Saturday, 23 April 2016

FRIENDS OF THE GRAVES (for the Birtley Belgians)


‘Never forget that you are a Birtley Belgian.’

(Ida ‘Anderland’ Dergent)

This is the story of the Birtley Belgians,

the shellers from hell,

the wandering men 

and the women they wed.

You can say goodbye to your friends.

These are the remnants of Elisabethville,

the shattered relics of battered soldiers,

the shards of savagery,

the empty shells of discarded folk.

This is what’s left of the carnage,

the last of the war effort,

the smiles of the children

and the severed limbs.

This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

From Flanders and Wallonia they came

leaving beloved roots behind

to do their bit for the ritual slaughter,

to bring up well their sons and daughters

to dance and sing

under the hails of bullets.

Fishing for sunshine in the Ijzer brook,

kicking stones on the Rue de Charleroi,

the Birtley Belgians

planted their seed on Durham ground

and made do

and made explosive dreams.

What more can we tell?

‘Home is made for coming from,

for dreams of going to 

which with any luck

will never come true.’

Sweating in uniform

on assembly lines,

pulverising their brains

to keep the powers that be in power,

they were strong

and at the same time weak

and screamed and cried

like anyone.

This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

They’re gone now,

blown to dust

in the festering fields,

memories strewn over the way

to fertilise another day

with the same weary mistakes

and thrusts of love.

I can see the boys in the Villa de Bruges

slaking their frustrated fantasies

to drown the horror 

and the girls

seductive behind the huts

in between

the grind of daily production.

Let me take you

up the Boulevard Queen Mary,

along the Rue de Louvain,

knock on the door of number D2

and blood will pour

and the ground will open up,

‘mud will take you prisoner’

and devour all those years.

This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.

You can hear their singing on the North Sea wind,

hear them in Chester le Street and Liege,

the brass band and orchestra

drowning out the distant pounding.

In and out of trouble,

we will always dance.

An accordion wails across the little streets,

the Three Tuns welcomes the living.

And at the crack of dawn

and in the battlefields of evening clouds

we will remember them,

in the words of the Walloon poet Camille Fabry proclaim:

‘Our thoughts fly like arrows back to the land of our birth.’

This is the story of the loss of lives

for causes we scarcely understand

but for love and grandeur too

and for the little Belgian children

and the joyous games they play.

This is the story of the Birtley Belgians.


The Birtley Belgians emigrated from Belgium to Birtley, County Durham during World War 1 to build an armaments factory and lived in their own specially created village.  
Named after the Queen of the Belgians, Elisabethville itself became Little Belgium - a colony of 6,000 people, of boules and of boulevards.

It had its own hospital, cemetery, school, church, nunnery and Co-op; only Flemish and Walloon were spoken.

The Birtley factory was to the north of the town, British built but entirely Belgian run. By 1916 it gave work to 3,500 men, 85 per cent disabled in some way, with 2,500 family members also housed in the adjacent iron fenced village. 

The poem was commissioned by the Birtley Belgians Euro-Network in 2015 in association with Borsolino and Berline Belgian Drama Groups.

What a good job you've made of it!  Like you, I find these nooks and crannies of the 20th century totally fascinating. (John Mapplebeck, Bewick Films).

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