For virtually the entire duration of the war the inhabitants of the villages and cities behind the front lived alongside the soldiers. These links generated new requirements. Civilians benefited from the presence of the resting soldiers by earning money through the sale of foodstuffs and drinks. In French Flanders, for example, the number of “estaminets”, typical small cafés of the region, rose exponentially.

The military authorities were forced to regulate these relations. The sale of alcohol, as well as gambling and prostitution, were prohibited. Inevitably tensions arose due to the requisition of land, the ravaging of the crops, the increase in crime or food rationing. But for the soldiers, the contact with civilians, especially in cases where the soldiers lodged with them, meant a respite and a welcome comfort after the horror of the trenches.

In those sectors where foreign troops were stationed, more specifically British soldiers, the military and the civilians were forced to learn a new language and culture. The inhabitants of the cities and villages also discovered products which the armies imported for their troops, such as canned corned beef. Living alongside one another also allowed the locals to meet men who had travelled from the other end of the world, from all over the British Empire or from the French colonies, for the first time.

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  • Descamps Henri-Maurice (1878-1965), British soldiers billeted, 1914-15, glass plate, Fonds photographique patrimonial Descamps – Ville de Cassel

    When they were behind the lines the soldiers were sometimes quartered in houses or near houses. They regularly were in contact with the civilian population. Some of them took advantage of this to sell goods to the soldiers.

  • Caron Achille (1888-1947), The refugees’ cafe, a barracks near the archway with French and British soldiers, first quarter of the 20th century, glass plate, © Musée Quentovic – Ville d’Etaples-sur-Mer

    Although the sale of alcohol was heavily regulated, there were cafés in the camps or nearby. This photo shows a barracks in the camp of Etaples (Pas-de-Calais), which was renamed: “Café des réfugiés”.

  • Descamps Henri-Maurice (1878-1965), A procession of Indochinese soldiers in Grand Place in Cassel in early 1919, 1919, photo, © Cassel, musée départemental de Flandre

    At the end of the war, the soldiers were not immediately demobilized. This procedure took several months. Veterans and civilians thus continued to maintain contacts with one another, as is evidenced here, at Cassel, on the occasion of a celebration (probably the Chinese New Year).

British soldiers billetedthe Refugees’ café, a barracks has been transformed into a pub.a procession of Indochinese soldiers