Illustration of refugees

Europe on the move: refugees and World War One

Professor Peter Gatrell examines the upheaval and struggles faced by millions of European civilians who were made refugees – either by enemy occupation or by the state’s forcible deportation – during World War One.

The First World War uprooted millions of European civilians, most of whom were innocent bystanders. The resulting crisis had profound consequences, not only for the individuals directly affected but also for officials and relief workers who attempted to relieve their suffering and for communities that hosted refugees. These upheavals did not end in 1918.

The origins of the refugee crisis

In August 1914 the Russian occupation of East Prussia caused around one million Germans to flee their homes. Before long, Germany’s occupation of Belgium and northern France, Poland and Lithuania provoked a mass movement of refugees. Austria's invasion of Serbia resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe as soldiers and civilians sought to escape the occupation regime. In the Russian Empire, non-Russian minorities such as Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Jews were disproportionately concentrated in the western borderlands and thus particularly vulnerable when Germany and Austria invaded. In addition, Tsarist military commanders accused these minorities – falsely – of aiding and abetting the enemy, and deported them to the Russian interior. 

In the Ottoman Empire, meanwhile, Turkish troops uprooted Armenians who had lived side by side with their Turkish and Kurdish neighbours for generations, but who were now regarded as the enemy within. As Talat Pasha, a leading official, put it in a coded telegram in April 1915: ‘The objective that the government expects to achieve by the expelling of the Armenians from the areas in which they live and their transportation to other appointed areas is to ensure that this community will no longer be able to undertake initiatives and actions against the government, and that they will be brought to a state in which they will be unable to pursue their national aspirations related to advocating a government of Armenia’.[1]

Thus the refugee crisis had two main causes. The first was enemy occupation that persuaded civilians to flee along with retreating troops. (Of course, not all civilians did so.) The second cause was the state’s use of force against its own people – in other words, organised deportation.

French refugees in the north, 1918

Photograph of French refugees walking on foot along a road with horse-drawn carts carrying bedding and other belongings, 1918

Image of French and Belgium refugees taken in April 1918.

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Belgian refugees

In 1914-15 Belgian refugees arrived in France and the Netherlands in large numbers. Around 160,000 refugees found shelter in the UK, where the government kept a close watch on them. At the outset wartime photographs and paintings depicted them as desperate people in need of emergency assistance, but also stoic victims of German aggression, as in Nora Neilson Gray’s portrait of The Belgian Refugee.[2] In Britain more than 2,500 committees provided charitable relief to Belgian refugees. However, when the refugees gave no sign of going home, complaints began to surface that they made intolerable demands on host communities and were insufficiently grateful – in Kent, the Farningham War Refugee Committee criticised ‘individuals who tended to take [charitable donations] as a right and expect a higher standard of living than we felt justified in providing’.[3] The committee in Crediton, Devon complained that ‘many refugees seemed to have the impression that because they had helped England, they had the right to indefinite support from the English’.[4] A newspaper article bemoaned the fact that one refugee ‘won’t work but goes about as if he was a duke’.[5] An English diarist noted that ‘everyone was Belgian-mad for a time’ but that ‘Belgianitis has quite abated’ as a result of refugees’ perceived ingratitude.[6]

The condition of the Belgian workmen now refugees in England

First page from a booklet from 1917 which wanted to dispel claims that Belgian refugee workmen were being exploited in England.

Booklet, published 1917, promoting the good conditions for Belgian refugees in England in reaction to anxieties that migrant refugee workers were being exploited.

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Serbian refugees

Serbia’s defeat at the hands of Austrian forces led to the flight of soldiers and civilians, amounting to one third of the total pre-war population. Half a million refugees made their way across the mountains into Albania. Many ended up in Corfu, Corsica, and Tunisia; perhaps 200,000 died en route. Others were incarcerated in Austrian camps and forced to work for the enemy. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and the American Red Cross provided some assistance, and the Serbian Relief Fund brought some refugee children to the UK.

Images convey the plight of refugees huddled together in hastily assembled convoys and the arduous retreat on foot across snow-covered mountains . The Serbian authorities took pains to make a photographic record of the great retreat in order to support the idea of Serbia’s ‘martyrdom’. Serbian refugees ended up as far from home as in East Anglia and the south of France, as in the case of ‘Saint Sava blessing Serbian children’ in an orphanage in Nice. These images remind us that hostels, orphanages, schools and churches not only accommodated refugees but were expected to remind them of collective national suffering.

Russia’s refugees

Some estimates put the total number of wartime refugees in the Russian Empire at around six million.The refugee crisis transformed many of Russia’s towns and cities. In Ekaterinoslav and Pskov, for example, one in four inhabitants were refugees. Refugees who had survived the journey from the front line faced all manner of difficulties. They were furnished with emergency accommodation in railway stations, schools, empty factories, breweries, hotels, bathhouses, army barracks, monasteries, synagogues, theatres, cinemas, cafes, and even prisons. Hard-pressed local authorities lost no time in trying to ‘evacuate’ refugees to other parts of the empire. Initial sympathy and hospitality rapidly evaporated as it became apparent that most refugees had no money to pay for accommodation or food.

The refugee ‘problem’ was characterised by the Russian press as a ‘state tragedy’ in one report; in another, as a ‘social catastrophe’. Much of the language adopted images of river banks being broken – thus ‘human torrent’, ‘wave’ and ‘deluge’ – and other disasters (‘avalanche’, volcanic ‘lava’), and of fertile land being laid waste by ‘hordes of locusts’.[7]

The crisis had important political consequences. Critics accused the Tsarist regime of failing both to halt the enemy advance and to support distressed refugees. The resulting tug-of-war between government officials and civic leaders was a factor in the collapse of the Tsarist state in February 1917.

In addition, the mass displacement of non-Russian minorities gave nationalist leaders an opportunity to connect with ordinary people and persuade them of the need for states to call their own. As the Polish committee for the relief of war victims put it, ‘Only continuous and close contact with the national group can guarantee and secure refugees on behalf of the motherland’.[8] Hence the refugee crisis contributed to the formation of an independent Poland, Latvia and Lithuania after the war.

Armenian refugees

Armenians who escaped or survived the massacres perpetrated by Turkish troops were scattered across the Middle East and Russia. Fellow Armenians in the Russian Empire and further afield supplied them with food and medicine, looked after orphans, and provided basic schooling. These efforts were supported by non-Armenian sympathisers who regarded Armenian refugees as innocent Christian victims. The most important organisation was Near East Relief, which funded American missionaries and nurses in Syria, Palestine and Turkey itself. Many of the surviving refugees eventually migrated to Western Europe or North America. They included a remarkable young girl, Aurora Mardiganian, whose account of her ordeal was turned into a film, Ravished Armenia, in which she herself played the lead role. Here, too, the emphasis was on the refugee as the symbol of the ordeal of an entire nation. [9]


Most Belgian refugees returned home by the end of the war. Serbian refugees returned to an entirely new country, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, otherwise known as Yugoslavia. Like Serbia, Poland and Russia’s western borderlands had been devastated by the war. Civil war in Russia brought about fresh movements of population, including the exodus of Russians who were opposed to the Bolshevik regime. War between Soviet Russia and Poland – which came to an end only in 1921 – added to civilian suffering and displacement.

Following the post-war peace settlement and the formation of the Soviet state, the new League of Nations invited the famous Polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) to assist Armenian refugees to settle in Soviet Armenia, but uncertainties about the new regime meant that most refugees chose not to do so. As a result, the plight of Russian and Armenian refugees remained an important item on the international agenda throughout the 1920s.


[1] Quoted in Taner Akçam, The Young Turks' Crime Against Humanity: the Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012, p. 135.

[2]The Glasgow Story - The Belgian Refugee

[3] Correspondence re information requested in general circular letter, 17 September 1917. Imperial War Museum BEL 6 93/2

[4] Report of the work of Crediton Belgian Refugee Committee, n.d. Imperial War Museum BEL 6 64/3

[5] Daily Dispatch, 22 April 1915

[6] Pierre Purseigle, ‘‘A wave on to our shores’: the exile and resettlement of refugees from the Western Front, 1914-1918’, Contemporary European History, vol. 16, no. 4, 2007, pp. 427-44 (p. 441).

[7] Peter Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War 1, Indiana University Press, 1999, p. 200.

[8] Quoted in Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking, p. 156.

[9] Various images courtesy of The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute

  • Peter Gatrell
  • Peter Gatrell writes and teaches in the field of refugee history, the history of humanitarianism, the cultural history of war, and Russian economic history. His books include Russia’s First World War: a Social and Economic History, A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War 1, Free World? The Campaign to Save the World’s Refugees, 1956-1963. His latest book is The Making of the Modern Refugee. He is Professor of Economic History at the University of Manchester.

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