Just after 7 a.m. on 21st February 1916, 100 years ago today, German artillery unleashed a 10-hour bombardment that could be heard more than 150 km away. Thus began one of the longest and most devastating battles in history. The series of offensives and counter-offensives of the Battle of Verdun lasted for 299 days, until 18th December, and caused unimaginable casualties. The battlefield remains a mass graveyard.
General Pétain’s rotation system brought most of the soldiers serving in the French army to Verdun, but for shorter stints than the German soldiers. Even so, this war of attrition took its toll on the French army’s morale and discontent and mutiny rippled through the ranks. General Nivelle, who replaced Pétain on the latter’s promotion, forbade French troops to surrender.
A huge amount has been written about Verdun and I don’t intend to dwell on the battle itself. But today’s commemoration has made me think about the effects of that devastating clash and of World War I in general on our own region.
The evidence of the casualties is everywhere, in the tiniest villages, where war memorials record the tragic litany of men ‘morts pour la France’. Some families lost all of their menfolk. On the memorial in a local village, the same surnames appear multiple times. The demographic figures for that village are striking. Rural depopulation had already begun, but the steepest decline took place between 1911 (1,082 people) and 1921 (861).
It’s estimated that more than 25% of the 18-27 age group lost their lives in France overall, and many were invalids or mutilated. Of the regiments grouped around Toulouse, nearly 46,000 out of 261,000 men mobilised – almost one in six – never came back. The combined effect of the casualties and the ensuing pandemic of “Spanish” flu made it a post-war imperative to replace the numbers lost.
Effects on the rural economy
During the war itself, the effects on our largely rural region were substantial. Farmers and agricultural labourers were conscripted into the army in large numbers, leaving women, children and older men to run the farms. At the beginning of the war, anxious to get in the harvest that had been disrupted by mobilisation, the French government discouraged women from volunteering as nurses and exhorted them to take to the fields.
Despite the efforts of those left behind, the amount of cultivable land reduced considerably. I haven’t been able to find figures, but other sources reveal this. Large numbers of horses, mules and oxen were requisitioned by the army and thousands of cattle were consumed per week. Cultivation therefore had to take place without the usual numbers of beasts of burden to pull carts and ploughs. Many farms were simply abandoned after 1918.
The war was disruptive for children, too, who had to help in the fields and absenteeism from school was high. Shortages were less acute in the countryside than in the towns. Even so, in 1917 the average height of children in France overall was 2-3 cm less than in 2013 and an estimated 50% of children were under-nourished.
Far from the front lines, this region saw the development of war-related industries, such as textiles for uniforms and armaments. The arsenal at Villefranche-de-Rouergue, for example, worked at full tilt. Toulouse’s aeronautical industry was born. And the production of coal at Carmaux (Tarn) and Décazeville (Aveyron) doubled in an attempt to compensate for the loss of coalfields in northern and eastern France. As a result, the region experienced more immigration than other parts of France.
Perhaps the heaviest load for those behind the lines was psychological. They suffered from daily anxiety about the dreaded telegram or mayoral visit, heralding bad news, the infrequency of letters – often censored anyway – and leave and the lack of a body to mourn in most cases. The novels of Claude Michelet, Jean Anglade and Christian Signol, set in the southern French countryside, frequently convey these fears, which made their lasting mark on French society.
As far as I know, not many personal accounts or diaries exist, probably because those left behind simply didn’t have time. But other documents such as letters are still extant. A local man found by chance a letter from his grandmother, Palmyre, to her farmer husband at the Front. The man read it to a group of us. She describes how she is running the farm in his absence and what she has been sowing in particular fields. The letter also included expressions of affection that were unusual at the time.
I can’t hope in a short post to convey more than a flavour of what life must have been like in this region, 1914-18. And 100 years on, we can only achieve a view through the prism of history. No one can be left now who has a memory of it. I intend to do some research to uncover more personal histories.
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