Lille's occupation by the Germans began on 13 October 1914 after a ten day siege and heavy shelling which destroyed 882 apartment and office blocks and 1,500 houses, mostly around the train station and in the town centre. By the end of October the town was being run by German authorities.
The command of the German 6th Army moved into the prefecture, with General Heinrich in charge of the occupying forces and General Grävenitz managing relations between the French civilian population of the city and their German occupiers. In 1916 Grävenitz replaced Heinrich.
The Kommandatur of Lille occupied the offices of the Crédit du Nord Bank on rue Jean Roisin and General Heinrich held a daily 10 a.m. meeting there with the mayor, the prefect and the bishop of Lille.
The Liller Kriegszeitung, a German language newspaper for the occupying troops, requisitioned the offices and printing presses of the French local newspaper Echo du Nord. Other German newspapers, such as Westfront and Die Armeezeitung, were sold from the Crédit Lyonnais Bank on rue Nationale which had been requisitioned and turned into a newsagent's shop.
The Pass-Zentrale, which issued permits to allow cars and other forms of transport to circulate in the city, initially occupied the town hall before moving to rue Jean-Roisin.
The German postal service took over the offices of the New Stock Exchange (Nouvelle Bourse) which is today Lille's chamber of commerce and industry.
The German military police established their headquarters on rue Nationale, off square Desroussseaux.
The administrative offices were located off Grand-Place, Lille's main square.
The financial inspectorate was also on rue Nationale.
The citadel was used as a prison for the hostages who had been taken by the Germans to secure the obedience of Lille's inhabitants.
Lille was barely twenty kilometres from the fighting and this meant that troops regularly passed through the city on their way to and from the front. Ambulance convoys also brought wounded soldiers into Lille to be treated in the various hospitals in the city, especially La Charité and Saint-Sauveur hospitals, or to be quarantined in the Faidherbe School which had been requisitioned for that purpose.
The city soon became a place for soldiers to relax and enjoy themselves.
Privates frequented the coffee houses and bars where the beer flowed freely. The tramway kiosk on the main square was turned into a refreshment stall (Trinkhalle). The German Army requisitioned the restaurants La Paix, Belleville, Royal, Moderne and Europe for the entertainment of its officers.
Lille's rue Nationale was much-favoured by soldiers as a place to stroll and meet colleagues and shops run by German civilians flourished there, especially the cake shops Yanka, Marquise de Sévigné and Méert.
Military canteens were opened on rue Neuve (Zum Feldgrauen) and in the Masonic temple. A soldiers' rest was set up in the military club.
A casino for officers, Offizier-Kasino, opened its doors on the intersection between rue Nationale and rue du Pas and another on rue Neuve for ordinary soldiers.
A cinema for soldiers, a Soldatenkino, was set up on rue Esquermoise.
Destroyed in the fire of 1903, Lille theatre (now the Opera) was in the process of being rebuilt when war broke out. The occupiers completed the job and named it the "German Theatre", opening with much pomp and ceremony at Christmas 1915 in the presence of Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria and Lille's governor General Heinrich. Artists from Berlin performed Iphigenia in Tauris by Goethe, a symphonic prelude and Liszt's Festklange. On subsequent occasions the Ring of the Nibelungen and various light operas were also performed there but, although invited, the civilian population of Lille kept away. The German artists remained at the Opera until the end of September 1918 when they destroyed the sets and stage machinery and left.
Concerts and recitals were also performed in the Vauban gardens and on square Jussieu. Everyday at twelve o'clock (German time) the people of Lille witnessed the changing of the guard with the Bavarian battalion marching up rue Nationale, preceded by fifes and drums, to the main square where the troops executed a series of manoeuvres at the foot of the memorial to the siege of 1792, known locally as "the Column of the Goddess". This daily demonstration by the occupiers tended to attract "eloquent" comments from the townsfolk.
Lille played host to many important German figures––Emperor William II in the spring of 1918, the king of Bavaria, Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria in July 1916, the princes of Saxony and Wurttemberg and others––and these official visits gave rise to grand military parades.
Allied prisoners were also paraded through the town, on an almost daily basis, to undermine the morale of the French civilians and to boost that of the German troops. An auxiliary militia force called the Landsturm would march them along the streets of Lille from the train station to the citadel and back again. Civilians were prohibited from speaking to the prisoners or showing them any kind of sympathy.
While private soldiers were barracked in disused factories, such as the old cigarette factory, the officers enjoyed comfortable lodgings in bourgeois houses which were requisitioned for the purpose. For example, Prince Rupert installed himself in the mansion of Dr Dubar, on avenue Salomon, and General Heinrich took over the town house of Marie Boselli-Scrive (rue Royale), who was summarily evicted.
The explosion of the 18 Ponts munitions depot
At 3.30 a.m. on 11 January 1916 Lille was rocked by an enormous explosion which lit up the night's sky: the munitions depot known as "18 Ponts" had just exploded. Situated on the edge of boulevard de Belfort, the depot comprised a series of eighteen vaulted bunkers (the 18 ponts) which once served as powder magazines. The bunkers were arranged in a circle and comprised two storeys with deep tunnels protected by a thick layer of earth which the Germans found ideal for storing munitions and other explosives.
The explosion totally destroyed the munitions depot and left behind it a huge crater 150 metres in diameter and about thirty metres deep. The surrounding Moulins district was also destroyed and rue Ronchin (now rue Jean Jaurès), rue Desaix, rue Kellermann, rue de Trévise and boulevard de Belfort suffered great damage. In all, twenty-one factories and 738 houses were flattened. Built from concrete, the textile factories Wallaert and Le Blan sheltered the rest of the city from the main force of the explosion although damage was recorded for place de la République, rue de Béthune, boulevard de la Liberté, boulevard des Ecoles and even as far away as the neighbouring towns of Ascq, Hellemmes, Mons-en-Baroeul and Roubaix. The noise of the explosion was heard 150 kilometres away in Ostend, Brussels and Breda. Casualties were considerable with 104 dead, including whole families, and 300 to 400 wounded of which 116 were in a serious condition. The official German death toll numbered thirty.
The cause of the catastrophe was never clearly ascertained. Some talked of an attack, perhaps a bomb dropped from a British aeroplane although no one heard any engine noise to corroborate this. The most likely cause was the spontaneous detonation of some poor quality and unstable explosives which were stored in the depot.
The burning of Lille town hall
In the night of the 23 April 1916, at about 9.30 p.m., a fire broke out on the second floor of Lille Town Hall, situated at that time on place Rihour. The Germans were quick to arrive however firemen were delayed because of the curfew and this allowed the fire to spread rapidly through the building. Despite inadequate water pressure for their hoses, the firemen managed to prevent the fire spreading to neighbouring buildings but could not prevent the loss of all the town records for the 18th century and part of the town library. Council services were initially moved to boulevard de la Liberté and the Prefecture and then to rue Gambetta in 1918. The cause of the fire was not identified but it was probably started accidentally.
A new Town Hall was built after the war, designed by architect Emile Dubuisson, in the area of Saint-Sauveur. The choice proved to be a good one because a larger building could be built and it freed up the town centre for new housing. The new Town Hall opened in 1932.
Claudine WALLART, Head Curator of Heritage
at the Archives Départementales du Nord (Nord Records Office)
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