What Royston Did …
Among the many English men and women stranded in Europe when war was declared in the August of 1914 was Grace Bullard, youngest daughter of Charles Bullard of the High Street, Royston. Born October 1897 to Louisa Mary and Charles Henry Bullard she went to Belgium in early 1914 employed as a governess to teach English to the children of a Belgium family in Charleroi.
The following is the account of her experiences, in her words, given in an interview to the Royston Crow.
Grace never married and died in 1984. Her death is recorded at Chichester, Sussex.
“I went to Belgium in March 1914. The first few months were quite uneventful until the war began on July 31st. We soon heard of the fall of Liege and Namur but as no newspapers were published, we did not know that the Germans were approaching Charleroi so rapidly until we heard the roar of the cannons. This was on August 2nd and the Germans came into the town about mid-day, setting fire to the houses by throwing lighted torches into the windows as they came along. Their excuse was that Belgian civilians had fired on them but this was not true. In this way about 300 houses were burnt down. We stayed down in the cellar that night. Next day the town was very quiet, but we could hear the cannon still roaring a little further off and the people were very frightened, as the Germans said that if a certain sum of money was not given up that day the whole town would be burnt down. The following day 5,000 German and French prisoners were brought into the town and accommodated in the schools. A few days later four English prisoners were brought to the hospital, and I went to them very often, but unhappily two of them died. From this time onwards we lived under German Rule, the German Officers being billeted in the houses. Food became very scarce, as the Germans took so much to feed their troops. It was the food from ‘The American Relief in Belgium’ that kept us all from starving.
“On March 14th, 1915, all English, French, Italian and Russian (men and women) had to go to a German Bureau to the registered. After that we had to go once a week to have our cards stamped. Once I went to Brussels for a few days and on my return a German soldier came to fetch me with a fixed bayonet because I had not been to have my card stamped. Madam saved my from having to go with him by explaining in German that I had been away. Later on we had to have passports when we wanted to go out of the town. Once I was sent for to go to the barracks, and I was made to wait a long time in a room with a lot of Germans. After a while they took me into another room and asked me a lot of questions about my family. I think it was to try and find out if I received any letters from England.
“On several occasions placards were put up on the walls commanding the Belgian men of all classes between 18 and 40 to present themselves at a certain place. Many of these were marched off to work in Germany, and some of them returned half starved a few months later. Some of them were sent to the far north of Germany and died there of cold and starvation. The indignation of the Belgian women was indescribable. When the Germans required offices they would take an empty house and demand the town to furnish it. When they moved on they took the furniture with them, and the next lot would want the house furnished again. Also when they bought their wounded in they would demand the town to supply beds, blankets, sheets. If these things were not forthcoming the town was fined.
“During 1917 the Germans seemed to be getting to the end of their supply of brass, and ordered the Belgians to give up all they had in their houses. Many of the people gave up a very small quantity and buried the rest in their gardens.
“On April 12th 1918 we were bombed by English aeroplanes and we again had to take refuge in the cellar. On September 27th 1918, the Germans asked me if I would like to go home or not. As they had asked me this question four times before and the train had not gone, I said I would stay, especially as we thought the end of the war was in sight.
“On October 6th 1918, we first heard that the Germans had asked for peace. Between this time and the Armistice I saw several batches of England and French prisoners who had been in camps at the back of the German lines and were on their way to Germany. Many of them were harnessed to great carts, and forced to drag heavy loads. Among them I found a man from Cambridge. He told me that the Germans had given them no food since the night before, and this was 5 o’clock in the afternoon. We also found that there were several English prisoners at the hospital. Those that were well enough used to come to the window and we threw them bread and apples. After a day or two the Germans found this out and barred the window so that it could not be opened.
“During the last fortnight before the armistice we were kept excited by English aeroplanes trying to bomb Charleroi station and munition dumps and we had to spend a great deal of time in the cellar. A good number of people were killed. But these casualties were usually caused by shrapnel the Germans fired at the aeroplanes."On November 11th, at 9.00 o’clock in the morning we heard that the armistice had been signed. For the next few days we saw nothing but German motors, carts (piled up with furniture and stolen objects and pulled by oxen or men) lorries and soldier all on their homeward way. Before the Germans had all gone the people began digging up their brass, one man put all his in his shop windows and wrote up in large letters ‘You see we have delivered the brass to the Germans’.
“On November 13th, the prisoners began to arrive in Charleroi – English, French, Italians and a few Russians. They had been set free the day before and had come on foot many miles without food. They were made a great fuss of by the civilians and great many of them were lodged in their houses, but next day so many arrived that they had to be billeted in the schools. Fresh batches kept arriving every day each looking more miserable than the last. They were all given a good dinner in a big hall and served by the ladies of the town. Some of them were so ill that they had to be taken to the hospital. 8,000 prisoners passed through the town in three days. As they became rested they marched on to meet the English troops.
“During the night of November 14-15th, we were awakened by most terrific explosions, but we could not make out what it was. In the morning we heard that several Germans had set light to trains and munitions dumps. Two of them were caught at the job and shot, but several of them changed into civilian clothes and continued the destruction in the villages around. The explosions kept on all day and we dared not go out much as great pieces of shrapnel were falling in the streets like rain. Windows were smashed in all parts of the town and in places a number of houses were burnt down and several people killed. The village of Jamionx near Charleroi was destroyed. The following day the Burgomaster of Charleroi went to Mons to request that English troops should be sent into the town to keep order. A few days later English troops marched into Charleroi and were welcomed with great enthusiasm. No one objected to their being billeted on them.
“After a few days I applied for a passport to return to England, but it was a month before I could obtain it. Even then the journey seemed impossible as there were no civilian trains running. On December 3rd, and English Officer sent me and three other English girls to Boulogne in a motor lorry. The journey took us 10 hours and we came through Mons, Valencienne, Donai and Arras seeing a part of the devastation of the country.
“We crossed to Folkestone on a ‘leave boat’ on Sunday December 22nd and arrived home the next day."