The Forgotten Victims of the North:  French Civilians under German Occupation during World War I - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

The Forgotten Victims of the North:

French Civilians under German Occupation during World War I

Armstrong State University

The German occupation of France during World War I has traditionally been ignored in the face of the subsequent larger occupation during World War II. In many ways the first occupation was harsher and more destructive than that of 1940 to 1944, as the French were largely unprepared for the suffering brought on by occupation and the Germans occupied a smaller area of French territory, allowing them extra resources to control daily life. The hardships and incredible amount of human suffering experienced in northern France from 1914 to 1918 deserve to be remembered and recognized rather than silenced in the face of future events. The civilian experience, including the personal hardships suffered by the occupied French and collaboration (both forced and voluntary) between German occupier and French occupée, influenced the French culture and identity, as well as Franco-German relations into the 20th century.

"Four Years under the German
Boot," Collection "Patrie" 1919
Occupied France during World War I included the borderlands with Belgium, including Nord Pas-de-Calais and the important industrial city of Lille. German occupation began in August 1914 as the Allied forces retreated. It was a tumultuous time for the people living in northern France as they attempted to aid the retreating Allied forces as well as Belgian and French refugees, while weighing the decision of whether to evacuate themselves. Soon this was no longer an option as German troops invaded and took control. Much like in Belgium, there were many reports of pillage, rape, and murder as total war swept onto the French citizens’ doorstep.[1] For people used to a normal, quiet life, the devastation and violence was shocking. The August 1914 diary entry of a German soldier invading Belgium recounts an instance of callous disregard for human life, saying, “We destroyed eight houses with their inhabitants. In one of them we bayoneted two men with their wives and girl of eighteen. The girl all but melted me; her look was so full of innocence. But we could not repress the excitement of the troops; at such moments they are beasts, not men.”[2] Though this particular episode occurred in Belgium, the invasion of France included many similar events.

Almost immediately, the harsh efficiency of German occupation could be felt by the occupied French. Every aspect of daily life was controlled or limited, and the smallest infraction could end in fines, prison, or even death. The German authorities regularly posted bulletins around the occupied cities and towns with instructions or announcements. A December 1915 bulletin in Lille included many different “official messages from the German authority,” including orders to clean up the streets and remove dog waste, that all brasseries in the city would have to submit to fixing the price of beer, and that the preservation of potatoes was now regulated and the citizens were expected to adhere to the Germans’ guidelines.[3] Each household was required to post the names, ages, and occupations of the inhabitants. Frequently the men of a town or village would be randomly summoned for a roll call in the town square, though in some places these gatherings also required women to be present. The citizens were not allowed to miss the roll call and oftentimes these gatherings had no real purpose besides expressing the Germans’ ability to control and annoy the occupied population.[4]  In addition to such regulations, French civilians were required to set their clocks to German time and rename the streets with German names.[5]

Information was strictly regulated in the occupied zones, and newspaper-printing facilities were suspended and requisitioned to begin printing German propaganda. The Germans produced a French language newspaper called the Gazette des Ardennes, and though the French civilians preferred to call it the “Gazette of Lies” in many cases it was the only source of information available. Jeanne du Thoit, a diarist from Lille, wrote in 1915, “The life we lead here is an automatic life, mind-numbing! [Not many choices of newspapers], except the Good Public of Ghent, censored by the Germans, and the Gazette des Ardennes, whose writing is all [done by] Germans.”[6]

Mobility was limited in many ways, making travel within the occupied zone nearly impossible. Everyone was required to have an identity card with them at all times, and travel was allowed only with an Ausweis or travel pass.[7] Travel passes were an effective way of forcing the civilians to comply, as they could be withheld or rejected for any reason. In some towns, no more than four people could gather on the street or in public places and in 1915, in the town of Sarregguemines it was forbidden to speak French on the street or in public places.[8] These petty regulations added to the general misery of the occupied population.

One of the most dreaded words in occupied France was “requisition.” This glorified pillaging allowed German soldiers to take anything they needed, from household goods to livestock to machinery and equipment.[9] Though they sometimes offered receipts or compensation for the goods they took, most French civilians were never compensated for what was requisitioned. A June 1916 bulletin posted in the city of Lille, announces that those citizens who have had items requisitioned between March 19th and April 24th should present themselves to the Mayor’s secretary where they would be given a provisional receipt.[10] Whether or not this receipt was ultimately worth anything is unclear.

The occupied area included much of France’s coal and steel industry, and the Germans profited from these industries by sending the sophisticated machinery and equipment back to Germany or by destroying the equipment to keep the French from benefiting from it.[11] The French civilians, in turn, sabotaged what they could. The Germans kept detailed records of the goods available in the occupied areas, especially when it came to food and livestock. Du Thoit records that farmers gave their eggs and other goods away to keep them from being requisitioned.[12] It was often forbidden to slaughter livestock or do simple tasks such as make butter without permission, ensuring that the German occupiers would have adequate supplies.[13] To make matters worse, French civilians were often forced to feed and care for German soldiers billeted in their homes.[14] The added stress of sharing living spaces with the enemy only served to worsen the general atmosphere of the occupied zone.

"The First Meeting" (German soldiers meeting with
the French family they will be billeted with),
by Lucien Jonas, 1919
Requisition of supplies and food left the French civilians in dire straits. As the occupying forces did little to help the starving civilians, aid from neutral countries like the United States was the only source of food for many people.  The requisition of possessions in addition to food created many wretched living conditions among civilians, and in 1916 the mortality rate in Lille rose from 17 per thousand to 40 per thousand.[15] In her study of occupied France, Helen McPhail explains that in the same year, German propaganda tried to convince French civilians that “hunger was, after all, no more than a habit or a purely psychological phenomenon.”[16] The city of Lille was especially hard hit by the food shortages, and many diarists recount serving everything from dog meat paté to horsemeat. Jeanne du Thoit describes “K bread,” the practically inedible wartime bread made from a mixture of potato, rye, and flour, which produced a bread “with an exterior like a rock and a soft, slimy interior. It is impossible to eat it fresh and so we leave it three days in the basement…the doctors advise us to eat as little as possible and supplement it with potatoes.”[17]

Malnutrition and oppressive living conditions, especially in the face of particularly harsh winters, inevitably led to disease and sickness among the civilian population. Reports of typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and measles were rampant throughout northern France.[18] These sickly, starving people were a burden to the German occupiers, and many of them were offered the chance to “evacuate” to free France via Switzerland. Far from being humanitarian efforts, these “evacuations” allowed the Germans to rid themselves of useless members of the populace. In one instance in 1917, thirty children afflicted with ringworm, along with two mentally handicapped boys and a group suffering from tuberculosis were loaded onto a train and sent to unoccupied France.[19] What became of the group is unknown, but for the occupying forces, at least they were no longer a problem.

Evacuations and deportations were often a convenient way for the Germans to give up responsibility for the welfare of the occupied civilians. In urban areas overcrowding and lack of resources provided the perfect opportunity for relocation. One infamous incident was the relocation of 20,000 young women and girls from Lille in 1916. Facing food shortages in the city, the young women were rounded up, in some instances dragged screaming from their families at bayonet point, and ordered to be relocated to rural areas of occupied France to help with agricultural work.[20] Adding insult to injury, the women were forced to undergo gynecological examinations, a practice usually reserved for official prostitutes.[21] Becker and Andoin-Rouzeau speculate that this episode was an example of the German occupiers expressing their dominance by humiliating and degrading the occupied women, as well as exhibiting to disenchanted German civilians “the inferiority of the occupied people” despite their similar situations in terms of dwindling food supplies and useless military bureaucracy.[22] In addition, it emasculated the French men of the occupied zone, who were powerless to protect or help their women.

Besides deportations and evacuations, the occupying forces were notorious for creating forced labor gangs. Some of these groups were sent to other areas within occupied France, while others were sent back to Germany as laborers.[23] An American Red Cross mission working in occupied France was horrified at the experiences of the civilians. Ruth Gaines, who was involved with the mission, writes in her diary, “Civilian prisoners, sent into slavery in Germany and later shipped back by the thousands daily, became refugees; and there were thousands more, refugees from destroyed villages, gathered into the larger as yet undestroyed centers in the devastated territory itself. Civilian prisoners! America has heard of them, and shuddered at the revival by Germany of the methods of pre-Christian warfare, in this twentieth century.”[24] Men, women, and children were all included in these groups, and their jobs ranged from breaking stones to harvesting fruit trees. Oftentimes the mayors were approached and asked to give a list of the unemployed within the community who would then be used on the labor gang. If the mayor refused, people were selected at random. In some instances, these forced laborers were taken in retaliation and forced to work burying the dead, digging trenches, or acting as human shields while Allied shells fell around them.[25] A 1915 New York Times article recounts a report from the French Commission investigating the treatment of French citizens under German occupation, noting that the gangs included “women, children, youths of under 17, and old men over 60” and that the Germans “had no scruples in separating members of a family, and sending them to different camps.”[26]

"Deliverance of Lille"
Collection "Patrie," 1919
The city of Lille was one of the largest and most important cities taken by the Germans, and after the war many claimed that it had not suffered as much as the surrounding areas because of the immense German presence there. However, Lille was only 20 kilometers from the fighting, and it was common for troops to go through the city on their way to and from battle.[27] Du Thoit writes, “Since October 13th, the day of mourning for our city, each morning I wake up and the same impression seizes me…in a sort of half consciousness I hear noises in the street….will I hear the cry of those who sell the newspaper? No! It is the sound of German boots on the pavement [and] the accents of Teutonic voices.”[28] The German authorities created many diversions for their soldiers in Lille, including their own casino and cinema, as well as many bars and café that catered to a soldier clientele. POWs of allied troops were forced to march through the streets of Lille each day to crush the morale of the occupied French, and the civilians were forbidden from talking with them or expressing any kind of sympathy.[29]

Living under occupation took a significant mental and emotional toll on the French civilians, and many first hand accounts mention the depression experienced by many people during and after the war. Du Thoit writes of Lille in October 1914, “The citizens are pale, exhausted, colliding sadly. Oh! It is no longer beautiful Lille, which was a few days ago so vibrant with intense life. Nature seems to wish to be in harmony with the events. It is raining, a light, continuous rain, fine and cold that freezes you to the bone without stopping. The German cars circle in all directions, with officers and soldiers in search of requisitions.”[30] After working with French children following the German occupation, Gaines writes, “It would be small wonder if all the children of Canizy had been shy. With their elders they were virtual prisoners during the German occupation. They had no incentive to gather in groups, no church and no school. Rather, they were taught to slip in and out in silence lest they attract sinister attention. One of our little soldiers to the end of his life will carry a mark of German brutality in a hand maimed by a too well aimed grenade.”[31] For many French civilians, particularly children whose formative years were shaped by violence and uncertainty, the war left physical and emotional scars, as well as an enduring mistrust of the Germans.

Collaboration with the occupying German forces is often hard to define, as much collaboration was forced, and some voluntary collaboration had positive outcomes for the civilians. Civilians forced to work for the Germans often felt they were betraying their homeland, especially when they were put to work making weapons or aiding the German military. In many cases, civilians were first given the option to “volunteer” to work for the Germans, and when no one responded they were rounded up and forced to comply.[32] According to McPhail, by 1917, “all French men between the ages of 16 and 45 were required to work and six months later the ordinance extended to all men of any nation between the ages of 14 and 17, and 52 to 61, were added to the roster.”[33]

One of the greatest fears, especially among those in unoccupied France, was the threat of collaboration between French women and German soldiers. The German occupiers organized prostitution and brothels within the occupied zones and it quickly became clear that those who agreed to sleep with the enemy would be granted special privileges. In addition, becoming the lover of a soldier often meant some kind of protection, as evidenced by a man sentenced to “seven days detention for being rude to a French woman because she worked for the Germans.”[34] In another village, French women who agreed to sleep with the German officers were assigned the light work of drying apples.[35]

Though some women willingly slept with German soldiers for privileges or protection, it was no doubt a difficult decision, as collaboration of this sort was thought of as traitorous by their fellow French civilians. For many women, sexual harassment was a common occurrence. McPhail cities a group of female forced laborers who were told by the officer in charge of the district of La Capelle, “Off you go! And don’t forget that all of you, whoever you are, you are available for our officers and our soldiers.”[36] Another officer in the same district would drive to where the women were working and comment, “Very hard work, miss! Your clogs are very, very ugly! It’s up to you, you could easily have pretty little slippers and nicer work!”[37] Rape and assault against women was well documented in every district in both France and Belgium, and often in great number. When the German cavalry regiment stopped in the French town of Bailleul for eight days, there were “thirty cases of outrages on women sworn to and authenticated generally by medical certificates, and the actual number of outrages is estimated at sixty.”[38] Women were always at risk from attack and no location was entirely safe, as exemplified from a 1914 French police report from La Ferte-Gaucher: "The Germans . . . returned in the evening intoxicated; they then violated the young woman Y. and Mme. X."[39] In another instance, the diary of a German soldier from the 12th infantry of reserve recounts a chilling episode, saying, “Last night a man of the Landwehr, more than thirty-five years of age, married, tried to violate the quite young daughter of the man in whose house he was quartered; when the father came upon the scene, he held his bayonet to his breast.”[40] Sadly, instances of rape and assault became an all too common reality of everyday life for the occupied civilians.

As occupation continued, abortion and infanticide rates soared. Many “Boche babies”—a term given to the children of German soldiers and French women born during this time—were abandoned in places ranging from trains to church doorsteps. In one instance, an abandoned child was given the name “Maria du Billard” because she was found on a billiard table.[41] Most Boche babies were listed as “père inconnu” or “father unknown.” In 1917, after the case of twenty-year-old Josephine Barthélmy, a Parisian jury ruled that it was not a crime for women who were violated by a German soldier to kill their child.[42] An evacuee from the occupied zone, Josephine was raped while serving in a military hospital and killed her child shortly after giving birth. This case led to the creation of state run facilities for the children, allowing mothers to give them up without revealing their names. They hoped to raise the children up to be good French citizens, though many pointed out that the “Boche influence” was to strong to overcome. In one of these orphanages, the nurse commented “They are different than other babies, you see, and how plainly you can tell the “boches.” But, [now] they are all French!”[43] These perceived “differences” came from the belief that German blood was itself “corrupt and corrupting” and “undermined French racial integrity.”[44] McPhail claims there were over 10,000 possible Boche babies born. In some instances the German soldiers offered to take them back to Germany, though they were usually more interested in sons than in daughters. It seems that few French women accepted this offer.[45]

The French civilians of northern France suffered greatly during the German occupation of World War I. Mistreatment by occupying forces, lack of food and supplies, forced labor and other terrifying ordeals were the etched into the memories of these people, though their experiences were largely forgotten in the face of the second occupation of 1940−1944. In contrast with the inhabitants of unoccupied France, the occupied French lived side by side with the enemy, experiencing not only the hardships of occupation and war, but also the difficulty of living and interacting with the enemy on a day to day basis. In recent years these forgotten victims are beginning to find a voice as historians bring their experiences to light and expand the idea of collaboration and the motives behind it. Their stories are an important part of French history and influenced the France of today.

About the author

Shannon Wichers is a senior at Armstrong State University pursuing a BA in History with a minor in French. She studied at Université de Franche-Comté in Besançon, France in Fall 2009. An interest in Germany led to a semester abroad in 2010 at Philipps Universität in Marburg, Germany and a summer 2011 internship in Berlin, Germany. She speaks English, French, and German and plans to move back to Germany following graduation to pursue a MA.

Recommended citation

Shannon Wichers, “The Forgotten Victims of the North: French Civilians under German Occupation during World War I,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no.2 (Summer 2011).


[1]Stéphane Andoin-Rouzeau et al, France and the Great War 1914−1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 43.
[2]H.W. Wilson, Convicted out of Her Own Mouth: The Record of German Crimes (George H. Doran Company, 1917), 15, February 2, 2011).
[3]Bulletin de Lille, December 1915. February 2, 2011). [translation: Wichers]
[4]Helen McPhail, The Long Silence (New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1999), 32
[5]Ibid., 46.
[6]Jeanne du Thoit, “Journal d’une Lilloise,” Lecture Pour Tous, no. 5 (April 1, 1916), January 31, 2011). [translation: Wichers]
[7]McPhail, 46.
[8]Ibid., 51.
[9]Ibid., 92.
[10]Bulletin de Lille, June 1916. February 2, 2011). [translation: Wichers]
[11]Andoin-Rouzeau, 44.
[12]Du Thoit. [translation: Wichers]
[13]McPhail, 94.
[14]Ibid., 110.
[15]McPhail, 79.
[16]Ibid., 60.
[17]Du Thoit, 3. [translation: Wichers]
[18]McPhail, 101.
[19]Ibid., 102.
[20]Ibid., 168.
[21]Andoin-Rouzeau, 49.
[22]Ibid., 49.
[23]McPhail, 41.
[24]Ruth Gaines, Helping France: The Red Cross in the Devastated Area, Chapters I−IV, (accessed January 31, 2011).
[25]Andoin-Rouzeau, 45.
[26]“French Civilians Recount Horrors,” New York Times, April 5, 1915.
[27]Claudine Wallart, “Lille Under German Rule,” Chemins de Mémoire, January 31, 2011).
[28]Du Thoit, 6. [translation: Wichers]
[29]Wallart, 2.
[30]Du Thoit, 4. [translation: Wichers]
[31]Ruth Gaines, A Village in Picardie (New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1918), February 2, 2011).
[32]Andoin-Rouzeau, 47.
[33]McPhail, 159.
[34]Ibid., 112.
[35]Ibid., 160.
[36]McPhail, 173.
[37]Ibid., 173.
[38]Wilson, 15.
[39]Ibid., 17.
[40]Ibid., 16.
[41]“France will adopt her ‘Boche Babies’,” New York Times, October 28, 1917.
[42]Young, 95.
[43]Ibid., 118.
[44]Andoin-Rouzeau, 58.
[45]McPhail, 203.
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