World War I and SW France

Mort pour la France 1

Mort pour la France 1

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.

Casualties

Morts pour la France 2

Morts pour la France 2

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.

Exhortation to French women

Exhortation to French women

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.

Psychological burden

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.

You might also like:

Forgotten love letter rediscovered
French Women and World War I
End of an Era at the Hamlet of Flouquet

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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22 Responses to World War I and SW France

  1. Pingback: Forgotten Love Letter Saved for Posterity | Life on La Lune

  2. Monique says:

    Hello All,
    In response to comments about “Spanish” flu, there was and in Europe La leyenda negra.
    Also, if I may be so bold as to read between the lines–something to do with the present political climate in the U.S.A. One cannot take a bombastic ignorant too seriously.

    Thank you all for your posts.
    ” worse than the sound of boots on the ground is the silence of the slippers” which is a spin off from Einstein’s quote ” the world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything”.
    Monique

    Like

    • sel says:

      yes M. reading between the lines correctly said…..though ,many thought this ignorant would soon collapse, still riding high on excrement that jumps out of the mouth. So
      the follwers blinded by words louder then boots. Fools
      La leyenda negra proved itself for many centuries before, still it lingers.

      Like

  3. sel says:

    both of these horrible wars brought on many experiences for all of us…..Spain, also went through much, both wars, and of course Franco. My family were involved as well…The Franco era changed much. For those that were in a position to leave Spain and go to another country, this
    is what saved my part of the family. They went to Cuba and made a life…..they were one of the few that lived well. With multiple businesses this made for a more comfortable life…Afterwards
    back to Spain. Franco, was finally gone. The Castro regime brought many problems for the wealthy. Today the beautiful mansion taken from them is now a museum of the arts. ‘Our arts.’ Picassos, and many more of the collections taken. Collections of exquiste antiques that were not allowed to leave.

    The Castros remained with all except for the lives of our family. Reminds one of the Holocaust.
    Many of us have no respect for this communistic government that would call itself Socialistics.
    They…were nothing more than communists, and still are.

    Let me clarify a point….the Spanish influenza was not brought on in Spain…..history reads
    this influenza was already in USA….via all the immigrants that came to this country. During
    the many centuries of migration from eastern europe. And, please note….the influenza
    according to history began in Germany and spread everywhere. Now the question is this;
    why was it called the Spanish influenza? Simply because Spain did keep better record of
    the events during the time of both these WW…..and the rest of the European countries did not.

    This influenza should be called the ‘European influenza’ nothing more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you for your comment, Sel. That period of history is certainly one that caused unimaginable disruption to so many people.

      Unfortunately, everybody calls the influenza epidemic Spanish flu, although I already knew that this is not exact – which is why I put “Spanish” in inverted commas. The name has stuck, I’m afraid.

      Like

      • sel says:

        I so enjoy all of your posts, such wonderful history and to savor this through
        your diligence…..pardon me for not noticing the commas, and thank you for
        your research on this subject. Most do not know that piece of history nor do
        seem to care. However for my ancestors that crossed over
        and were involved with the Washington 1776 wars and the settlement of this
        country i pay hommage to them and their struggles. Interesting they can be
        traced back. For the efforts of those that survived their wounds, today we find
        they too received VA compensation. Written in history, never to be forgotten.
        Daughter of the Revolutionary Wars

        This is truly a country of immigrants, no matter
        what the current politics seem to think, many have given a piece of themselves in
        everyway through the centuries.

        Like

  4. In 2007 one of our town councillora became concerned that the photos (yes, photos)on the village war memorial no longer seemed to have famiky connections in the commune. With the help if a museum in cahors who lent posters he put on an exhibition in the salle de fetes to coincide with armistice day and asked people to come forward with their memories etc. He didn’t manage to contact all the families concernec but an incredible archive was created. He asked me if i would create an english stand which i did using a video provided by the british legion (school pack) and some personal mementoes of my great uncle who died at the somme. It was deemed a success and on the anniversary of 1914 our memorial service included a poppy wreath and letters read out by grandchildren of first world war soldiers. This last remembrance day poppies and bluets were sold by myself and the village children. One hopes they will grow up in a more peaceful france, fingers crossed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      What a lovely idea and a way to keep the history fresh in people’s minds. I don’t think I’ve seen photos on a war memorial before, although you sometimes see them on individual graves. Those letters must have been fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Osyth says:

      I’ve only seen photos on a memorial once in our area – in the village of Valette. As a person who finds these memorials terribly poignant at the best of times I found myself crying as I looked at all their faces staring sightlessly at me and I wondered if they had anyone left to remember them ….

      Liked by 2 people

    • I’ll try and upload a photo for you…..

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Monique says:

    and in 1939, WWII, the war to end all wars began.
    Monique

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      That’s what they called WWI as well, but of course it didn’t end anything. It was simply a prolonged truce afterwards. And WWII marked France indelibly as well in different ways.

      Like

  6. David KR says:

    I enjoyed reading your Interesting post on how those left behind tried to cope. I have always had great respect for people who were willing to give their lives during the Great War. I make a point of read the names on the monuments in the France villages that I stop in and yes there is always some men that have the same surname be it from the same family and cousins.
    In Ireland where I come from of the 200,000 men who fought in this war 25% or 50,000 did not return this includes my grand uncle Patrick Waldron who was a regular soldier since 1910. Unforgivably you will not find any monuments to this war in villages in Ireland.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      The French monuments are very poignant. On the one in our village, there are many names that are still borne by people today, so at least someone remained to pass them on. I didn’t realise that Ireland lacks WWI monuments.

      Like

  7. My partner has similar stories of suffering, but from WW2 on the German side. His grandmother fled from East Germany before the advancing Russian army who were pillaging the villages as they came. Two of her infant children died of starvation on the road, and only his mother survived, who was aged four at the time. The horrible thing is that there are so many people having experiences like this today in various parts of the world. Reminders of history and the suffering of those close to us should help diminish mankind’s tendency towards violent conflict resolution, and sharpen our perception of the suffering of ordinary people around the world caught up in other people’s battles.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Such an interesting blog and well written. It is almost unimaginable to realise the extent of the suffering and loss of life, not least the sticky mud. Everyone must have been affected in the area for years to come.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, Valerie. Down here in the SW, the direct effects of the war were not so great. But in the towns and villages on or near the Front, they were devastating. A number of villages up there were abandoned and never restored.

      Like

  9. lostfrance says:

    There is a video on the subject, “dix par jour”, which is interesting.
    One story locally is of a gentleman in the village who has a double barrelled surname, a combination of his father’s name and the name of the family his father was given to when his grandmother could no longer support all of her children after the loss of her husband.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I must look for the video you mention. It’s interesting how this post has flushed out some personal stories, such as David’s grandparents and the one you mention. I think it was not uncommon for children to be sent to live with another family because a lone mother could no longer support them all. Fascinating. How must it have been for those children? I feel a novel coming on…

      Liked by 1 person

  10. David says:

    Nice post.
    Yes, sometimes foreigners fail to understand the mark World War One left on France, even more so than any other war, and its terrible consequences extended far beyond the battlefronts.
    Sometimes I wonder if the only reason I’m alive is because my grandfather escaped being drafted for some reason (probably because he was in poor health at the time). On the other hand, the reason I’m alive is also ironically because of World War One and my grandma family fleeing from the Belgian border to the South West. Just an example how World War One had an impact on literally everyone in the country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      WWI had a huge effect on France in so many ways and some of those effects have been lasting. Your grandparents’ stories sound like the making of a novel!

      Like

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