Belgians in Chester

By Ann Marie Curtis, St Werburgh’s Great War Study Group

Constant Wauters, Soldaat First Line Infantry, Belgian Army 2KLBV1906

Died 11-03-1915 age 26

Constant was born in Gent, Belgium on 25th Dec. 1888. His address on enlisting was Martelarenlaan 355, Gent. He was one of the injured Belgian soldiers who were sent, together with British soldiers, who had been treated in the same medical facility in France, on a hospital train to England. He arrived in England in Oct. 1914, being sent eventually to Richmond House, 123 Boughton, which was a private house turned into an auxiliary hospital for the duration of the war. It was the main centre for injured Belgian soldiers in Cheshire and also housed some British soldiers. Persons sent on the hospital trains were thought to have a good chance of survival. Nevertheless, his time here must have been difficult for Constant, as his wife and two small children remained in Belgium (different sources state that Constant had only one child). Constant was originally suffering from a severe wound. Initially the wound appeared to be healing well and it was thought that he might eventually be discharged. However, meningitis later set in.

Grave of Soldaat Constant Wauters

Grave of Soldaat Constant Wauters

Constant was seriously ill for about six weeks and unconscious for about fourteen days. During this time, nursing nuns from the Little Sisters of the Assumption Convent in Chester sat with him night and day in order to take care of his needs and to release other nurses for duty on the rest of the ward. Constant died on the morning of Thursday 11th March 1915. His coffin was received into St. Werburgh’s Church on Friday evening and lay there overnight. His funeral was conducted on Saturday 13thMarch with full military honours. A Requiem Mass was sung at 10.00am, the coffin covered by the Belgian colours and resting before the high altar. The celebrant was Father Loos, a Belgian priest who was resident at St. Werburgh’s at this time and who served the Belgian refugee population of Chester and surrounding area. All Belgian refugees throughout the north-west appear to have made their way to St. Werburgh’s and after the mass Fr. Loos addressed the congregation in Flemish and French. During the morning many Cestrians came to pay their respects at the coffin, which eventually became covered with wreaths. Lady Mackinnon, Commandant of Chester city division of the Red Cross Society, brought a wreath from Government House and the local Red Cross sent a cross of red roses on a white blossom background. The Cheshire Regiment sent a laurel wreath tied with the Belgian colours. Alongside these was placed a wreath of violets from Constant’s wife.

At 2.45pm the funeral procession left the church, accompanied by four priests: Canon Chambers (rector), Fr. Hayes, Fr. O’Hara and Fr. Loos. The coffin was conveyed to Overleigh Cemetery on a transport wagon draped with the national flags. The local Artillery Corps provided four horses to pull the wagon. The Depot band played funeral marches and the Depot also provided a firing party. The military procession included detachments from the Depot, the 5th Cheshire, the Artillery and the Yeomanry. Crowds of respectful spectators lined the streets. Fr. Loos officiated at the interment in Grave 11864.

Fr. Paul Shaw of St. Werburgh’s blessing the graves of Constant Wauters and Madame Verbinnen, Nov. 2014.

Fr. Paul Shaw of St. Werburgh’s blessing the graves of Constant Wauters and Madame Verbinnen, Nov. 2014.

This funeral was the first and only funeral of a Belgian combatant to take place in the Chester area and Constant’s grave is the only grave of a Belgian combatant to be found in Overleigh Cemetery. Along with that of Madame Verbinnen, a Belgian refugee who died in Chester, Constant’s grave is blessed each November.

Madame Verbinnen

Madame Verbinnen was a Belgian living in Chester, who was very involved in organising fundraising activities for the Belgian refugees and combatants. She died on Dec. 1st 1918 age 68. She had lived long enough to learn the news of the armistice and is buried in Overleigh Cemetery, next to her countryman, Constant Wauters.

These two graves are almost the only tangible pieces of evidence of the large influx of Belgian refugees and combatants who came to Chester in 1914 and were largely repatriated by 1919.