On 11 November 1918 the department of Nord was a scene of utter desolation and destruction. One month later the special correspondent of London daily The Morning Post described Lille as "a dead city on the edge of a desert" and the journalists covering the first cycling race from Paris to Roubaix after the war as "the wretched Nord". Towns and villages had been completely destroyed, reduced to a pile of rubble. For over four years the human and economic resources of Nord had been methodically exploited.
In addition to the destruction wrought by the fighting and the shelling, the buildings, businesses and transport systems had been systematically ransacked: the occupying forces had eradicated the region's industrial foundations. According to a report made by the Prefect of Nord in 1923, no less than 53,107 buildings had been destroyed and 210,000 damaged, 7,384 factories had been reduced to empty metal "skeletons", 8,849 kilometres of roads and 1,459 kilometres of railways had to be rebuilt, and 1,249 bridges had been blown up. In the department of Nord only four mines out of 107 still had working headgear.
The department had lost 9 % of its population to the trenches, executions, bombardments, privations and diseases. Another 300,000 civilians were estimated to have had left the department to seek refuge in other parts of France.
The health of the survivors was far from satisfactory and cases of dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, scurvy and smallpox were rife. According to Dr Albert Calmette, director of Lille's Pasteur Institute, mortality rates went from 19-21% before the war to 41-55% in 1918 and cases of tuberculosis were soaring. In Lille more than 80 % of teenagers were underweight, 66 % of young girls were not pubescent, and fertility rates had plunged.
More than 400,000 hectares of land had to be cleared of 4,700 kilometres of barbed wire and 7,850 kilometres of trenches had to be filled. The "Red Zone", a thirty kilometre strip of land either side of the front, was polluted from gas warfare, pock-marked by shells (many unexploded), riddled with saps, infested with landmines, littered with corpses and punctuated with more than 6,000 blockhouses made from reinforced concrete. Low-lying areas flooded with water became veritable marshes. Elsewhere thistles and wild grasses made the region look like a desolate steppe. Farming equipment and animal herds had been lost, stolen or destroyed.
Forests had been razed to the ground either by shelling or by systematic felling to produce timber for the trenches. In 1918 Nieppe Forest occupied one quarter of its pre-war surface area, Phalempin Forest one third. Saint-Amand Wood had lost 3,000 hectares with only the trees around the spa having been spared the soldier's axe. Fourmies Forest was exhausted and Marchiennes Forest was nothing but a muddy expanse. During their retreat the German Army used up what was left of Mormal Forest to build a line of resistance with machine-gun posts, gun batteries, trenches and munitions depots.
Consequently, despite the return of peace, the inhabitants of Nord would, for many months to come, remain isolated from the rest of France because of broken lines of communication, fallen bridges, shattered canal locks, and a crippled railway system.
Claudine WALLART, Head Curator of Heritage
at the Archives Départementales du Nord (Nord Records Office)