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The occupation of northern France in the First World War

In works on French history, the word ‘Occupation’ (often capitalised) is heavily associated with the Occupation of the Second World War, France’s ‘Dark Years’ of 1940–44. However, whilst this was and remains the defining experience of military occupation for the French, there were other instances of this phenomenon in the country’s modern history. In the case of the First World War, when the war of movement subsided in September – October 1914 around 2.1 million French people found themselves cut off from the rest of the country by the trench networks running from the coast to the Swiss border. The German armies occupied most of Belgium, partially occupied nine French départements (counties), and fully occupied one (the Ardennes). The military authorities installed constant patrols at the Belgian and Dutch borders, and erected barbed-wire and electric fences. As such, inhabitants of the occupied zone were trapped behind the German lines, and forced to live with the national enemy for the next four years – sometimes literally, lodging with soldiers or officers. The occupied French, subjected to numerous rules and regulations imposed upon them by the enemy military authorities (eg. requisitions and curfews), therefore lived a different war to their ‘free’ compatriots. Indeed, when philanthropist and future American president Herbert Hoover – who had established the Commission for Relief in Belgium in April 1915 to help feed the hungry populations of the occupied zone – visited occupied northern France, he described it as ‘like a vast concentration camp.’

The photographs [IWM Q 55207; Q 55206] provided here were taken by the occupiers during the war: presumably they were captured by the British during the liberation of occupied territories in October – November 1918, eventually archived by the Imperial War Museum. As we can see, the Germans were particularly keen to display their dominance, notably through military parades in large towns like Lille – but local sources suggest such parades actually became a subject of ridicule among inhabitants, who found the Germans’ goose-stepping amusing!

 

German troops marching through the main square in Lille for the ceremony of Changing the Guard. © IWM (Q 55207)

 

German troops marching through the main square in Lille for the ceremony of Changing the Guard. © IWM (Q 55206)

This anecdote hints that the experience of occupation was more than just one of overwhelming suffering, as the Hoover quotation implies, and as was often argued in inter-war histories on the subject. Indeed, in my research, I examine the different behaviours of the occupied French in the most populous occupied département, the Nord, 70% of which was occupied. I am interested in how inhabitants reacted to the German presence and the situation of occupation, and especially the way they conceived of and judged such behaviour. This ranged from forms of complicity with the enemy, or acts of disunity and criminality that undermined notions of patriotic solidarity, to different forms of resistance – whether letters protesting German orders, symbolic acts like wearing French colours, or full-blown espionage carried out for Allied intelligence services. Despite this variety of behaviours, many locals were particularly concerned with what was considered acceptable and unacceptable forms of conduct under military occupation, when awaiting the victory of Allied armies. Such concerns outlasted the war, and in rare cases photos of those perceived as too friendly with the occupiers were used to denounce the wartime actions of certain individuals.

German soldiers taking coffee with their landlord in a French billet, June 1917. © IWM (Q 70773)

This photo [IWM Q 70773], although not explicitly used in such a post-war denunciation, nevertheless shows the kind of images that were used, as well as the forced cohabitation to which locals were subjected. The man on the right is wearing the armband of a forced labourer, which may explain his unhappy expression; the other civilians, however, seem to be more relaxed and perhaps even genuinely happy to socialise with German soldiers. In a way, the ambiguity of this image reflects the difficulties in examining intimate, often private, behaviours; but in my view what can be gleaned from various other sources paints a complex, intriguing picture of a fascinating experience of occupation before the Occupation.

I have published a number of articles on the subject, but my research culminated in the publication last month (May 2018) of my first monograph: The experience of occupation in the Nord: Living with the enemy in First World War France (Manchester University Press). Those who are interested can download the whole book for free through Open Access at: oapen.org/searchidentifier=649852;keyword=the%20occupation%20of%20the%20nord

 

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