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

In Brussels folklore, the story of Max’s inflexible moral authority is known as the one about the pencil and the revolver (very Poirot-like props). Stripped of its more unlikely embellishments, the incident concerned the visit of a German commander who had come to ask about requisitions. As he sat down, he removed his revolver from its holster and put it on the desk. At this, Max, picked up a pencil and placed it conspicuously on the desk between them. Seeing the obvious irony of the gesture, the officer promptly replaced his revolver in its holster and, so the story goes, apologized for a “purely mechanical action dictated by force of habit.” Apocryphal or not, the reported confrontation was seized upon by the people of Brussels as symbolic of the struggle between the pen and the sword.

Adolphe Max by George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) CC

Agatha Christie’s admiration for the exiled Belgians who had come barging into her tidy seaside resort town in Devon trailing their tales of woe was tinged with the exasperation that a hostess feels when her guests outstay their welcome. She did not see the same refugees that Rupert Brooke saw. And so she made Hercule Poirot meticulous, very tidy and endowed him with “little gray cells,” but skewed his foreign accent for comic effect.

When Christie speaks of the Belgian refugees wanting to be left alone to dig their garden and to “manure it in their own particular and intimate way,” she is referring with a touch of squeamish scorn to the traditional, ecologically sound but no doubt noisome use that some of these far-from-home kitchen gardeners made of night soil. These are Brooke’s refugees, the old men he saw crying and “the women with hard drawn faces.” These are the brothers and cousins of the farmers that Jacques Pirenne (son of the historian Henri Pirenne, like Adolphe Max a civilian prisoner in Germany) describes in his front-line report, Les Vainqueurs de l’Yser. Not the refugees; the ones that didn’t get away. These are the ones who, out of brute fidelity to the land, continued to live in their shell-battered houses, going out each dawn to work in what remained of their fields, returning at night over ground strewn with the bodies of the dead and the not-yet-dead. These farmers, men undone – called peasants to distinguish them from their betters – trudged by in the night without responding, abrutis par la peur. “They did not hear the rattle in the throat of the dying, nor did they aid the wounded,” wrote Pirenne. These were the indéracinables, the un-uprootables, who stayed on to protect their homes and cattle, the ones who would not leave to save their lives.

The uprooted ones crossed the borders into the Netherlands or France, or over the Channel to Britain by whatever overloaded ferries and fishing boats they could squeeze onto. “They received at first a warm welcome,” says A.J.P. Taylor, agreeing with Christie’s observation. “Later, things changed. The Belgians were resentful that the great British Empire had not protected them more successfully. English people were disappointed to find that most Belgians were ordinary folk of mixed character, not heroes. Belgians did not settle easily into English life; Belgian workers did not fit into English factories. In the end, they were given a munitions town of their own in Northumberland, where Belgian street names, Belgian police, and even, strange to relate, Belgian beer gave them the illusion of being at home.”

Between the ones who fled, for whatever reason, and those who stayed behind, for whatever reason, mutual suspicion soon grew that the others’ motives were less pure than their own. Albert’s come-what-may determination to remain on Belgian soil, however exiguous, set the example that the stayers-on could point to in justification of their decision. The escapees claimed that they could be more useful to their country by working for its liberation from the outside, and strongly hinted (later, the hints became accusations) that it was very convenient for the others, certain shopkeepers, businessmen and factory owners, to stay and mind the store, to watch over their property and such profits as there might be, to make the best of a bad deal, to compromise or, one step beyond, to collaborate.


King Albert
Albert I King of Belgium, CC


But Millard was in no doubt that the absent, the exiles, were in the wrong. “The majority, housed and fed for nothing, cherished and pampered like heroes, are gathering over there the fruits of the bravery of our army” he wrote in his diary of November 30, 1914. He is not thinking of the landless farmers or the indigent. He means, “The professors who have left their students, the doctors who have abandoned their patients, the burgomasters who have deserted their posts…,” the people who, “safe from the shooting, from the burning and pillage, from all danger of arrest, glory in their flight and bray loudly, ‘It is we who are the patriots!'”

Years later when writing his book, Millard brooded over it again after rereading an editorial in the expatriate Independence Belge, published in London, which had stoutly championed the refugees’ cause, urging them not to return to their beleaguered homeland where their presence could only give aid and comfort to the enemy. For the returnees, the paper insisted, this would mean accepting the Germanization of their land, “as a preliminary to the Germanization of their hearts.” This was too much for Millard and he lashed out at these “self-styled ‘patriots'” who had “fought like wolves” on the Belgian quayside scrambling for the boats, “dropping their own children in their wild frenzy to go and ‘sacrifice themselves’ at the expense of their English hosts.” In short, “the Belgian refugees who remained in England throughout the war represented with few exceptions the scrum of our country.”

Among the exceptions was Hercule Poirot. In her biography of the former Brussels chief of police, The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot, Anne Hart pieces together the evidence that he had served in the Belgian Resistance. In Christie’s story of The Kidnapped Prime Minister, when Poirot is approached to take on the case, he is told that he has been expressly recommended by “a very great man of your own country.” Hart says “it is clear that it had been King Albert himself…who had suggested his small compatriot as the one person in England capable of wresting a missing prime minister from the enemy.”



In Hart’s account, a badly wounded Poirot (he walked with a limp) was snuggled out of Belgium into France and thence to “the pretty Essex village of Styles St. Mary” where a colony of six Belgians had already been set up. “From the outset of the war the English had opened their hearts and homes to Belgian refugees,” she writes, confirming Christie, and Poirot acknowledged the hospitality he had received “with gratitude.” He could be grateful but he could not be happy. Digging and manuring a garden was not for him. He spent most of his days “sitting by a window overlooking the village street, smoking an occasional Russian cigarette, and pondering his fate.” Christie quotes him as telling a friend, “For me, my arrival at Styles St. Mary was a sad and painful time. I was a refugee, wounded, exiled from home and country, existing by charity in a foreign land.”

And yet, much later, even with the recognition and the fame that he went on to achieve in his adopted homeland, something persistently Belgian, or Flemish, or peasant-like in Poirot made him seek solitude and silence whenever he needed to get to to the bottom of a mystery. He was contemptuous of the commonplace picture of a good detective: “He must bee full of energy. He must rush to and fro.” He would have none of that. In The Kidnapped Prime Minister he says, “The true clues are within….” After he comes up with the the intricate solution to the case of the vanished minister, he is asked, “Wen did you first begin to suspect the truth of the matter?” His reply is: “When I began to work the right way – from within!”

This inwardness is easily mistaken for glumness, surliness or gaucheness. Compared to some of their European neighbors, Belgians may seem to suffer from timidity or apathy. (Poirot’s insufferable vanity is a private joke of Christie’s. A conceited Belgian is about as likely as a bashful Italian.) Which is not to say that every taciturn or inarticulate Fleming or Walloon enjoys a rich interior life. But it does mean that a tolerance for silence, the ability to keep one’s mouth shut – the first rule of the Resistance – is a character trait that has been valuable to the survival of this country. King Albert had it to a painful degree. A wartime photograph of him standing alone on a dune gazing out over the gray North Sea shows him in a familiar mood. A compulsive rock-climber, his hunger for solitude drove him to the top of the most dangerous mountain peaks in Switzerland and Italy. The trait has been handed down over many generations. The man and leader of men who fought longest and hardest for the freedom of the Southern Netherlands (today’s Belgium) from oppression under the Spanish occupation in the 16th century was William the Silent. The true clues are within.

[To be continued…]

The first part of this article can be found here