Forced Labour – France under administration (Nord Region and Lille)

Cover from The Christmas Present 1913 (December 2013)

Odile’s War – The Mad Game Book Two

After the massive German mobilization of 1914, and despite the effect it would have on the battlefield, Germany recalled close to 740,000 labourers from the front to work in her factories. Women and children were also called up to help boost production. Unlike the armies of France and Great Britain, which could rely on an immense colonial workforce, the Germany Army was obliged to recruit civilians from the territories it occupied. Initially it attempted to secure civilian workers by offering wages, accommodation and clothing, but there were few volunteers. For example, in Le Quesnoy on 12 December 1914 only thirty men put themselves forward despite the pay offered being better than the average.

The German Army turned to conscription to satisfy its labour requirements and proceeded with a census of all the men who could be mobilized between seventeen and fifty-five years of age. These civilians were designated prisoners of war and put to work for Germany, any “shirker” being subjected to up to three years in prison and a hefty 10,000 Reichsmark fine. Initially working as and when required, those mobilized gradually became full-time conscripts working shifts on farms and in factories or close to the front building fortifications, repairing railways, and so on. Conscripts had to sign a “voluntary” working agreement and those who refused were forced into disciplinary battalions and made to wear a red armband. Women were also employed for various tasks such as cleaning, manufacturing and farming. Civilians evacuated from the front were sent to farming or industrial communities in France or Germany.

Belgian Refugees Flee 1914

Hostages and deportees

Ignoring the “rules of war” laid down in the Hague Conventions, the German Army took civilian hostages in the territories it occupied as security against social unrest and acts of sabotage (firing on German soldiers, cutting telephone wires, and so on). Most of these hostages were prominent local figures such as politicians.

In the early days of the occupation, the Mayor and the Prefect of Lille designated six groups of ten hostages to take turns in spending a night in the citadel. Every offence provoked a series of reprisals on the civilian population, one of the worst being deportation to a German camp, such as Rastatt or Güstrow, where the daily rations were never better than meagre (barley coffee, macaroni or swede, sometimes sauerkraut or potatoes garnished with a piece of cheese or a herring) for the work forced upon them. Male deportees were required to toil on farms or in factories while women while employed in administrative work.

Some hostages were held in strategic positions, such as an airfield, and served as human shields. One such example of this practice took place in July 1915 when workers in Lille refused to make sandbags for the German trenches on the front: the German Army retaliated by arresting thirty civilians in Lille and imprisoning them in the citadel and taking another 131 civilians from the surrounding countryside and deporting them to Germany. The occupying army also took hostages to break the will of town and village councils who refused to pay war taxes or excessive fines.

Hostage taking was rife on both sides. At the end of 1916 and in early 1918 the Germans carried out two massive operations to deport several hundred civilians to Germany. When French troops entered the region of Alsace in 1914 they took important German civil servants and their families prisoner and deported them to France. Shortly after war was declared, Germans residing in France (civil servants, industrial and business leaders, students and professional persons) were sent to concentration camps in France and Algeria where they languished for the rest of the war while the two opposing governments negotiated their fate.

With the intention of the forcing the French government’s hand in the matter, the Germans decided in November 1916 to deport 300 civilians from the department of Nord. These hostages, both men and women, were taken from prominent families which belonged to the same social or professional classes as the Germans who had been taken prisoner in France. They included the industrialists Faucheur, Leblanc, Motte, Prouvost and Tiberghien, politicians such as Gustave Delory, lawyers, high-ranking civil servants such as Gimat (adviser to the prefect) and Droz (the sub-prefect of Douai), doctors such as university professor Carlier, and so on.

These hostages were all interned in a camp on the edge of Holzminden, a small town of 10,000 inhabitants in the Duchy of Brunswick. The camp was set up for civilian prisoners of war and could hold up to 10,000 people. The first detainees held there were citizens of the Allied countries who were in Germany at the outbreak of war and German “undesirables”. The camp comprised about one hundred wooden huts surrounded by a two metre high wire fence and watchtowers. Hostages in the camp were isolated and humiliated, having to endure vermin, a lack of heating and revolting food; nevertheless they could receive food parcels and letters sent from France and they could buy various necessities locally to improve their living conditions. They had a library, a chapel and a university at their disposal and they could listen to concerts and organize parties. A photographer who set up a studio in the camp took many pictures of the internees and events in the camp and much of his work is held today in the Archives Départementales du Nord (Nord Records Office). An initial agreement between the French and German governments led to the release of the first group of hostages in April 1917 and they were returned to the occupied zone after six months in Holzminden.

French Village 1912

By January 1918 Franco-German negotiations were once again floundering so the Germans decided to proceed with deportation of 600 hostages to camps in Holzminden (women) and Lithuania (men). According to surviving accounts, conditions in Holzminden had deteriorated since 1916 with the detainees complaining of a lack of hygiene, never-ending roll-calls in the rain, food shortages and parcels not reaching their addressees. After the return of his wife Emilie, Dr Calmette wrote, “she was returned to me in an appalling state of health, weighing no more than 42 kg when her normal weight was 57 kg.” Irma Dusart, wife of an industrialist named Jeumont, described her internment “without a doctor, without drinking water, without a sick room, shut up from 5 p.m. till 6 a.m. in a hut without a light, without a fire, suffering from the cold, hunger, the vermin, and the promiscuity of prostitutes.

Harder still was the fate of the mainly older men who, after a gruelling trip of six days and seven nights in the heart of winter in an unheated wagon with standing room only, arrived in the Lithuanian towns of Jewie, Milejgany and Roon to be housed in improvised camps erected in ruined Russian churches, barns and stables. The conditions in the camps were horrendous: no heating, rudimentary wooden beds with little padding, never-ending roll-calls outdoors in temperatures of -20°C (even for the ill), no drinking water, no medicines, and disgusting food. Georges Lehoucq of Roubaix remembered “the painful episodes brought about by the hunger. Most [of the detainees] fell upon their meagre daily ration, devouring their bread. Some licked the drops of soup which fell on the dust-covered tables, even brushing them to gather up the few crumbs of bread which lay there after the meal.” The hostages had to work in the forest clearing snow, felling trees and sawing timber. Discipline was harsh with even the smallest breach of the rules attracting degrading punishments. Twenty-six of the hostages in Lithuania died of cold, hunger, lack of medical attention or were devoured by the rats. On 17 March 1918 the men over seventy years old and the sick were sent back to France thanks to the intervention of a Spanish delegation. The others had to wait for the signing of a Franco-German agreement on 26 April 1918 before being repatriated. They returned to France between July and September 1918 by way of the Rastatt and Holzminden camps which seemed to them, after their experience in Lithuania, to be almost idyllic.

Reproduced with thanks to:

Claudine Wallart, Head Curator of Heritage at the Archives Départementales du Nord (Nord Records Office)

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