Llandudno and the Belgian Soldiers

4 Jun

Besides the thousands of British soldiers who were billeted in Llandudno during the First World War there were also a small number of Belgian infantrymen in the town – staying here for a very different reason.

In the days before the outbreak of the war the German government demanded that her armies be allowed free passage through Belgium to reach France.  These requests were refused, Belgian neutrality was ignored and when Germany did invade it brought Britain into the war as she was bound by an 1839 agreement to protect Belgium.  The Belgian army put up stubborn resistance and held up the German offensive for nearly a month even though her army was only around a tenth of the size of the German army. However it came at a great cost to the Belgian people – thousands of civilians and soldiers were killed or wounded and more than 250 000 fled seeking refuge in Britain.

In October 1914 a train carrying 80 wounded Belgian soldiers steamed slowly into Llandudno railway station, greeted by a large crowd of cheering well-wishers.  The injured soldiers waved back, their tin helmets aloft in appreciation, as they made their way from the carriages to the charabancs which waited to convey them to Lady Forester’s convalescent home (now Blind Veterans).  Lady Forester’s opened in 1902 and at the outset of the First World War was put at the disposal of the military authorities.

One Belgian soldier recuperating at Lady Forester’s was actually no more than a child.  A couple of months earlier Nestor Swille was a carefree schoolboy in Brussels, but by the time he arrived in Llandudno he was a battle scarred warrior.  At thirteen years of age he was probably one of the youngest to fight the Germans, for Nestor ran away from his parent’s home with the intention of ‘doing his bit’ for his country. 

Hector Swille joined the 11th Infantry Regiment and was given a rifle, a bicycle, a helmet and the job of messenger.  Through the summer of 1914 the teenager rode his machine without incident but at Haacht his luck changed and he was wounded by an enemy shell close to the frontline.  Knocked unconscious from the force of the blast, blinded when the bottle of disinfectant in his dispatch case exploded and, blood-soaked from the shrapnel wounds, he lay there until a fellow Belgian soldier came to his aid.   Badly injured, young Nestor still ensured that the message was delivered to its recipient by another dispatch rider before being taken to a hospital in Antwerp and then onto Llandudno.

The fate of Nestor Swille is unknown, but it is unlikely that he would have been allowed to return to the front-line because of his age.

Lady Forester’s was one of half a dozen buildings in Llandudno requisitioned by either the military or the Red Cross for use as hospitals during the First World War.  Plas Tudno on Church Walks was used as a Red Cross hospital for injured British servicemen.  In 1915 there was a demonstration outside the hospital when it was discovered that a porter employed there was a German national.  The soldiers insisted that Robert Hempel should be dismissed immediately and the following night the police arrested him and he was taken to an internee camp near Queensferry.

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