Did you know that Agatha Christie was inspired by Belgian migrants in England?


Between August and October 1914, more than 1.5 million Belgians left their country, driven out by a fear of German atrocities and the violent combat. These refugees were welcomed with a surge of generosity, whether they arrived in France, England or the Netherlands. But while at the start of the war, the local populations in the host countries were favourable to the refugees from "Poor Little Belgium", public opinion gradually turned into mistrust and distance. At the start of the hostilities, the Belgian immigrants were seen as survivors of brutality and representatives of a small martyred country that had resisted a largely superior invader, in terms of both men and equipment, courageously and in spite of all expectations. Some newspapers at the time compared King Albert I and his troops to King Leonidas who, with his 300 Spartan warriors, stood up to the vast Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.

But this empathy diminished over time. And it would even be fair to say that as the war dragged on, Belgian citizens lost the goodwill of the locals and began to be considered "cushy", a comfortable distance from the battle fields, while their own sons and fathers were fighting on the front-line! Riots broke out in Great Britain in 1916, as the local populations thought that integrating Belgian workers into the British labour market threatened their own jobs. This reproach was based on the fact that Belgian workers accepted lower salaries than the locals, as well as longer days and working on Sundays and public holidays. It should also be remembered that on 24 January 1916, the government decided to make military service compulsory (the Belgians were exempt); this law took effect on 4 May and the same year saw the Battle of the Somme, the first large-scale operation involving the British and Commonwealth army. The first day of this battle, 1 July 1916, was a real disaster for His Majesty's army, with 58,000 soldiers put out of action, including 19,240 dead; it was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army and by the time the battle ended, in November, the total losses were huge: 500,000 British or Commonwealth citizens dead, disappeared or wounded.

Agatha Christie was born and raised in Torquay, Devon, a seaside town where a large number of Belgian refugees settled during the First World War. She admitted that she had been particularly inspired by Belgian refugees living in a neighbouring parish after the Great War when she created the fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. A short man of mature years, with an egg-shaped head, dyed hair, cat-like green eyes, a dandy with a carefully waxed upward-curling moustache, he was always impeccably turned out. A number of different actors have played the detective in the television and film adaptations of the Poirot novels (e.g. Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov and Kenneth Branagh), but it is undoubtedly David Suchet who is closest to the fictional character.

An article is dedicated to Hercule Poirot in "Do you know these Belgians?" on this website.