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France

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.’

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