Image of the refugee

The word refugee refers to various experiences: “(...) evacuees, the residents of towns or villages in combat zones, refugees coming from foreign countries (…)”.

The press was as vague and broadcasted pictures showing the destitution of those populations and their precarious situation. Many photographs showed the convoys of carts on which the refugees had put what they wished to salvage.

The image changed with the first repatriations in March 1915. Returnees were then represented as civilians who had borne the brunt of German abuse and could testify to it. Their patriotism was insisted upon as if a separation of many years from the motherland could shed doubt on their national feeling: the children were shown waving little flags, crowds were shown singing the Marseillaise. The German press, on the contrary, undertook to deconstruct this image of unanimity and mentioned the administrative hassle, the lack of solidarity or the cost of living.

Very quickly in fact the returnees became refugees like the others who tried to rebuild a new life away from home. Once settled, the refugees were seen as “foreigners”, always suspect, even parasitic.

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  • People from Ypres fleeing from the bombarded city, photo taken from "Panorama de la Guerre", volume 2, 1914, Caverne du Dragon-Musée du Chemin des Dames, Aisne

    The caption stipulated that they had chosen to leave because of the children: "And off we go knowing that we’ll find shelter in France, as well as work and fraternal assistance…". After the German invasion of 1914 many Belgian refugees settled in Normandy or in the region around Paris for the duration of the conflict.

  • Steinlen Théophile-Alexandre (1859-1923), A convoy of civilian refugees walking under a gate under the watchful eye of German soldiers, first quarter of the 20th century, lithograph, coll. Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne © Y. Medmoun

  • Dumas A. Dick, The repatriated listening to the Marseillaise, 1917, crayon on paper, coll. Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne © Y. Medmoun

People from Ypres fleeing from the bombarded citya convoy of civilian refugeesthe repatriated listening to the Marseillaise