The French and Belgian exodus in 1914

Between August 1914 and the spring of 1915 it is estimated that 684,000 French people were on the run from the enemy. Several million French and Belgians were displaced during the conflict. It is worth noting, however, that these figures only relate to the Western Front. Other civilians in Italy or on the Eastern Front also fled the combat zones.

Several witnesses and authors recounted this exodus in various publications:

-“long processions of fugitives (…) loaded with shapeless packages, looking lost (...)” Maxence Van der Meersch, Invasion 14.

-“(…) this awful exodus includes every kind of vehicle imaginable overloaded with furniture, linen, children and old people. Able-bodied people follow on foot (…)” Mme Brunehant, Aisne.

-“(...) when (…) they found out that the mayor (…) had run away – he was an old Alsatian who opted for France in 70 (…) – people panicked, especially after reading the city council proclamation stating (…) that the enemy was likely to invade the city and recommending calm and self-control to everyone (...) rumour of a rout spread. It was 70 again!” Mme Varlet, Aisne.

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  • Exodus 1914, © Agence Point de Fuite

    The civilians mostly fled from the towns that were close to the frontlines or which were situated on the major axes fleeing for the most part towards the big North Sea ports. More than 10,000 refugees left Dunkerque by boat. Fifty thousand people left from Calais. Many inhabitants of the invaded regions also headed towards Paris or left for the west of France.

  • Belgian refugees in the Nord, August-September 1914, postcard, coll. Departmental Archives of the Nord Lille France – mark 30 Fi 14-18/13

  • Belgian refugees arriving in rue Faidherbe in Lille, 1914, printed photo, coll. Departmental Archives of the Nord Lille France – mark 30 Fi 14-18/12

    The civilians that took the road to flee the advancing German troops constituted a significant obstacle to the advance of French soldiers to the north. The roads were congested with all kinds of vehicles, carts, cars that the refugees used to take their possessions far away from the fighting.

map of refugees flowsBelgian refugees in the NordBelgian refugees arriving in rue Faidherbe in Lille