Folkestone’s position as a Channel ferry port made it an important military base during the First World War and on the frontline with Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War.
Shorncliffe Barracks, established in 1794, was home to 40,000 Canadian soldiers during the First World War. Many other allied troops, including Chinese and African Kaffirs, were based in temporary camps in the town.
Allied troops used the port to embark for France and wounded soldiers were repatriated through the port.
As well as military personnel, the town drew thousands of refugees fleeing the war via the French, Belgian and Dutch Channel ports.
The German invasion of neutral Belgium in 1914 forced many civilians to flee, most of them to England via Folkestone. Many moved on but, together with all the soldiers stationed in the town, the 15,000 Belgians that stayed made the town incredibly crowded, as well as giving it a distinct continental air.
Despite the hardships the war caused to civilians, the people of Folkestone were determined to help the refugees. A War Refugee Committee was formed and a Belgian Relief Fund established to house and feed the refugees, providing up to 6,000 free meals a day.
During the Second World War, Folkestone became the frontline with Nazi-occupied Europe following the fall of France in 1940. Most children and many mothers were evacuated from the town.
Key in protecting the Channel from the enemy, Folkestone was put under martial law and occupied by allied forces.
A target for German bombers, the town was much damaged in air raids. It was also in range of the German Cross-Channel guns which regularly fired shells on the town.
Shorncliffe Barracks became a German POW camp. Other buildings were requisitioned as military hospitals and billets for wounded soldiers.
“There is far more French than English heard on the Leas in these days, for Folkestone is becoming a town of refugees”.
The Times Newspaper 1914
‘England’s first actual contact with the grim horrors of war was in Folkestone, about August 20th, when boats came into the harbour crowded with Refugees from gallant little Belgium. The earliest arrivals came in fishing craft and coal carriers. The visitors were terror-stricken, and many of them absolutely refused to leave the boats.’
John Charles Carlile, Folkestone Baptist Minister 1919