Occupation Pt. 1



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 15. This will be the first of a two part series discussing the experiences of those under the occupation of the Germans during the war. This episode will cover the occupation in the West where Belgium and Northern France came under the control of the German occupiers. The second episode of the series will discuss the occupation of the lands in the east as Germany and Austria-Hungary occupied vast swaths of formerly Russian territory. By the end of 1916 the Germans had occupied hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of land, one of my sources put it at 525,000 although I don’t have a verification on that. Determining how to occupy these areas efficiently with both a minimum of German resources while still extracting the maximum amount of resources from the territory occupied was a problem that the Germans would never truly solve. Each area had an administrative apparatus that was setup by either the German government or the army and while the goals of these were the same, they tried to achieve them in slightly different ways. The goals were to pacify the inhabitants before moving on to full on, full blown economic exploitation. This exploitation came in many forms, with factory machinery being moved from France and Belgium back to Germany, grain and oil taken from Romania, and lumber, food, and other natural resources taken from Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. This plunder allowed the Germans to continue the war, especially the food without which Germany and Austria-Hungary probably would have been starved out of the war before 1918. None of these actions would endear the populations to their German occupiers and because of this there would be constant friction and unrest between the occupiers and the inhabitants. While the German occupiers were often harsh, and there were atrocities which we will discuss, they should not be confused with the German occupiers of the next war, especially in the East. With that fact in mind, let’s jump into the situation in the West.

The Germans entered the war without any real plans for long term occupation of territory, at least while the war was active. Nobody thought that the war would last very long and therefore there were prewar regulations concerned with moving an army through territory and how they could be used to help the army, primarily through requisitioning provisions, tools, vehicles, animals, and other items however there was not much of a thought beyond that. If the war had been short this is all that would have been required, peace would have been made and if there were territorial acquisitions they would move into assimilating those territories into the Empire. Occupying territory for long periods while a war is still going on requires a different set of actions, because of the lack of planning what the German decisions feel like is somebody trying to figure out a very complex subject as they went along, and nowhere was that more obvious than in Belgium.

Belgium was the first country to find itself under German occupation, and also the one that was most publicized by other countries. From the very beginning of the war the Entente used it as a subject for propaganda to drum up support for the war and they did this by keeping the situation in Belgium in the public eye. This played a role in the creation of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which was setup in the opening months of the war by American millionaire Herbert Hoover, yes the future president. By Mid-October it was taking care of 2/3rds of the food needs of the Belgian citizens. This was critical because if the CRB was not formed the Belgians would have been in a very rough spot. Before the war Belgium only grew about 25% of its food, and even what was available was drawn down heavily by the German requisitions. The movement of the CRBs food was organized by Americans who had large amounts of money to facilitate it, and also the connections in London to get it through the blockade which was no easy matter. Overall there would be 5.7 million tons of food shipped through the CRB however this did not solve all of the problems for the Belgiums because their issues went far beyond food. Right from the start the German Army began to decimate the Belgian infrastructure and economy. During the war 250,000 businesses would close, 106 iron and steel factories would be completely dismantled and shipped back to Germany, almost the entire interurban and streetcar systems would also be dismantled and shipped off for German purposes. All of this was done while at the same time the appointed leader of the German occupation, Governor General Bissing tried to get the Belgians to cooperate. He hoped that at the end of the war Belgium wasoul fall under permanent German rule, which was a war aim high on many German lists. However, he found it difficult to gain support while the Army and other German government entities were dead set of exploiting the country as much as possible. He was also stymied by the continual passive reisistance by the Belgian people. They basically refused to contribute in any way to both the German war effort and to the Belgian economy as a whole, even when they were heavily incentivized to do so. They could do this because of the food provided by the CRB. Since the Germans often used food as the carrot to try and get populations to cooperate, and the CRB was provided food, they had to find other ways to get the Belgians to work and this was done, over the course of the war, with tens of thousands of Belgian workers being deported to Germany over the course of the war.

The Forced Labor of the Belgians mostly came about in late 1916 and the introduction of the Hindenburg Plan. Germany had to have more people working in war industries to meet its lofty goals, as we discussed on a recent mainline episode and the number of people required were simply not available inside Germany so they had to find more workers. They did this in two ways, using prisoners of war which were primarily Russians and conscripting civilian workers. Obviously impressing civilians to do war work is very much illegal, a fact that the Germans were well aware of. To try and get around this fact they began in 1915 by simply asking for volunteer workers, promising money and other rewards, but they were met with silence. By the middle of 1916 things got more serious. Walter Rathenau, the head of the War Raw Materials Department, would say that “The solution to the Belgian worker problem can only be achieved by ignoring international prestige questions, so that the seven hundred thousand workers in Belgium are made available to the home market, even if it means American aid in the form of the CRB will end.” Bissing would fight against the idea of forcing the Belgians into the factories and he used all kinds of reasons to try and fight it, first citing international law before moving onto more practical objections. This biggest was that if they went forward with the plan unrest in Belgium would skyrocket which would then require more German troops to keep under control, robbing those men from the front when every one of them was valuable. He also pointed out that the workers would probably be of marginal value since they would resist working. None of these objections worked though and on September 13th hew as ordered to start providing laborers for export into Germany, not yet deterred he went to Pless on September the 19th and raised his objections to the assembled civilians and military leaders personally, which again did not work and the deportations began. In total 60,847 people would be moved to work gamps within Germany. When they arrived the goal was to get them to sign a contract to become voluntary workers, however few would take this step voluntarily.

They could have used outright force to get the Belgians to work, but the Germans were hesitant to begin that kind of treatment. They told the camp commanders to try and get the people to work “through stringent discipline and strict enlistment for necessary work in the camps, the prerequisites will be laid down such that the Belgians will greet every opportunity for well-paid work outside the camp as a desirable improvement of their condition.” If they signed on as a voluntary worker they would experience much better conditions with better food and living quarters. Even with all of these processes put in place only about a quarter of the deportees would sign the contract and those who did not were in for some harsh treatment, which began as soon as they were taken from their homes in Belgium. It often took days to get to the camps, often without food in crowded rail cars and then they had to wait for days or weeks inside what were former POW camps, and even in winter they often did not have proper clothing, blankets, or facilities. They were also supposed to get 1745 calories per day, but many camps either could not or would not provide that amount of food. Some commanders used it as a way to get more people to sign the contracts, others simply did not have enough food given to them due to shortages. Even the Belgians who got to the factories were found to be wanting when to came to performance. After a month of deportations only 20 percent of the Belgians were working consistently and by February 1917 the deportations were stopped. Even with the short lifespan of the problem it did irreparable harm to international public relations and it completely cut the legs out from under any sympathy that the Germans may have garnered from neutral nations on the international stage. All of this for a few months of a small number of workers and a huge logistical headache. The official Belgian report of the deportations states that 3-4% died, 5.2 were maimed or permanently disabled, 6.5 percent had scars from ill treatment, 4.4 percent suffered from frostbite, and 35.8 percent were ill when they returned to Belgium. Overall, the policy was a complete failure, and that failure was paid for by the Belgian people who suffered through the ordeal.

At the end of the race to the sea in 1914 the Germans also found themselves in command of large portions of northern France. This encompassed roughly 2 million French citizens. The people in these areas faced several hardships for the next 4 years. The first was simple, they were concerned about their family members in the French Army. It was often impossible for those in occupied territory to get reliable and consistent news from the rest of France. This meant that it was possible that they would not hear news of family members in the French army dying or being wounded for years. There were also soldiers trapped behind the lines, often hidden in the homes of civilians. Some brave citizens, mainly women, would organize networks to smuggle these soldiers out of the area, but this was often hard and dangerous work and because of this not all of the trapped soldiers were lucky enough and instead were trapped behind the lines for the entire war. There were also instances of harsh treatment and the killing of civilians, although this did not happen everywhere. It bears repeating that many German soldiers, officers, and government officials treated the French and Belgian citizens under their control completely acceptably but unfortunately this does not make up for the harsh treatment by local groups of soldiers, and by the official practices sent down from Germany like the movement restrictions, food requisitions, work details, and wanton acts of destruction that were all too present during the war. We will discuss each of those items in turn now.

The first, and critical piece of the German policies in France revolved around the movement restrictions placed on the populations. Every person in the territories received an identity card which specified that person’s name, date of birth, marital status, and the state of their health. Men of military age were issued red cards, everybody else got white cards. No travel was permitted without a pass, which often were only obtainable with money. Both of these policies were the same as those used in the East, however in the French occupation zone, since it was both smaller and better documented and structured than in the east, it was far easier for the Germans to control. Local records were often far more complete and up to date which helped in finding all of the citizens and thereby keeping them under control. This also gave the German Governor Generals, and Army leaders who handled the areas directly behind the lines, immense control. It allowed them to do things like move upwards of 30,000 people out of the some of the cities and into the countryside in 1916 and force them to take a role in agricultural labor. This solved some of the labor shortages and also reduced the amount of food that the Germans had to transport to the cities. Some of the forced movement can be justified from a military perspective, there were many French citizens right behind the lines, however that does not come close to justifying the amount of people who were relocated for any reason. Often this forced movement was in conjunction with the next two policies, the requisitioning of food and the implementation of forced work details.

From the very beginning of the German occupation they took a huge amount of food from Northern France. About 4/5ths of the 1914 grain harvest would be sent back to Germany. The only way that the people in area were able to stave off starvation was because the CRB expanded their area to also cover France in March 1915. Until that point the citizens were reliant upon the whim of the German occupiers for food. These type of requisitions did not stop after the first harvest though and for the entire war the Germans tried to control and exploit as much of the French agricultural production as they could get their hands on. In some areas this just meant requisitioning food at the end of the harvest, but in others the Germans believed that they could execute on farming better than the French. This occurred in areas like the Ardennes where the Germans thought they could get more grain out of the area than the French farmers and took over operations. This generally resulted in disappointing results, for example in the Ardennes the Germans were able to produce about a quarter of what the French farmers said they could provide them. The requisitions did not end with food either and almost everything was liable to be taken, especially over the course of the war. Over the years the houses all over northern france were slowly emptied of items like precious metals, then anything metallic, even leather and cloth were removed. All of this would add to the hardship of the French, with heating fuel almost non-existent in the later years of the war. Schools even had to close in the winter due to not being able to heat the buildings.

Just like in Belgium the people of France were also forced into being laborers for the German war effort, however they were often engaged in a different type of work. This might involve the creation of sandbags for German defenses, or even digging trenches that the Germans would later use. All of was done by work groups which would work long days until they basically became too ill or exhausted to continue, at which point they were rotated out of the group and new people were brought in to begin the process again. This was a serious cause of friction, first because it was illegal and also because every person knew that help they gave to the Germans might end up hurting their own countrymen. The trenches or the sandbags they were creating could help the Germans to quite literally kill their family members or relatives. To counteract this resistance the Germans took prisoners from the towns as a way of forcing those left behind to work and these groups of prisoners would grow in number as the years wore on with large groups being taken in 1915 and 1916. They also started the practice of shuttling these working parties to different occupation zones which got them away from the people and places that they knew, allowing the Germans to have an easier time putting pressure on the people and getting them to curtail to the German demands.

The final cherry on top of the cake for the French was the destruction of the French countryside. There was a certain amount of destruction that was just to be expected, especially after trench warfare began. There was going to be a large swath of French territory that was to be completely obliterated by 4 years of artillery fire and fighting, however the Germans took this to a new level in a few different instances. The biggest one was before their retreat to the Hindenburg line in early 1917. After the decision was made to retreat to this line they had to decide what to do with the land that they were giving over to the Entente. The German military leadership wanted to hinder the Entente advance and make it as unpleasant as possible to occupy the territory and therefore they began to plan for a massive scorched early campaign. The order sent forward would say that “It is necessary to make extensive preparations for the complete destruction of all rail lines, and further, all streets, bridges, canals, locks, localities, and all equipment and buildings that we cannot take with us but that could be of any use at all to the enemy. The enemy must find a countryside completely sucked dry in which his own mobility is made as difficult as possible.” This was going to be a massive campaign of destruction, and there was resistance from some German commanders. Crown Prince Rupprecht was particularly vocal, partially because he was a Crown Prince and he could do it without any real consequences. He would write that “I would have liked to resign, but I was told it would do no god and would not have been approved anyway for political reasons, since it would have given the impression abroad of a rift between Bavaria and the Reich. So I had to limit myself to refusing to sign the order of execution” Overall 2.5 million kilograms of dynamite were used to complete the destruction, and it would be total with nothing left behind.

We finish out today on the Italian front. On this front the Italians captured a piece of territory right at the beginning of the war. From these areas thousands were evacuated into other parts of Italy. Cadorna’s goal was to get them out of the way, and anybody living within 500 meters of the amorphous “zone of military operations” was relocated. Some were moved just a few miles away, but more ended up all over Italy from Sicily to the French border. A new office was setup within the Italian Supreme Command to handle all of the various civilian matters in the newly occupied areas. Overall the official Italian policies were pretty lenient, other than the aforementioned evacuations. Food and healthcare were provided to the Austrians, even those who had family members in the Austrian army. Even the Slovene press on the other side of the line gave them some credit for taking care of the people trapped behind the lines. However, there was still some instances of tragedy. Suspicion on both an official and personal level was high that the Austrian citizens trapped behind the lines were finding ways to help the enemy. This resulted in some units taking matters into the their own hands. In one instance an Italian unit rounded up men from half a dozen villages, who then then accused of betraying positions to the Austrians and sheltering Italian deserters. These men were then lined up and every tenth man was made to step forward and was killed. This resulted in the deaths of 6 men, and this was unfortunately not the only instance of this kind of activity. Overall the treatment of citizens in the West was a black eye on the Germans and Italians, however it would be worse in the East, which we will discuss next episode.