The three zones : the front, the occupied zone, the non-occupied zone

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When the front stabilized at the end of October 1914, and the belligerents realized that the war would be a long one, three types of zone coexisted in France and Belgium: the front, the occupied zone and the non-occupied zone.

The war zone (the front)

From the end of 1914 till the spring of 1918 a 700 kilometre line of trenches ran from the Belgian coast, on the North Sea, to France's border with Switzerland. This combat zone remained more or less stable until the return to a war of movement in the final stages of the conflict; however the course of the line did change in some locations during various localized offensives.

The war zone, characterized by the power of the artillery, occupied an area of approximately fifteen kilometres either side of the no man's land. By the end of 1914 this zone had been totally emptied of its civilian population and, for the most part, turned into a desolate wasteland.


The occupied zone (the French called it the "invaded zone")

From the very start of the Occupation the Germans imposed their own legal time, which was two hour's ahead of French time, and set in motion a process of domination founded on fear. One of the essential elements of this process was the conscription of the workforce and the requisition of agricultural and industrial resources to support the German war machine, not only in the occupied territories but also in Germany itself.

Indeed, from October 1914 onwards the Germans controlled the mining, metalworking and textile-producing areas of the department of Nord which was at that time, along with Paris, the most powerful industrial region in France. Many of the most modern factory machines were dismantled and carried off to Germany, with the remainder under threat of requisitioning at any moment. In rural areas the Germans confiscated much of the livestock. Horses were still an important means of transport to and from the front, even in a "modern" war like that of 1914–1918, and other animals served as food for the soldiers.

These requisitions, in addition to the forced labour, posed grave problems for the farming community of the occupied regions because thenceforth the production effort was borne, in the main, by a population of elderly persons, women and children. To make matters worse, a large part of the food they produced was requisitioned to feed troops in the vicinity or sent directly to Germany. In complete disregard of the laws of war the Germans made systematic use of forced labour, conscripting men, women and adolescents of both sexes to repair infrastructure and maintain their trenches.

German pressure on the occupied territories increased greatly in the second phase of the war when the effects of the Allied naval blockade began to bite. From then on every kind of resource (food, leather, wood, metal, furniture and so on) was subject to pillage.

Fearing that teenage boys and young men would attempt to escape and join the Allied forces, the occupying army monitored them closely and conscripted them into veritable forced labour battalions that the people of Nord nicknamed "the red armbands" (les brassard rouges) in reference to the distinguishing marks they wore. Moreover many French and Belgian civilians were deported as forced labour to other regions, in particular the Ardennes, and numbers of deportees increased significantly from 1916 onwards.

German pillaging and the weakening of the workforce had dramatic consequences for the indigenous population of the occupied zone, with shortages and cases of malnutrition becoming more and more frequent as the war progressed.


The non-occupied zone

Under constant threat from the enemy's shelling, the inhabitants of the towns and villages close to the front chose to flee or were evacuated early on in the war. They sought refuge in the safer areas of the region which were gearing up to receive French soldiers and their British allies. This massive troop presence provided the civilians with a considerable market in which to sell their foodstuffs and leisure services.

The administrations of the French and British Armies took very seriously the proper victualling of their servicemen and to this end set up huge pig and chicken farms. The British created cattle farms around their vast army camp outside Étaples of a size never before seen. When the war ended in November 1918 many observers were convinced that the vast majority of the war zone was too devastated to be rehabilitated, designating it a "red zone". But the civil servants and journalists had not bargained for the deep-rooted attachment the Belgian and French farmers had for their lands. Before their return, unexploded shells had to be cleared from the land, soil poisoned by gas warfare had to be removed, and the maze of tunnels and trenches had to be filled in and levelled off.

The bodies of fallen soldiers also had to be transferred to decent burial sites and all the military waste produced by the first industrial war had to be cleared up. Before long, temporary housing constructed from materials recovered from the battlefield began to appear among the ruins of the demolished towns and villages. After a decade of intense effort, supported by government credit, the villages had been rebuilt, the landscape of the front had been rehabilitated and farming was once again possible.

Today, except for the areas deliberately left to grow wild (in Somme and especially around Verdun), the only traces of any size which attest to the 1914–1918 war are the several thousand military cemeteries established along the line of the front.

Yves LE MANER,
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France