Versions of Belgium I: Agatha Christie and the story of Belgian refugees in WWI

Why did Agatha Christie make Hercule Poirot a Belgian? The answer to this question contains a useful set of clues to the ambiguities of Belgium, its fluctuating reputation through the ages – now flamboyant and brave, now sullen and self-doubting – and its incongruous prominence on the European stage today.

In her autobiography, Christie describes her early efforts to invent an out-of-the-ordinary detective hero for the series of murder mysteries she was planning to write. She could not compete with Sherlock Holmes, and Arsene Lupin was “not my kind.” What she wanted was a character with a style of his own, recognizable yet original. She briefly considered a schoolboy sleuth, or perhaps a scientist, but in the end decided against both.


“Then I remembered our Belgian refugees,” she writes. This was 1920 when the Great War was still very much alive in the collective consciousness. “We had quite a colony of Belgian refugees in the parish of Tor [Torquay]. Everyone had been bursting with loving kindness and sympathy when they arrived. People had stocked houses with furniture for them to live in, had done everything they could to make them comfortable.”

As the massive German invasion of August 4, 1914, turned to occupation of city after city, Belgian civilians had fled to the coast, crossing the Channel by the tens of thousands in search of safety and shelter in Britain, weighed down with what possessions they had managed to bring with them. By then, their trampled-upon kingdom had earned the series of epithets that became inseparable from its name, repeated daily in the Allied press, in posters and public speeches: brave, gallant, heroic, plucky and, invariably, little.

In the early days of the war a single division of Belgium’s hastily put together army succeeded against all odds in holding off the massive German assault on the fortified city of Liège for several days (the exact number is in dispute) with a demonstration of far more stubborn courage than anyone, Ally or enemy, had thought Belgian soldiers capable of.

That, at least, was the legend, the first of many. Even if, as Barbara Tuchman suggests, the defence of Liège did not substantially disrupt the German timetable for the invasion of France by all that much, the effort, the bold and dramatic stand, was acclaimed round the world. In Tuchman’s words: “What Belgium gave the Allies was neither two days nor two weeks but a cause and an example.” (Guns of August.)

Antwerp was next. By October 6, the heavily defended port city had been evacuated; three days later it fell to the superior German artillery power. The Belgian Army under their king and Commander in Chief, Albert I, retreated to the coast, their backs to the North Sea. Among the witnesses to the collapse of Antwerp and the desperate escape of the refugees was Rupert Brooke, then a promising poet of 27.

“Antwerp that night was like several different kinds of hell,” he wrote to an American friend, “the broken houses and dead horses lit up by an infernal glare. The refugees were the worst sight. The German policy of frightfulness had succeeded so well, that out of that city of half a million men it was decided to surrender Antwerp, not ten thousand would stay. They put their goods on carts, barrows, perambulators, anything. Often the carts had no horses, and they just stayed there in the street, waiting for a miracle. There were all the country refugees, too, from the villages, who had been coming through our lines all day and half the night. I’ll never forget that white-faced, endless procession in the night, pressed aside to let the military – us – pass, crawling forward at some hundred yards an hour, quite hopeless, the old men crying, and the women with hard drawn faces.”

In the end, one hundred thousand refugees had to be provided for in Britain one way or another. The gallantry and the pluck were not then always so much in evidence. “There had been the usual reaction later,” Christie reports, “when the refugees had not seemed to be sufficiently grateful for what had been done for them, and complained of this and that. The fact that the poor things were bewildered and in a strange country was not sufficiently appreciated. A good many of them were suspicious peasants, and the last thing they wanted was to be asked out to tea or have people drop in upon them; they wanted to be left alone, to dig their garden and to manure it in their own particular and intimate way.”

Out of this tattered and heterogeneous human material Agatha Christie imagined the individual she had been looking for. “Why not make my detective a Belgian? I thought. There were all types of refugees. How about a refugee police officer? A retired police officer.” She made him “meticulous, very tidy.” In a study of her creation, Colin Watson has summed him up as “an incorrigible moustache-twirler. He carried a cane, smoked queer little cigarettes, was a fancy dresser and dyed his hair.” Decidedly foreign, he was not French. “He was a Belgian. And the distinction was more important in 1920 than it might seem today.” Watson noted that, “When his fearful foreignness brought him to the verge of being altogether too ridiculous, his being a Belgian foreigner rescued him. He came, one would recall, from that sturdy ‘gallant little’ country. He was all right.”

But is the dapper, moustache-twirling Poirot in any sense typically Belgian? Not if typical is taken to mean stereotypical, if Belgians are seen as Bruegelian, the mythical pre-mechanized Flemish peasant, big, beer-swilling and raucous. But Christie had other Belgians, no less authentic, to choose from, and the most prominent model she would have been aware of was a man who perfectly resembled the feisty and immaculately groomed Belgian police officer; he was the Mayor of Brussels, Adolphe Max.

Max’s biographer, Belgian journalist Oscar Millard, describes him in words that might as easily be applied to the fictional figure: “Everything about the man is neatness and discretion. He is neat physically and mentally. He is small of build and features, discreet of dress and economical of gesture. His mind and habits are meticulous and orderly.” They were both born in Brussels, both bachelors, both given to self-dramatization.

When the Belgian Government left the Capital for Antwerp on the first stage of its journey into exile, Adolphe Max remained virtually the sole representative of the King and the cabinet of ministers in Brussels. He quickly became the stuff that legends are made of and many extravagant tales sprang up in the five weeks between the morning the German troops marched into the city on August 20 and the day Max was arrested and deported on September 26. The Germans were expecting “a submissive hostage” when they arrived, says Millard, “instead of which they encountered a dignified, unyielding adversary.”

[To be continued…]