By mid October 1914 two-thirds of the coal fields of Northern France were under German authority and for the next four years the invaders systematically pillaged the region, prosecuting a reign of terror, both military and administrative, over the civilian population. The arrival of German troops in 1914 was a brutal shock for the civilians who remained in the region. Accounts of the period describe the numerous atrocities and acts of intimidation perpetrated by the invading army, the systematic taking of hostages being a good illustration of this.
The worst period, which saw the most serious cases of theft, pillage and rape, was undoubtedly during the invasion of 1914 which resulted in the death of numerous civilians. For example, when the German Army entered Pont-à-Vendin on 4 October 1914 a young man of seventeen was executed upon suspicion of firing on the invading soldiers and fifty-four buildings, including the town hall, were set ablaze. In Loos-en-Gohelle four inhabitants, including three elderly men, were shot by the enemy. "The Germans tied one of our miners to a tree," wrote a local priest after the event, "and the next day they made him dig the graves of those who had been shot." Another three civilians were shot in the Lens mines, on the head of pits 15 and 15a.
Right from the start of the occupation the towns of the coal basin were subjected to the financial demands of the German military authorities in the form of war taxes. These taxes were often considerable and continued to be collected throughout the duration of the occupation. The town of Lens, for example, was required to pay the sum of 9,000 francs per quarter in 1915. Mining companies were also taxed, as in the case of Courrières which had to pay a fine of six million francs to the Germans. As for the civilian population, they had to comply with a multitude of rules laid down by the local Kommandaturen upon pain of reprisals which ranged from a simple fine to execution. Such was the fate of Liévin miner Paul Bussière who was arrested for having in his possession a pigeon, the keeping of which was banned because they could be used for sending messages, and summarily executed on 23 August 1915.
In the occupied zone close to the front civilian workers were forced to carry out repair work on the roads or dig trenches which exposed them to artillery fire and shelling, and this despite international conventions banning such practices. Throughout the occupied territories the civilian population had to adhere to a curfew, purchase travel permits, and comply with a large number of rules and regulations. Although some of the rules appeared to be fairly harmless––sweeping the streets, not celebrating Bastille Day, saluting German officers––some were more coercive, such as the provision of forced labour and evacuations, while others were clearly humiliating as in the case of subjecting civilians of Lens aged between fifteen and fifty-five to intimate medical examinations Despite their youth, schoolchildren also had to contribute to the German war machine by collecting various, and sometimes unusual, materials such as dog-rose seeds, nettles and food tins.
In addition to this particularly strict military regime, the people of the coal basin were also confronted with enormous difficulties when it came to finding enough to eat. The numerous requisitions carried out by the occupying force to satisfy its own needs––"all the harvest, hay, wheat, potatoes and vegetables were seized by the German Army", according to a source in Noyelles-Godault, July 1915––only accentuated the food shortage, especially as these contributions rarely received proper remuneration. In Liévin the inhabitants complained of being paid in vouchers which bore, in German, the undoubtedly ironic promise "payable in Berlin at the end of the war"!
Although a constant worry, the problem of feeding the civilian population was overcome thanks to aid provided by the Spanish-American Commission and the creation of provisioning committees to oversee rationing. For example, by April 1915 a municipal bakery was set up in Loos-en-Gohelle to provide locals with bread and other foodstuffs three times a week. In Lens, under the efficient guidance of Mayor Emile Basly––whose range of action far exceeded the boundaries of his town––the population received a daily allowance of 500 grams of bread and one pound of bacon and lard every fortnight from the Spanish-American Commission. Foodstuffs supplied by the Commission were mostly sent to a logistics centre at Carvin before being transported to the towns and villages of the coal basin by road or by boat along the river Deûle.
Local shopkeepers who had managed to stay in business were obliged to purchase permits from the Germans on a regular basis in order to buy stock from the markets of Douai; however prices in the shops were usually far too high for the great majority of the working population. By the spring of 1916 even the German troops, who had until then enjoyed regular supplies, began to feel the effects of the food shortage. One account describes how "Food supplies decreased significantly, almost no meat for the troops, little or no sugar and coffee, one kilo of bread a day for four men [...] Posters were put up during the winter of 1916–1917 inciting soldiers to give nothing to the civilian population, to collect bread crusts for their horses..."
Isolated from their compatriots, subjected to rationing and living under the constant pressure of the occupying forces, the civilian population of the coal basin undoubtedly experienced harsh conditions during the four years of the war and indeed beyond because the liberation and armistice of 1918 did not bring an immediate end to their privations. Many civilians who had been evacuated during the Allied offensives of 1917 and 1918 returned to find their towns and villages in ruin and their mines sabotaged by the retreating German Army.
Member of the History and Archeology Commission
of the Pas-de-Calais département