A family leaves Brussels on foot, watched by two Belgian soldiers. If civilians at first took refuge in the capital, the movement was soon reversed. German troops were advancing quickly across the country, and in mid-August Brussels was directly threatened. The panic was palpable, and thousands of city dwellers chose exodus. “Families are flocking to the stations in search of trains which will carry them far from the city which is on the verge of being invaded”, reported journalists Louis Gilles, Alphonse Ooms, and Paul Delandsheere. “The trains are under assault; it’s a mad dash—every man for himself”!
A million and a half Belgians – or a fifth of the population – left the country between August and October, 1914. In successive waves, they fled the German invasion on foot, by train, or by boat. From one day to the next, the Netherlands, France, and England saw hordes of Belgians turn up. The majority would return later, but 600,000 of them would stay in exile for the rest of the war. Never before had Belgium been confronted with a population movement on such a scale.