The return of the Artois refugees

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The German invasion of 1914 and the arrival of the fighting in the historical province of Artois resulted in the displacement of huge numbers of civilians as they fled the danger of the combat zones. In the aftermath of the war the question of how to reintegrate these refugees began to occupy the discussions of both national and local authorities. At the end of 1918, after four years of war, many of the towns and villages on the front were completely destroyed and provided little opportunity for the return of their former inhabitants. In addition to the material destruction wrought by the shelling, those returning would have to face pollution and disease. Because of this, the repatriation of the Artois refugees was gradual and not without its challenges.

The first of these challenges was undoubtedly the Reconstruction. The first of the refugees to return had, for the most part, to content themselves with improvised shelters. During the summer of 1919 an official report indicated that the inhabitants of Thélus "slept in underground shelters and cellars [...] on hay mattresses". In November 1921 the Mayor of Souchez reported that his village had only two permanent dwellings. Temporary shelters, mostly huts made of wood or sheet metal, were provided by the authorities but they were too few in number to satisfy the considerable demand and only partially solved the housing problem in the affected areas. In September 1922 the problem appeared in the minutes of a meeting of the Pas-de-Calais General Council: "In many villages, particularly in the district of Vimy, the housing problem has only very inadequately been solved.... Many refugees cannot yet return to their home district because of the lack of huts; more often as not, two or three families comprising a total of ten or twelve persons are forced to lodge under the same roof, in appalling conditions both in terms of health and morality".

The lack of housing was exacerbated by the even greater problem of providing food and a clean water supply. Shelling during the war had destroyed most of the wells and mains water supplies of the towns and villages close to the front. Water extracted from the few wells in service immediately after the Armistice was usually inappropriate for human consumption or of such poor quality as to pose a health risk. Throughout the summer of 1919 Neuville-Saint-Vaast had only four wells in working order and Thélus had just one "which supplied the entire village, including the prisoners of war... and was [always] exhausted by the beginning of the afternoon". For the villages of Souchez, Givenchy, Carency and Vimy alone the cost of installing mains drinking water came to two million French francs.

Statistics relating to the return of civilian populations to the towns of Arras and Béthune indicate the lengthy nature of the process in the areas hardest hit by the conflict (see table below). Indeed, population numbers for these two urban areas did not return to their pre-war level until early 1924. In the aftermath of the Great War some Artois villages and towns on the front suffered a substantial loss of population, such as Neuville-Saint-Vaast whose population never recovered to more than 75% of its pre-war level.

Yann HODICQ
Member of the History and Archeology Commission
of the Pas-de-Calais département


                  

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