The Long Silence: Civilian Life under the German Occupation of Northern France, 1914‐1918

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Gamble, C.J. (2000), "The Long Silence: Civilian Life under the German Occupation of Northern France, 1914‐1918", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 113-115.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

A striking picture of the reality of civilian life under the German occupation is shown in the photograph on the cover of the book, where proud French women in long, dark dresses, are defiantly turning their backs on richly attired German troops riding through a small town in Lorraine. That defiance and mute disdain were maintained throughout the war and are a unifying thread in the book.

Helen McPhail has spent many long hours and days meticulously poring over little‐known documents, many of a highly personal nature such as the secret diaries which local French people kept at great risk to their own safety and their loved ones, during the trauma of the long German Occupation of part of Northern France. She delved into archives, official records and also spoke to a few remaining survivors.

This is cultural history at its best, based on original source material, rather than speculation and interpretation. These documents provide a first‐hand, authentic account of events and are of immense value and interest. McPhail has rescued for posterity a mass of unpublished evidence of everyday life which may have been considered too trivial to retrieve by a different kind of historian. Who can forget Madame Delahaye‐Théry’s cahiers noirs, her eight large note‐books covered in black cloth in which she meticulously recorded every day her impressions of the war? Or Marie Polvent’s account written in exercise books concealed in the rafters of her farmhouse in the village of Ors a few miles east of Le Cateau?

The Northern France of the book is the area comprising the départements of the Aisne, Nord, Marne and Meuse, where so many ordinary French civilians lived in the Great War as temporary German subjects: in general terms it is the area to the East of the snaking curve of the Western Front. Much of the focus of the book is on the city of Lille, governed during the occupation by General von Heinrich, on Roubaix, Péronne and smaller towns such as Le Nouvion‐en‐Thiérache. The author shows how these rich agricultural and industrial areas were invaded, occupied and exploited between the summer of 1914 and the Armistice in November 1918. It is a picture of cruel asset stripping by the Germans: the local population was terrorised, maltreated and malnourished and even taken to forced labour camps. Clothing, household items, materials, farmyard animals and stock were requisitioned – even basic necessities such as mattresses and blankets. The Germans organised prostitution and the women selected were required to undergo medical inspection. Chapter 3 entitled simply “Food”, prefaced by Herbert Hoover’s observation “In every respect the land is like a vast concentration camp” (p. 55), is one of the most dramatically heart rendering of the whole book, and explains how the starving population was kept alive by Hoover’s food aid scheme with the help of Great Britain and Belgium.

The death penalty was served on anyone hiding French or allied soldiers, making signals, ringing bells, releasing carrier‐pigeons or using radio transmitters: yet French civilians risked their lives to help British soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. They also risked severe penalties for keeping diaries and producing clandestine newspapers. There was a strong resistance movement and an especially vivid account of how an escape network was organised can be found in the story of Jacquet and his colleagues in chapter5.

McPhail’s fascinating documents speak for themselves, such as the AVIS AUX ETRANGERS issued in French by the Borough of Ramsgate offering a very warm welcome to French and Belgian refugees (p.30). Most of the illustrations have been reproduced from photographs of the period and provide a moving memorial to the horrors of war.

All the documents have been translated into English, involving an immense amount of work, for translation is a long, often tedious task which is underrated by the general public. I assume that Helen McPhail was this translator and recognition of her work should have been noted. This richly documented account is to be highly commended and deserves to be widely read and translated into French. Descendants of these courageous French, Belgian, British and American peoples will read this book with pride.

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