Brian Moynahan
The French Century

The Germans seized food from the outset. Pigs, beef, chicken, wine, hay, straw, corn, carts, harnesses and horses were taken from the farms. Detailed counts were made of livestock. No animal could be slaughtered or sold without permission. The Germans insisted that wild rabbits should be counted, and their skins and meat accounted for; it took some time for them to accept the impracticality of this order. In one typical commune, Le Cateau-Cambresis, the German Commandatur demanded to be supplied with coal, butter, cheese, wheat, vegetables, and 140 pounds of beef and four sheep a day. At Christmas, the Germans took extra turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens. They demanded wine, and a dozen wreaths for monuments to fallen German soldiers. There was no bell ringing and no midnight mass. A 6 p.m. curfew was in force.

Hunger was universal. An average Lillois had eaten 600 grams of bread a day before the war. The Germans slashed the ration to 108 grams of poor-quality rye a day for adults and 70 for children. People did what they could to get by, of course. They hid grain and ground it in coffee mills and cattlefeed grinders. They falsified livestock lists and kept animals secretly. When German troops arrived as just such an off-record pig was being slaughtered, it was disguised as a dying grandparent, tenderly swathed in shawls and blankets, as sobbing relatives knelt beside it. Starvation was nonetheless imminent by the spring of 1915. The American-led and largely Anglo-American-supplied Commission for Relief in Belgium offered to send food supplies to occupied France at this critical moment. The CRB was an extraordinary institution, galvanised by the energy of its chairman, Herbert Hoover. It was founded in October 1914 to aid the civilians of all nations at war. It had a fleet of ships and barges. Itself neutral, it signed agreements with combatants. By March 1915, it was shipping almost 100,000 tons of food a month to Belgium. Hoover declared that the CRB could 'handle two million French people.' The French government was reluctant—understandably so, since it was Germany's responsibility to feed those in the lands she had occupied—but at length agreed. The first great shipments of wheat, beans, rice, bacon, dried fish, condensed milk, cooking oil, rice and maize arrived in Valenciennes and Lille in April 1915. Britain and her empire, notably Canada, Australia and New Zealand, supplied 49 per cent of supplies, and the Americans 42 per cent, with much of the remainder coming from the Netherlands.

The system suited the Germans handsomely, of course. They plundered northern France of its food, and let the British and the Americans keep the French alive. Literally so. By January 1916, Lille had no potatoes, butter and eggs, and almost no vegetables or milk. The system was disrupted when the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare, torpedoing the CRB ship Euphrates early in 1917 despite her German safe-conduct pass. The ships had now to be routed round the north of Scotland. But they still sailed. 'Occupied France can be seen from all aspects as a vast concentration camp,' Hoover said, 'in which all forms of economic life are entirely suspended.' He negotiated hard to ensure that relief continued after the United States entered the war.

'The Germans took everything,' a French survey recorded after the war, 'leaving only just enough to keep from starving to death those whom they forced to work for them.' CRB supplies saved the rest from a hunger caused not by the war itself, for occupied France could have fed itself if allowed to, but by the pattern of depredation practised by the Germans.

Household goods, too, were 'requisitioned,' the official word for plunder. The objects taken from a house in Avesnes in early November 1914 set a pattern: inkwells, a broom, two lavatory buckets, two coffee pots, eight coffee spoons and sets of table silver and crockery, three forks, a coffee mill and two lamps. The occupiers were like light-fingered newly-weds, setting up home with stolen dressing tables, fur coats, armchairs, curtains, carpets, washstands, bicycles, barometers, pianos, even galoshes. By the end of 1916, Lille had no leather, and virtually no paper or personal linen. Only those aged 65 and over were allowed to keep their mattresses. The rest slept on bare bedsteads or on the floor. The men who inspected households to prepare inventories for requisitioning were perhaps the most despised of all the German forces. Caporal Voleur (Corporal Thief), the French called them, or Monsieur Il Faut (Mr You Must) or Monsieur Fouine (Mr Ferret).

Industries disappeared, too. 'Every form of production which made the name of the city famous throughout the world,' it was sadly remarked in Lille, 'the fruits of its labour and the mark of its skill, disappeared bit by bit.' In one textile factory, an up-to-the-minute machine was dismantled and taken to Germany. All 315 remaining looms were broken up with heavy hammers, a laborious task at the rate of six a day. Fifty or sixty explosions a day rocked the town, as civilians and prisoners under armed guard placed charges in workshops of all sorts. The great steelworks in Denain were destroyed. They had employed 4,000 men before the war.

This abnormal urge to destroy, this lust to force the enemy back into the dark-ages, revealed a deep strain of malice that proved counterproductive. The Germans knew that word of their behaviour would get out. They themselves encouraged the flow of refugees—women, children, old people and those too ill to work, of course, not fit males of military age—who took the news to free France. No doubt they hoped that this would breed fear and defeatism. It had, in an indefinable but concrete way, quite the opposite effect. It persuaded the French that they were indeed fighting a war for national survival, and that the Germans wished to destroy them as a civilised and skilful people. It fostered the will to survive, and French fighting spirit.

The myriad of regulations in occupied France encouraged this fierce resistance among those who remained free. All clocks were set on German time. Doors had to be left unlocked night and day so that German soldiers could take shelter from shelling, even many miles from the front. Identity cards had to be carried at all times. It was forbidden to bicycle without a permit. Travel between communes was forbidden without specific permission. Civilians were obliged on pain of arrest to take off their hats and remove their hands from their pockets when they passed a German officer. A man in Peronne took to carrying an empty suitcase in each hand to avoid this humiliation. The street names in Le Nouvion, in another petty irritation, were changed into German, so that the avenue de la Gare became Bahnhofstrasse. The inhabitants of Bucquoy, near Bapaume, were obliged to parade at 5 a.m. When insolence was suspected, the commune was called out at 1 a.m. A man of 93 who asked to be allowed to stay in bed was dragged out into the street by troops who told him that 'fresh air is good for the dying.' The parades had 'no serious purpose,' a sufferer remarked. 'They took place solely to annoy.' Men of mobilisable age, from seventeen to 50, and sometimes 60, had to report regularly to show that they had not escaped to free France. Some were sent to Germany to work. A third of the men in Douai were transported, and the male population of Chaulnes fell from 300 to 17. The official newspapers were German-controlled, but clandestine newssheets were printed with news gleaned from illicit radio sets.

Those who defied the Germans by keeping pigeons paid a terrible price. Northeastern France was grand pigeon fancier country. The men made up for the dirt and dark and heat of the steelworks and the mines by breeding birds that raced through the unfettered air. Lest they be used to carry messages, the Germans ordered that all of them be killed. Aline Carpentier recorded that her neighbours had handed over their pigeons as demanded; but when two or three birds later found their way back to the loft, they kept them. They were denounced to the Germans. Friends volunteered to pay a large voluntary fine. Without further ado, however, without trial and without charges being made, the Germans marched the pigeon fanciers to the main square and shot them.

Others undertook the perilous task of helping Allied soldiers and airmen to escape. A widow of great character in Lille, Marie-Jeanne Dentant, set up an escape network with a businessman, Georges Maertens, a territorial officer, Ernest Deconinck, and the wine broker Eugene Jacquet. A French officer on the run, Major Caron, also helped, together with the prefect, Felix Trepont, and Lille's deputy finance officer, Emile Vermeersch. By March 1915, when Caron escaped through Belgium to Holland, the network was helping at least two hundred men. Escapees were sent close to the Belgian border where local guides (passeurs) helped them slip over the frontier.

A very tall and rather infantile British pilot, Robert Mapplebeck, lost his engine and made a forced landing near Lille on March 11, 1915. He was handed to the escape group and was smuggled over the border. He was back with his squadron within a few days. Mapplebeck then flew over Lille and did some aerobatics to thank the citizens for his escape. He also dropped a letter attached to a long tricolour. It was marked for the attention of the German military governor, General von Heinrich. It read: '12 April 1915, Lieutenant Mapplebeck presents his respects to the commandant of German forces in Lille and regrets that he was unable to make his acquaintance during his agreeable visit near Lille.'

It was folly thus to goad the Germans. Mapplebeck had written a note about his few hours in the city which he had left in Jacquet's house. An informer, Louis Richard, betrayed the network to the Germans. Jacquet and his family were arrested, and Mapplebeck's incriminating manuscript was found stuffed down the side of an armchair. It told of his crash landing, and it named Jacquet and his wife, and Maertens, Deconinck and Sylvene Verhulst as helpers.

Twenty-seven men were arrested and locked up in the Lille citadel. Jacquet bravely claimed that he alone was responsible. He was sentenced to death with the three others named as helpers in the Mapplebeck note. They were shot on the ramparts of the city on September 22. Their memorial has the figure of a lad lying at their feet. This commemorates Leon Trulin, a boy who managed to get himself to England in June 1915. He convinced British intelligence officers that he could give them information. He returned to occupied France, and then went back to England with details of German troop strengths and movements. On his next trip, in October 1915, he was betrayed, captured with plans of trenches, airfields and ammunition dumps, and shot. He was 18.

Women were very active in the resistance. Louise de Bettignies, a talented girl from a Lille manufacturing family, made her way to Holland and on to England, where British intelligence ask her to set up a network of observers to pass on German movements. She returned to Lille in February 1915. She collected information on artillery batteries, ammunition dumps and regimental movements, and took it to Holland hidden in her skirt-hems, her coiffure and her umbrella. Railway level-crossing staff were the best contacts, providing details of troop movements and calculating German losses from the length of hospital trains. De Bettignies was arrested, and sentenced to death in March 1916. This was commuted to life imprisonment, and she died in Siegburg prison. 'Neither asking nor accepting any reward, she organised and directed an extensive and most efficient service of intelligence,' the Chief of the British General Staff, General Sir William Robertson, wrote of her, 'by her ability, courage and devotion surmounting all obstacles.'

By 1916, however, the Germans had mopped up most such resistance. The following year, all men between 16 and 45 were issued with red armbands—brassards rouges—carrying the initials ZAB, Zivil Arbeiter Bataillon, and forced to work. Many toiled on the defences of the Hindenburg Line, digging trenches and building blockhouses and light railways. Those who were deemed rude or idle were sent to ZAB6s, disciplinary labour gangs, who were given the most dangerous work, often exposed to Allied shellfire. 'Frozen feet, mutilation, tuberculosis, from bad treatment and lack of food,' a nurse in Cambrai noted of sick brassards rouges. 'On some days we had nearly seven hundred such patients in our hospital.'

The Hague Convention forbade the use of civilian labour for military work. When workers at Lambersart refused to make sandbags, the Germans banned all travel, imposed a 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew, shut cafes and bars, and collected a fine of 375,000 francs to buy sandbags elsewhere. Many thousands of men were transported to Germany to work in huge camps, where they slept on bags of wood shavings in 200-man barracks, and broke stones for road building on rations of broth and a little bread.

Women, too, were ordered from their houses at bayonet point, taken to farms in their city clothes, barracked in stables and barns, and put to work in the fields. It needed the personal intervention of the king of Spain to stop these mass deportations. But children from eleven to thirteen were still rounded up illegally, issued with straw palliasses, and taken to the orchards to harvest apples and pears. By the end, the birth rate had fallen to zero in some places. The population of Lille fell to 129,000, and the city was recording fourteen deaths for each birth. The growth and weight of four-fifths of the 12-13 age group were abnormally small. A majority were classed as debile, weak and undernourished; the onset of puberty was delayed, and teachers found them mentally backward. Livestock all but disappeared. At Laon, a resident noted the departure of the last goat. Some communes had not a horse or mule left.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.