Written by Marion Edwards
In February 1915, the Reigate Grammar School magazine ‘The Pilgrim’ published a letter from Gustave Pastor, a young Belgian who had recently fled Germany for England. Gustave later joined the Reigate Grammar School Upper Sixth Form and on leaving served with the Belgian army. From his references to the steelmaking firm of S A Cockerill, it is possible that Gustave was a relative of Gustave Leon Pastor (1832-1922), a German-Belgian metallurgist and industrialist who was born in Liege, and who served as Works Director of Cockerill under his younger brother George Octave Pastor (1835-1915), a Director-General. The brothers were sons of Konrad Gustav Pastor (1796-1890), also a Director-General of Cockerill in Seraing. The Pastors appear to have had close ties with the Cockerill family, as another Pastor, Conrad-Gustav, married an Adele Hodson-Cockerill during the 19th cent.
In his letter to the school, Gustave writes:
‘For three days the town of Dusseldorf, where I was on holiday, was in a great agitation, the newspapers published contradictory reports, all was in an indescribable confusion, and although the mobilisation was not yet declared, the streets were full of soldiers in campaign attire, provisions increased in price and many shops closed in consequence. Assembled before the newspaper office was an anxious and agitated crowd. The bridge over the Rhine was guarded by the Military in consequence of two Poles having attempted to blow it up. On the eve of the declaration of war the mobilisation of the reserves was begun and things assumed a still more serious aspect. Popular manifestations took place and throughout the night music halls and places of amusement were kept open and the whole town disturbed by singing and shouting crowds.
It was on a Sunday, I remember, on my return from the low-mass that I found a policeman at home with an order of evacuation before twenty-four hours, and I had not yet obtained a passport. The Belgian Consul with whom I should have returned was taken prisoner, and I was obliged to return alone. The international train service was interrupted and I was forced to travel to the frontier in a compartment in which the passengers were packed like sardines. On arrival at Cologne we were delayed in the station for two hours to allow the passage of the troop trains to the frontier. On arriving at Herbesthal we were informed by the Customs Officers that after the examination of our luggage we must proceed to Belgium on foot. We were then led to a room in the Custom House and divested of almost all our clothing so that a thorough examination could be made. I became somewhat restless and attempted to argue with one of the officials with the result that I was placed in a prison cell for one and a half hours. After relieving me of my camera, photograph album, and my papers that I possessed, I was put with my baggage outside the building faced with the task of carrying my luggage (which weighed 45 kilos) half a mile to the frontier. I waited … five, ten, fifteen minutes and the people left the station loaded like donkeys now throwing me a look of irony, now of pity, probably because, sitting on my trunk I cut rather a strange figure. At last a young Frenchman, only carrying a small bag, passed. He was good enough to help me carry my trunk of 45 kilos.
At the Belgian Customs there was an incomparable disorder. People were coming in and going out, the stationmaster and his employees were running quickly in all directions. When the train arrived all the trunks were put in the guard’s van and we entered the first carriage. My journey from the Belgian frontier to Liege cost me nothing … the war is sometimes pleasant! The following night many houses and churches were blown up so as to give the guns of the forts a clear line of fire. As my brother and sister are very young we decided to go to Ostend where we had a villa, so as to spare them the horrors of a bombardment. A non-stop train was leaving at eleven o’clock for Ostend, and we decided to take it. Already Liege took a military aspect, all the motor cars had been requisitioned and divided into cars for officers, for transport, and others for the Red Cross of Belgium. All the cattle from the province were brought into the ring of forts, to provide against a siege, and all the workmen of the principal manufacturers were sent to make trenches around the forts, whilst the ammunition factories, the ‘Fabrique Nationale d’Armes’ at Liege and the artillery workshops of the Cockerill firm were directed by officers. At the station the station master told us that Verviers was already in the hands of the Germans, that a rencontre had taken place between the Belgian Lancers and the Uhlans and that probably before five o’clock in the afternoon the town would be quite surrounded, Foresight which, alas! was realized.
At Ostend we remained one month and a half in constant anxiety, passing the greater part of the day in the hospital and also three nights a week from eight o’clock in the evening to eight o’clock in the morning, helping and replacing the nurses in their arduous work. There was one continual passage of English and Belgian aeroplanes, airships, and Belgian armoured cars, while a British squadron of warships was still off the town. The villas on the coast were empty, everybody had fled to England. The Germans arrived at Gand, and since most people had left, we also took ship to England. We were stopped three times by the warships patrolling in the Channel and when we arrived in the Thames, night began to fall and the stars to appear. Our destination was Tilbury and when we arrived, I was afraid: all things, were black and dull. The cranes extended their gigantic arms over us, all glistening with oil, and in the docks not a single light burned. Our ship passed between silhouettes of ships and all this blackness began to depress me. At the bureau of the Cockerill line an employee who attended to us, announced that the only hotel in Tilbury was full and that we must either sleep on the boat or take the train to London at eleven o’clock that night. At one o’clock we arrived at London and were rapidly conveyed by taxi from Charing Cross to the hotel. There the landlord, who took us for Germans, would not have us at first and finally banished us to the third floor where I spent a night full of nightmare. Once again I saw the black cranes, with their long arms at Tilbury. Happily this first bad impression quickly disappeared before the generous English hospitality.’