My dear friends hello !
Today I’m in Saint Quentin, a beautiful North-East city of France, Peaceful but dynamic. But during the First World War, this city was one of the most affected by the destruction. The German occupation left deep traces wich will mark its history forever.
Today, I invite you to go back in time to speak about this occupation. So with Saint-Quentin’s example, you can see more clearly the living conditions of civilians during the First Wold War. Let’s go ! August the 3rd of 1914,
The growing European tensions push France to declare war to Germany and the Triplice.
Hundreds of thousands of french soldiers are positioned at the border,
near to engaging in a conflict they think will be very very short.
The Schlieffen Plan is launched by the German, they Invade neutral Belgium and while the French troops were sinking into Alsace, the German troops circumvented them by the north of France in order to avoid the French fortifications On August 21, 1914, the Germans invaded the city of Dinant, not far from the French border.
They kill civilians, fire the windows, set fire to the houses. The villagers flee to save their lives, particularly in the direction of Saint-Quentin. On On August 24, there were nearly 200 refugees who landed in the city and were welcomed in the circus of Dachery Street. The population of Saint-Quentin is divided between fear and incomprehension: How can the Germans be so close to the city when the official newspapers mention only the progression of the French troops? All the informations received by the civilians reveals that many English soldiers block the advance of the German army, preventing Saint Quentin from undergoing the slightest threat.
And yet, troops passing through the St Quentin station let out words …
“Everything that is told “Everything that is told
in the news is absolutely false “,
” the battle of Charleroi is lost “, “Flee, Abandon everything! (…) the Germans behave like savages, they plunder and even kill children, without pity. ” Some rumors speak of the fact that the German soldiers even cut the hands of young girls.
Surely a propaganda that does its job well as the one that serves the German objectives and which presents a part of the population like snipers who will not hesitate to sacrifice for their country, which makes the German soldiers suspicious and develops the easy trigger. At Saint-Quentin, only the territorial forces,
ie a regiment composed of men too old to go to the front, are present
in defense of the city.
In August the 28th, Lieutenant Colonel Klein believes seen
movement in the North of the city.
Leading himself a part of his troops, he decides to meet a troop thinking they are British units. The mistake earned him a bullet in the head
and his men will follow him to the grave. That’s how the German enter the city under
the incredulity of French civilians, powerless in front of the capture of local troops remaining and even some executions of soldiers in the street. Some civilians were mown down by bullets,
house doors are destroyed, ,the houses are excavated,
English soldiers tracked.
Germans requisitions food and wine, they explore
shops, basements, warehouses. Everything must be entered, including municipal funds.
The German authorities says they do not want to make war with the civilian population
and confine the Mayor and his counselors in the walls of the Town Hall. Soon,
civilians were bribed to serve as spies for the Germans, to eavesdrop
and report any abnormal behavior. Suspicion is everywhere because the enemy is trying to shut down what everyone already knows : the threat of the gun is permanent. On October the third of 1914, two months after the entry of the French in the war, Kaiser Wilhelm the second comes to visit Saint Quentin, a way to definitively impose the German presence. The day before, the opening times of
shops were changed to match to the German time, wich is now
the official time of Saint-Quentin. In the area, nearly two-thirds of
the department is occupied by the German.
Prisoners of their own city,
Saint-Quentin’s citizens are preparing themselves to live dark and difficult times … Quickly, German forces put
up devices to frame the population to prevent a mass exodus or an uprising.
All people over 14 years old are identified and now have a
identity card required, with a different color depending on the age and
gender. To leave home, you need a special permit from the Germans and a
strict curfew is put in place from 6 pm to 7 am
in the city and from 9 pm to 6 am in the area. It’s even more complicated if you want to leave the town : Authorisations are hard to get,
it’s forbidden to assemble.
Each family is required to maintain a list of the occupants of the house and all their possessions, so the German can quickly grasp what
they need. And more than this very strict control
travel, The Kommandatur also wants to use the civilians as labour. All 16+ male wear a red cuff and each receives a working card with different colors depending on their age, their skills and fitness. Calls are frequently done to check
no one has tried to escape. For the more adventurous, it is recalled that if a man tries to escape, he will be sent in Germany on forced labor camps
and retaliation will be made in the city. Everywhere men, women and children
work in the fields, redo the roads. Some young people are sent outside
the city to work in the forest. They are accommodated in houses emptied of their inhabitants,
often in poor condition. Conditions lives are very hard for those workers who are wearing the same clothes for months in the rain and cold. The morning,
they are given a little coffee, a lunch some rice and meat, 4 kg for 400 men,
so 10g of meat per person. And the night, a glass of water in which is placed a little bit
of flour. Speaking of food, as we
are on the square of Saint Quentin’s outside market, we can ask to ourselves how
Civilians lives during the occupation ? The food is the most important concern for the people of Saint-Quentin because as early as 1915, provisions are scarce.
They eat cheese and bread in the morning, lentils or potatoes
for lunch and the leftovers for dinner. A rationing system is created to avoid
starvation, but the available resources aren’t enough and the vast majority of the population suffers from malnutrition. A war grocery store opens in town, but it is strictly reserved to the Germans.
In March 1915, the Spanish-American Committee starts.
It sets up the supply for the civilians from occupied by the Germans areas. Clotilde Carlier, who lives in Saint-Quentin at that time said : “Life is currently expensive in Saint
Quentin; it’s very difficult, but for those who can afford the price, it’s
still possible to find a lot of food to buy, except butter, eggs and meat,
which are almost impossible to find. ” Saint Quentin stays close to the front, and while French soldiers are oftenly imprisoned before being
deported to Germany, some Russians soldiers come to serve as labors, abused and malnourished. At first, the wounded are supported
by the Red Cross and all the soldiers are treated regardless of nationality but
soon the Germans set up their hospitals in Henri-Martin High School, at the Hotel-Dieu and the Fervaques Palace. French hospital workers are gradually replaced by Germans,
to cure Germans. Communication is not forgotten and
in November 1914,
the Germans are publishing “La Gazette des Ardennes “, a newspaper
for the french civilians who translates the official german realeases.
The news from the front are therefore
clearly oriented and Saint-Quentin’s residents have only access to a
very pro-German vision; but they still buy the newspaper because the newspaper also publishes a list of
French dead and wounded soldiers. From May the 10th of 1915, German authorities controls all the press by establishing a censorship with systematic validation of any
articles before publication. ” -Hello Murielle.
– Hello Ben. How are you?
– Very well and you ?
– Things are going well ! Thanks for giving us a bit of your time.
– I am delighted to welcome you in Saint Quentin In Sain -Quentin when Germans enter
he city they set up their own system, change the time, the administration, they force the population to adopt the passes …
we really have a huge transformation of the city and life of the civilians.
But finally what is the relationship between French civilians, Germans and the German soldiers? With the German soldier, when they arrive during the first three weeks it is going very well because we will more or less acclimatize with the invader. But later the civilians starts to fear of the German soldier, since some German soldiers will arrive here as conqueror. They are going to live like if it’s their home and that starts to scare the people because there will be too many amendments and prohibitions and civilians starts feeling uncomfortable. Everything is changing, life conditions but also work, schools because the
teachers are mobilized for the front … So they tries to have their teachers back to continue education …
Many factories, stores, will have to close in favor of
more mechanical infrastructure in order to repair equipment to
It will be really upsetting for civilians who will stay in Saint-
Quentin. Can we say that they are prisoners of their own city? Absolutely ! Especially when they want to leave the city in 1917, during the removal in the Hindenburg Line, because the city of Saint Quentin is on the front line Hindenburg, Civilians will feel embarrassed because the rest of France considers them as Germans collaborators. French will say that they are “Les Boches” (french slang for Germans) from the North.
It will be terrible for them to feel like they are treated as collaborators while
they are suffering the oppression and invaders. We knows that the occupation can”t be something pleasant, but was the German soldiers usually aggressive to the population? Some officers will ensure that
the civilians must salute them for example when they pass, Frenchs will have to leave their place to the Germans in the tram or things like that … They are not allowed to hide anything,
Everything is controlled by the German soldiers but sometimes civilians are making fun of it.
In schools, kids are singing songs to mocke the oppression and German soldiers Civilians develops a continual distrust against the invaders, avoiding his eyes not speaking to him and smiling with each other to show him that he is not welcome. This does not prevent the Germans to enjoy the city and develop infrastructure for their men. Prostitution is extremely expand in the city. Saint-Quentin isn’t far from the front line, and when permissions are granted to
officers, they come in the city to relax pressure in prostitution’s houses.
A strict control of prostitutes is quickly
set up by the German authorities to avoid STD.
Any woman who had a relationship with a German soldier is
examined in the preschool of Fayet street. Yes, a preschool to take care of the
Prostitutes, it seems to be the most suitable place I guess …
Especially since the name of the school is “Montplaisir” (MyPleasure)… What a suitable name…. Anyway, prostitutes had to report themselves twice a week, are photographed and registered as prostitutes and received a journal with hours of “work” that that can be buffered at
each visit at the school to show that the lady was “safe” as we say today. The local economy is also controlled by the Germans, french civilians being only relayed to the production of
material and wealth for the occupier. This is why in 1915, when the first
French planes bombed the Saint-Quentin’s train station and a few warehouses, the population welcomes the initiative with enthusiasm. But when new bombing caused the collapse of homes and businesses, and kills some civilians, they realize
that they were very vulnerable, Allies airstrikes were for the civilians as scary as the German presence. In autumn 1916, the train station area was almost completely destroyes by bombing. The city become part of the Hinderburg defense line by the Germans, a line that is supposed to help German forces to contain
their enemy. Saint-Quentin is now in the front line facing the guns. The population must be evacuated and from the 1st of March 1917, for almost 3 weeks, more than 42 000 civilians are sent to the north of France and Belgium in Trains for animals.
They will live with hosts or in some
barracks. As they were warned very late, they had to left and abandoning all their possessions to a certain destruction. During 1917, clashes cause a rain of shells in the city, wich is now empty of its inhabitants. The post office, the museum, railway, the bridge of the train station, the Market Hall and even the cemetery; everything is completely destroyed. Roads are impassable, buildings in ruins, the Basilica is about to collapse. 70% of the city turned into dust
and almost all of St. Quentin’s industry is dead. It is only at the end of the war that civilians can return in town, but as everything is destroyed it’s very complicated for the civilians to live among the ruins.
At the beginning of the year
1919, from the 42 000 original inhabitants of the city, barely 250 are back but summer brings nearly 10 000 civilians who came back to rebuild St. Quentin.
The 20s, or “Roaring Twenties” as they are called, sees the explosion of the “art deco style” and Saint-Quentin
became one of its spearheads as many buildings are built following this style.
colors and geometric shapes mark a break with older architecture styles. Maybe a way to symbolize a renewal, a new hope,
A way to left the Great War behind us. Thank you for watching this episode,
I invite you to tell me what you think about it in the comments section, to subscribe to my channel and give a blue thumb if you liked it! A big thank you to the the Aisne department for this very rewarding partnership and see you in a next video ! Bye !