During the invasion of the summer of 1914 the inhabitants of Nord fled before the German advance, with some being forced to leave their homes by the retreating French Army. Other refugees from the invaded territories managed to make their way back to France through Switzerland or the Netherlands and some evacuees from towns and villages on the front, mostly elderly women and young children, were also repatriated by this route.
In March 1915 the inhabitants of the occupied zones experienced the first wave of forced repatriation which concerned the poor, the "undesirables", the "useless mouths" and the sick. Then came the turn of the "volunteers" who had put their names on a waiting list for repatriation. The German authorities selected names from the list and allowed them to join a convoy back to France if they could pay for the trip. They could take thirty kilograms of luggage but their houses were requisitioned and all correspondence was forbidden. After a period of "quarantine" in Belgium, the volunteer refugees were taken by train to Schaffhausen where they were handed over to the Swiss who sent them back to France by way of Annemasse and Evian.
Between 1915 and 1918 about 30,000 people from Lille managed to return to France by this route. Most were sent to the departments of Tarn and Garonne and given a special card which entitled them to a daily ration. They were also issued with safe-conducts and had to inform the French authorities of any change of domicile. Most of the repatriated were women, children and the elderly and their return to France was not without its problems. In the first instance they were accommodated, clothed and fed by charitable organizations and in people's homes. The government gave them the same allowance it gave to the families of servicemen and local councils were obliged to ensure they were housed, fed and kept warm.
On 28 October 1914 the government created a department for administering the unemployed and refugees. Because of the forced nature of their inactivity, refugees were generally assigned to farms or factories situated in the rearguard or around Paris (30.1% were sent to Pas-de-Calais, 33% to Nord and Somme). They were not welcomed by all and some nicknamed them "the Boches from Nord". In addition to their cultural differences, language and customs, their presence also caused inflation and unemployment. Preparations for their return to Nord started as early as the 5 December 1918.
Forced evacuation and scorched earth
During its retreat the German Army, under orders from high command, took with it all the inhabitants of the occupied territories. For example, between 2 and 4 September 1918 the people of Douai were evacuated first to Mons and then to Brussels. On 9 October 1918 Mons had to accommodate about 5,000 refugees from Nord in private homes or buildings requisitioned for the purpose. Most had made the trip on foot, walking twenty kilometres a day. The sick were evacuated from hospitals by boat. The evacuation of Cambrai to Valenciennes, and then to Liège and Malines, began on 8 September 1918 and lasted three days. Before leaving the Germans deliberately set the town centre ablaze. In October 1918 Haubourdin was evacuated and one district was set ablaze. The people of Anich were also sent to Belgium, or the Netherlands, as were those of Condé, Valenciennes, Fresnes, Denain, Bruay and Anzin. All these evacuees contributed to the spread of Spanish flu which found a fertile breeding ground in a population weakened by malnutrition.
Any industrial equipment or buildings left standing were set ablaze or dynamited. Surface equipment for mines, such as pumping stations, generators and hoisting machinery, were either dismantled or destroyed with explosives. Mine galleries were flooded and shafts dynamited. The German Army also blew up bridges and railways to hinder the Allied advance. Flooding the marshes from Escaut to Trith-Saint-Léger and to Maing, the Germans ensured that the lower parts of Valenciennes were soon under water and another area of the town was set ablaze. Cambrai was liberated on 9 October by Canadian soldiers, Douai eight days later, and Valenciennes on 2 November. The British freed Lille on 17 October and reached Avesnes-sur-Helpe and Maubeuge on 10 November.
On 7 November German plenipotentiaries crossed French lines to request an armistice which was subsequently signed on 11 November.
Claudine WALLART, Head Curator of Heritage
at the Archives Départementales du Nord (Nord Records Office)