Deportation and work

To perform various tasks, the German army moved civilians on short and long distances. Those forced movements are often called deportations.

At the beginning of 1916, riots linked to the food supply crisis erupted in Roubaix. In April, in retaliation, the German authorities sent workers from the Nord to Somme, Aisne or the Ardennes to work in the fields. There was an international outcry and the deportations were soon interrupted. Besides, the operation was a failure: the 25,000 workers that were sent were untaught about farm work. They were sent back home at the end of 1916.

Likewise, to ensure that the factories could keep running and because voluntary recruitment was insufficient (12,000 men in 1916), the occupying forces sent Belgians to Germany or enlisted them in the Battalions of Civil Workers (ZAB/Zivilarbeitersbatallionen) to work in occupied France. Those deportees, considered as war prisoners, experienced very hard working and living conditions. More than 2% died in exile due to exhaustion and disease. Again, protests brought the deportations to a stop. A total of 60,000 Belgians were deported to Germany and 60,000 to the occupied part of France.

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  • Removing potato beetles before 1918, first quarter of the 20th century, photo, Familistère de Guise collection, Aisne

    Women and children working in a field.

  • ZAB armband, first quarter of the 20th century, fabric, Caverne du Dragon-Musée du Chemin des Dames, Aisne

    The ZAB, Zivilarbeitersbataillon, a disciplinary measure, were created on October 20th, 1916, for refractory civilians, meaning for those who refused to work for the German authorities. They wore a red armband. Here the civilian workers’ battalion no. 6 is shown.

  • French deportees doing the laundry, 1914-1918, German postcard, coll. Departmental Archives of the Nord Lille France – mark 30 Fi 14-18/317

    Civilians also had to carry out several chores in the German internment camps. Here women are doing the laundry in a washhouse.

Removing potato beetles before 1918ZAB armbandFranzösische Frauen beim Waschen in einer Waschanstalt