 
“It was in the early months of the war that fame in a somewhat unexpected form came to the village. Up to that time its streets of empty houses had been regarded as a reproach or referred to with ridicule; but there was at least one person the late Father Krajicek, who saw in those empty houses a haven of refuge for Belgians driven from their own homes by the relentless cruelty of German invaders. It was on the night of October 6th, 1914, that the first party of 43 Belgian refugees arrived to take up temporary residence in the village. Thousands of people gathered from all parts of the district and invaded the township to help the inhabitants to accord a real north country welcome to the exiles. Witton Park in that one night had re0established its fame, since it was the first place in the north to welcome refugees. Altogether some 170 individuals were adopted and it is not unlikely that in various parts of Belgium today Witton Park is regarded as a spot for ever associated with Belgian history and its great struggle for freedom.”
The Belgian children attended St. Chad’s mixed RC school. The log book confirms that 2 November 1914, a party of Belgian schoolchildren attended the school. M. Van Criekinge was in charge. It appears that there was a shortage of space by January 1915 since it was reported that:
“Owing to lack of accommodation, the Belgian class has been transferred to a room usually occupied by Infants.”
The Belgian children were enrolled under the numbers 149 to 188 with 5 missing numbers thus it is assumed that 34 children attended the school. Anna and Justine Peeters were numbered 171 and 172.
21 September 1915, the following entry was recorded:
“School closed for afternoon session as Belgian children are going to Durham.”
By October 1915, many Belgian families were settled in Elisabethville but some still remained in Witton Park, as the details from the Peeters family birth certificate proves – 29 October 1915, Sidonia Peeters gave birth to her second child, named Louis Jean Baptist. At this time, the family lived at 15 Low King Street, Witton Park. Frans, Louis father, was recorded as a munitions worker. Sidonia’s mother lived at Rue Dixmude, Elizabethville, Birtley. The date when Frans and Sidonia relocated to Elisabethville is unknown.
4 September 1916:
“This morning I transferred Belgian Class children three to Class III, and five to Class II, as Belgian teacher in charge completed her duties August 13th and will leave W. Park.”
By 4 September 1916, only 8 children remained. Presumably, 26 children left when their families moved to Elisabethville, the camp provided for Belgian workers at the munitions factory at Birtley. It is likely that these last remaining Belgian families left for Elisabethville in the weeks to follow.
The National Projectile Factory & Elisabethville, near Birtley, County Durham
The National Projectile Factory, at Birtley, was established after the scandal of the “shell shortage”. 23 September 1915, the British Government decided to construct a camp to house Belgian refugees who would be employed at the ammunition factory, located in close proximity. The camp was to be called Elisabethville after Queen Elisabeth, wife of Albert, King of the Belgians. The first workers arrived at the camp in late October 1915.  Frans Peeters was part of the team of seven carpenters hired in August 1914 for the construction of the village. He then became part of the maintenance team. An accident cost him his left arm. Fully compensated, he was moved to cinema management.
The munitions factory and the camp were run as a military establishment. In addition to the housing there were 3 dining halls, a church, primary school, market, public laundries and baths, police station and a prison. A fence surrounded the village and the entrance was guarded by Belgian and British police. Societies were set up within the community including a brass band and an amateur dramatics society. In total, approximately 4,000 people lived in the community.  This was sufficient number to support their own newspaper, “The Birtley Echo”. It was claimed that the factory was the most productive in Britain and more than 2 million shells were manufactured there.
A few days after the Armistice, 11 November 1918, the repatriation of the Belgians began and by mid-February 1919, the works was closed and the village was deserted.  The majority of Belgians returned home although about 30 decided to remain in the area. Most of the village was demolished but the school remained in use for about 60 years.
The Return to Belgium
Exact details of repatriation have not been researched but 2 examples are:
- 21 January 1919: Theresia Peeters and her 6 children returned home to Aarschot to live at Diestschestraat 53.
- 16 May 1919: Frans Peeters and his family lived at Diestschestraat 40.
The Peeters family all returned to Belgium and the family tree details confirm that:
- The matriarch, Theresia died in 1960 at Aarschot.
- Frans died in 1968 at Aarschot and his wife Sidonia died in 1972 at Leuven, daughter Joanna died in 1947 at Leuven and son Louis born at Witton Park died in 2004 at Leuven. Frans’ siblings, passed away as follows:
- Jan – unknown
- Louis died 1958 at Aarschot
- Anna died 31 January 1963 at Aarschot
- Justine died 11 April 1996 at Linden
- Mathilda died 7 September 2003 at Leuven
- Edward died 18 December 1996 at Leuven
John Francis Krajicek (1877-1918)
Reverend John Francis Krajicek, the Roman Catholic priest of St. Chad’s, Witton Park was born in London of parents born in Moravia, then a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The area is now part of the Czech Republic. In 1867, the Krajicek family emigrated to Britain, settling in London. The family background was very ordinary, his father Josef worked as a cooper, his siblings were employed in trades such as printing, plumbing and clothing manufacture. John attended St. Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw near Durham City which was the principle Roman Catholic seminary for the training of Catholic priests in the north of England, more recently known as Ushaw College. In 1903, he was ordained to the priesthood and by 1911, was an assistant priest at Stella-on-Tyne living with the Very Reverend H.C. Wrennell. By the beginning of the Great War, in 1914, aged 38, he was priest at St. Chad’s, Witton Park.
Rev. J.F. Krajicek lost 2 nephews, killed in action: 
- S/817 Lance Corporal Joseph Vincent Krajicek, 8th Battalion, Rifle Brigade was killed in action 30 July 1915, aged 19. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium. His parents, Joseph and Alice lived at 15 Brixham Road, Canning Town, London.
- B/200667 Lance Corporal Sigmund John Krajicek, 8th Battalion, Rifle Brigade was killed in action 11 April 1917 aged 20. He is buried at London Cemetery, Neuville-Vitasse, France. His parents Sigmond and Elizabeth lived at 15 Priscilla Road, Bow, London.
Rev. J.F. Krajicek witnessed the end of the war but 1 month later he was dead. Aged 42, he succumbed to pneumonia, 10 December 1918, as the pandemic known as “Spanish Flu” swept through Britain and Europe. He is buried in Escomb Cemetery.
The Aarschot-Ourodenberg Communal Cemetery contains a plot of honour with the graves of civilians who were executed by the Germans and there are other civilian graves scattered throughout the cemetery. 
There are several memorials in the town of Aarschot: 
1) Markers in the Grote Markt
There are numerous signs in the town such as:
- The restored house of Mayor Tielemans
- The red letter box marks the possible spot from where Colonel Stenger was shot
2) The Tielemans Memorial Column
Widow Tielemans bought land near the place where her husband, son and brother-in-law were executed and in 1923 financed the erection of a memorial column – a stone obelisk crowned with a cross, surrounded by weeping willows, palm trees and rose bushes. It is dedicated to Joseph Tielemans Bourgmastre, Emile Tielemans President de la Commission des Hospices Civils d’Aerschot and Louis Tielemans. The land was donated to the civic authority.
3) 1937 Monument
A wooden cross was erected and a weeping willow planted after the war but when the civic authorities embarked upon building work in 1936, they were removed. Due to the ensuing protest a new monument, a bluestone memorial column was erected in 1937. It is in the art deco style similar to the surrounding houses, its shape suggests a cross with the lily of Aarschot’s coat of arms at its base with the word, “Martyrdom”.
4) The St. Roch Memorial, the De Vroey Memorial Chapel
The father of 2½ years old Josef De Vroey (1912-1999) was one of the victims. In the 1960’s, Josef collected testimonials of 34 Aarschot citizens and published them in his booklet, “Aarschot Wednesday August 19, 1914”. He also was the driving force behind the construction of a memorial chapel where his father and other victims had been murdered. The building was the work of Marc Dessauvage (1931-1984), inaugurated in 1965. At the entrance of the church is the statue, “Reverie” by sculptor Gustave Wouters.
LEST WE FORGET
 Alternative spelling is, “Aerschot” see for example “The Guns of August” 1961 Barbara Tuchman p.247
 Alternative spelling is, “Elizabethville”.
 “The Great World War: a history” 1917 edited by Frank A. Mumby p.19
 “A Military Atlas of the First World War” 1975 Arthur Banks p.28/29
 Tuchman Map 1 Western Front. Note Banks at p.30/31 gives the Belgian Army at 117,000 and the 4 German Armies at 940,000 men viz. 1st (von Kluck) 2nd (von Bulow) 3rd (von Hausen) & 4th (Grand Duke of Wurttemberg) by 17 August 1914.
 Banks p.38/39
 For example, “German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial” 2001 Alan Kramer and John Horne
 “Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War 1914-1918” 2015 Alexander Watson p.127 (See also p. 126-134)
 Tuchman p.247 (see also p.340-356) Note: It appears that Vise rather than Aaschot was the first village to suffer executions. Aaschot was the first Flemish village to suffer executions.
 “The Rape of Belgium revisited” 2013 Nick Milne WW1 Centenary: Continuations and Beginnings University of Oxford/JISC
 “Atrocities in Belgium Accounts by Refugees. The Opening of the Great Battle” The Times 28 August 1914 and “German Barbarity in Belgium: The Sack of Aerschot. Fourth Official Report” The Times 5 October 1914
 “The Sack of Aerschot: The Belgian Official Report Published 17 September 1914” The Sphere 24 October 1914
 Report of the Committee on “Alleged German Outrages” 15 December 1914
 https://web.archive.org/web/20160304024120/http://www.martyrcities.be/aarschot The account was originally published in the New York World, written by the American war correspondent Alexander Powell.
 “Aarschot, op Woensdag 19 Augustus 1914” Josef De Vroey describes the entire story of the misbehaviour of German troops.
 The Sphere 24 October 1914 Illustration by Fortunino Matania
 “The Story of the Peeters Family” undated, unattributed, probably Freddy Franssen. Freddy’s parents were probably Sophia Peeters who married Alfons Clement Franssen. Geneanet Community Trees Index. It follows that his grandparents were Frans & Sidonia Peeters.
 Joannes Baptista Peeters born 13 November 1869 Brussel, Liege, Belgium Died 20 August 1914 Aarschot, Liiege, Belgium Geneamet Community Trees
 Maria Theresia Verelst born 27 December 1869 Betekon, Liege, Belgium Died 21 August 1960 Aarschot, Liege, Belgium Geneanet Community Tees Index
 Franciscus Peeters born 13 December 1889 Betekon, Liege, Belgium Died 1 January 1968 Aarschot, Liege, Belgium Geneanet Community Trees Index
 Maria Clementina Sidonia Verstrepen Born 16 March 1895 Rillaar, Liege, Belgium Died 29 July 1972 Leuven, Liege, Belgium
 Sophia Joanna Francisca Peeters Born 9 March 1913 Aarschot, Liege, Belgium Died 18 May 1947 Leuven, Liege, Belgium
 They were named Joannes and Ludovicus but more commonly called Jan and Louis.
 This account is recorded on the reverse of a post card published by J. Richardson of Leeds, “The Peeters Family”, the front entitled, “Belgian Refugees at Witton Park 1914”.
 The Sphere dated 21 & 28 November and 12 December 1914
 “The Story of the Peeters Family”
 The Sphere 10 October 1914
 “The Story of the Peeters Family”
 “Arthur Henderson”1989 F.M. Leventhal p.54
 Leventhal p.50
 More research required
 “The Coming of the Princess Being the Official Souvenir of the Unveiling of Witton Park Memorial 25th October 1921 by Her Highness Princess Marie Louise” October 1921 edited by Tom Dando
 Names from Bill Lawrence photo on lecture notes. Unknown children may be of the Cuypers family
 Anna Maria Elisabeth Peeters Born 17 November 1900 Aarschot, Liege, Belgium Died 31 January 1963 Aarschot, Liege, Belgium
 Ludovicus Peeters (Louis) Born 14 August 1898 Aarschot Died 1958 Mortsel, Anterp. Belgium
 Joannes Peeters (Jan) Born 14 August 1898 Aarschot Date and location of death unknown
 Maria Catharina Justine Peeters Born 15 June 1906 Aarschot Died 11 April 1996 Linden, Liege, Belgium
 Mathilde Francisca Augusta Peeters Born 9 March 1910 Aarschot Died 7 September 2003 Leuven, Liege, Belgium
 Edward Josephus Peeters Born 10 August 1913 Aarschot, Died 18 December 1996 Leuven, Liege, Belgium
 Birth certificate issued 30 June 2010 England & Wales Birth Index 1837-1915 Vol.10a p. see Dec 1918 Auckland 1915 Q4. Ludovicus Joannes Baptista Peeters born 29 Oct 1915 Died 2 September 2004 at Leuven, Liege, Belgium. Geneanet Community Trees Index
 The Journal 7 October 2008
 The Journal 7 October 2008
 “The Belgian Refugees: A Hundred Years On” lecture 6 October 2016 (?) Bill Lawrence
 The Journal 7 October 2008
 Geneanet Community Trees Index
 Commonwealth War Graves Commission
 Find a Grave website