On 4 August 1914, the German armed forces entered into war by attacking Belgium, thereby violating the country’s neutrality. In mid August, the Kaiser’s troops invaded northern France. The advance of the soldiers wearing the Pickelhaube was not halted until it was 70 km from Paris (the First battle of the Marne, 6-12 September 1914). By the winter, German troops controlled most of Belgian territory, which was divided into three distinct administrative zones. In the same period in France, ten departments in the east and north of the country were marked by the presence of the occupier. Nevertheless, there were considerable differences in terms of the extent and length of occupation. All the Ardennes, 70% of the North, and 55% of Aisne were controlled by the Germans, while only a third of the territories in the other departments was under German occupation. If Amiens was subject to enemy defence for no longer than a few days, in Lille, Roubaix or Laoun the Germans stayed on for several years. In terms of historic remembrance, the German invasion stands out as a culmination of suffering and violence. However, situations brought about by the occupation were as equally varied as the attitudes of the inhabitants towards the occupier. The accounts of women and men who experienced it first hand constitute in this sense a corpus of precious documentary evidence that addresses the subject of occupation from the point of view of the people involved, thus restoring all the complexities of their experience. At the same time, these accounts clarify the difficult relations that civilians maintained with the new local rulers, illustrating a vast array of behaviour ranging from compromise to resistance.
Letter from a civilian in an occupied zone during the Great War, Eugénie Deruelle (1853-1927), in 1914 the widow of Léon Deruelle, doctor and mayor of Sains-Richaumont.
Arrival of the German troops in Sains-Richaumont between 29 and 31 August 1914.
At a certain point I heard General d’Housset say to the postman: “Telephone the General Staff in Marle immediately, telephone Laon, whoever you can reach by phone and inform them that the 11th Army Corps, in retreat at Sains-Richaumont, requires assistance.”
I had just sat down to eat when a car stopped in front of the house; six of their commanders ordered: “We require your house, we need twelve bedrooms, etc.”; after leading them from the cellar to the granary, they occupied all the beds, leaving only Jeanne’s free. Moreover, we had to lay the table in the dining room for fifteen and spend 6 hours preparing food for them. My bedroom was allocated to General von Bülow, the Commander in Chief of the troops.
Relations with the occupier and abuse of power in private life
24 April 1915: At midday the soldier Maasbaël cycled back from St-Quentin for Mme Leleu. There had been bad weather. I got him to have lunch with us. He is a handsome young man, honest, and rather cautious.
21 June 1915: The judge is receiving visits from women who look as though they work in that trade: precisely!
26 October 1915: The scum of a judge didn’t leave until last night: they spent 3 nights here in total; during the day they were kept up by prostitution : how disgusting! All this exasperates me, but if I complain I will have to leave my home … Yesterday they kept the blinds closed the whole day. How pleased I would be to find out that both, men and women, had got sick: it’s not compassionate, I know, but this really is too much!
4 December 1915: Yesterday morning I encountered the judge in the hallway, I hadn’t seen him for three weeks; when he said good morning I replied: « Sir, since you have been here, have you by any chance had the opportunity to complain about me, or about anything else in my house ? […] Fine! Then why are you doing this, inflicting this disgrace on me which is tarnishing my house ? You entertain certain kinds of women, for as long as four days in a row. […] Sir, for more than three generations my home has been respected and has kept its good name, and you have made it into a brothel! […] – Madame, it’s the war! [he replied, T.N.] Of course, we know that only too well! – But Sir, if your wife and your daughter, Mrs and Miss Mauser, found themselves in the same situation as me, in Germany, I would very much like to know, what would you think of it and how much would it worry you? (After which I left that good for nothing …) What else will he get up to? All the evil he can. That’s why I put myself completely in the hands of Providence.
29 May 1917: One of the lieutenants who comes here for his meals, Mr. Schmitt, arrived yesterday evening much earlier than the other diners. He stroked Scott, who was close to me, at the entrance to the garden; he talked at length about his mother, about his father who is Catholic, and his brother; both are medical doctors, the brother practises on the front. He is 22 years old (but he looks as if he’s just turned 18). […] Since they asked me for a bouquet [for the table, T.N.], he came with me into the garden and courtyard.
Requisitioning and Deprivation
28 May 1915: Mayors’ Day/ and horse show. After ranking them, so Mr. Marquet thinks and tells me, they will take them away along with the vehicles and our furniture : a very fine prospect indeed!!!
9 September 1915: I was finishing dinner when Mr. Hénon came to measure my only walnut tree. They will take the ones reaching a circumference of 90 cm, and mine is about 104: bye bye walnuts! At Buironfosse they took all the shoes: they will leave us with nothing, seeing as we are not capable of driving them out…
27 April 1916: The egg booty has become a big one: this morning I took in my 9 eggs; on the way back, I read on the Dupont notice board that we have to hand over 2 eggs for each chicken, and the same for each cockerel and chick.
10 April ???: Everything is so expensive nowadays! And without any income, I wonder how I will be able to stay in my house, which is so expensive to run! For that matter, what isn’t expensive nowadays?! And where will we go???
I end this diary as sadly as it was started, on the first of January 1918: what a life, oh my God! Save me from this dejection that is draining me more every day!!!
Les carnets d’Eugénie Deruelle: Une civile en zone occupée durant la Grande Guerre, presented by Guillaume Giguet, Amiens, Encrage, 2010.