From: "Ted Rawes"
Subject: Brief Notes on a Book on German Occupation in N. France
"The Long Silence - Civilian Life under the German Occupation of Northern France 1914-18" by Helen McPhail. Published 1999 by Tauris Press in UK and St Martin's Press in USA. ISBN 1 86064 479 1
An interesting book on a subject not much covered in English language works. Partly because of the nature of the data, since reliable statistics are very hard to come by, most of it is anecdotal but even so it tells its own story. It is as we might expect, one of growing hunger, exploitation, forced labour, requisitions (even of beds and bedclothes) and harshness. One can understand why carrier pigeons ( and racing pigeons are even now a popular activity in those parts of France and Belgium) were confiscated but it does seem hard that when two escaped and flew back to the former owners, the latter were shot. The "silence" in the title refers to the almost total lack of news of any kind reaching the people. They had no idea what was going on except for official proclamations. Almost no letters reached them from relatives in France or elsewhere. Considering that at various times it was proposed to annex much of these territories, it seems singularly shortsighted to have treated the civilian population so badly.
One aspect on which someone may be able to comment is best explained by quoting the author. "As one of the German troops remarked to him (in late 1914), such petty restrictions which had come to cause such irritation and distress in the past three months had been part of daily life in Alsace for more than forty years". Were there special restrictions in Alsace in peacetime apart from the usual German "Anmelden - Abmelden" ?
I can add something from the experience of an old friend even if it does relate to Belgium. He was a landscape artist from before 1914, was commissioned and wounded in the war, and an official photographer in the second war. He used to write long letters in a flowing script and slightly old fashioned German. Recalling being posted to an officer training school in Bruges in 1915 and how he with several other offficer cadets were billeted on a Flemish family of a widow and two highly nubile daughters, Adolf related how he and his comrades were interested in the girls although they thought themselves terribly posh and important ( as he put it " zwei hübsche Töchter, die sie vor unseren vermüteten Angriffen beschützte, obgleich wir deutschen Soldaten uns doch hochanständig benahmen". ). On leaving, they discovered to their amazement that none of the family could read or write. His letter concluded "Gibt jetzt Schulzwang in Belgien?" or is education now compulsory in Belgium? I suppose that as happened even in Russia in the horrors of the second war, ordinary human relations kept breaking through. Adolf died 1985 aged 97.