Places to visit | Background information | Find a book about it

First World War

First World War: front line Nov 1914, area of France occupied by Germans

The German attack
When war broke out in August 1914, France, Britain and Russia were allied against Germany and Austria. The Germans attacked France through southern Belgium - aiming to capture Paris in a swift "knock-out blow".

The French Army stopped the Germans along the River Marne north of Paris - helped by the British Expeditionary Force that rushed across the Channel. Back to top
1. German troops in grey uniforms and spiked helmets sweep across Belgian fields into Nord/Pas-de-Calais
2. Propaganda picture from a French newspaper: Kaiser Wilhelm II watchiug his forces attack Arras, Nov 1914. The headline caption was "The barbarian contemplates his work."

France-extent of German occupation 1914-18

MAPS: the Front Line of trenches crossed Nord/Pas-de-Calais, leaving the western area [including Lille and the coal basin] behind enemy lines. Bloody battles were fought as each side attempted to make a decisive breakthrough.

MAP LEFT: So long as part of France was occupied, war would continue.

Civilians searched by German troops London buses rush troops to the Front Troop trains from Britain welcomed in France
1.German troops search civilians in the newly-occupied areas
2.In the panic to defend France, London buses were used to rush British troops to the Front
3.Trains bringing troops from Britain were welcomed at every stop through France.
4. Queues in Lille as reservists are mobilised to defend France in August 1914
5. Within weeks, householders had occupying German troops billetted in their homes
6. Germans requisitioned mattresses and household linen from the occupied area. [see Lille]

Line of Trenches
Both sides dug in, creating lines of muddy trenches. These were defended with barbed-wire fences, land-mines, artillery and murderous machine-guns. The trenches were so difficult to attack that the battle lines became frozen in a stalemate. By November 1914 they extended from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border.

Occupied areas behind enemy lines
Although Paris and most of France was saved, almost all of Belgium and much of the northern borderlands of France remained in enemy hands. German troops established control with harsh repressive measures, confiscating houses and property for the use of occupying troops, and killing people who resisted. Back to top

German troops commandeered a French circus elephant to haul timber - as they felled trees in occupied areas for trench props.

Working for the enemy
The population was used for forced labour to benefit the German war effort, and given inadequate food supplies. The north's mines, factories, farms and railways were exploited, and systematically looted for whatever Germany needed.

The Allied naval blockade in the North Sea caused shortages of food and other supplies in Germany, which increased the suffering of French people in the German-held areas.

Army stores on the quayside at Boulogne - a vital supply line across the Channel for the Allied forces.

Calais and Boulogne - war ports
The vital supply lines from Britain across the Channel were defended throughout the War by the Dover Patrol.

The Germans launched attacks and laid mines to disrupt the supply ships, using small submarines and fast boats operating from bases in Zeebrugge in occupied Belgium, and occasional bombing raids by aircraft and Zeppelin airships.

Back to top

1.Early gas masks were improvised against chlorine and mustard gas attacks
2.Troops lived in appalling conditions in the muddy water-logged rat-infested trenches - many died of diseases rather than enemy action.
3. A hospital behind-the-lines in Le Touquet: there were thousands of wounded to be cared for in the constant carnage

Shelling enemy lines in preparation for an offensive.
All around a devastated wilderness of mud and shell-holes in what was once peaceful farmland.

Calling the roll of names after an attack - with painful silences when a man is missing

Trench warfare in the Pas-de-Calais
On each side, the generals would plan "offensives" to try to break through the enemy Front Line.

First they would shell the enemy lines to weaken their defences, then the infantry would be sent out of their trenches into "no-man's land".

The Germans were the first to try using poison gas and flame-throwers to prepare for an attack; later the allies had more success when they invented tanks - first successfully used at Cambrai.

These attacks cost of hundreds of thousands of lives to shift the boundary a few miles. Only in the autumn of 1918 did the Allies finally break through - with American help.
Back to top

Dunkerque held the vital North Sea end of the trench line. During the Germans' final offensive in 1917-8, the Allies employed the traditional tactic for defending Dunkerque - flooding the coastal marshes. Dunkerque suffered regular bombing and shelling during the war: a captured German airplane is displayed in the place Jean Bart in 1917.

Cheering women and children greet the Liverpool Irish Regiment as they march into Lille. The area was liberated in October 1918 - one month before the Germans sought an armistice.

The cost of the war
France lost many more young men in the fighting than did Britain or Germany. 1/10th of the French population was killed or missing in the war.

By 1919 industrial and agricultural production had fallen to less than half pre-war levels.

The best farmland is in the north, and large areas of it were devastated - with livestock driven off, and towns, villages, industry and railways smashed. Back to top

Post war reconstruction in the 'twenties
Bailleul in ruins; 1920 plans to rebuild Cambrai with a traditional belfry and central square.

german cows
Germany was forced to pay reparations to France in compensation - including sending German cows to restock the looted dairy farms of the North.

The area worked hard and prospered in repairing the ravages of the war. Treasured historic buildings in the north's town centres were lovingly rebuilt, such as the famous squares of Arras - which were so near the front that they had been constantly shelled.
The towns of the coal basin in particular also saw new public buildings by modern architects.
Back to top

Try other keywords, eg: battle of flanders

Enter keywords

Places to visit:
Notre-Dame de Lorette & la Targette - memorials and museums about French sacrifices defending the line in 1915.
Vimy Ridge - memorial to Canadian troops lost in a major battle in 1917; nearby Museum and preserved trenches.
See more information on town pages for:
Arras, Bailleul, Cambrai, Dunkerque, Hondschoote, Lille.

Related background information
Second World War
Channel Tunnel: how it could have shortened the war by 2 years.
Dover Patrol: keeping the Channel supply lines open for Allied shipping




A-Z © Copyright 1999-2010 Invicta Media Last updated 18th November 2001, 7th November 2010