The Tommies and the locals

During the Great War the civilian populations living in the Allied sectors between the Somme and Belgian Flanders saw more of the Tommies than of the Poilus (the nickname for French soldiers). The British Army lent its support to the French civil authorities at various levels. In terms of cooperation for example it provided assistance to French farmers by providing labour and equipment where necessary. Occasionally British medical officers were seconded to provide medical care to the local population.

At financial level Franco-British agreements allowed the towns that harboured cantonments to charge excise duties. The British cantonment zones also attracted a host of hawkers and camp followers who sold all sorts of goods to the soldiers. The fact that the British soldiers had more purchasing power caused tensions between the locals and unscrupulous traders who did not think twice about raising the prices of basic food commodities.

Young people especially appreciated the Tommies, given that they freely dispensed sweets. In some cases friendships were forged between the locals in whose homes the soldiers were quartered. And finally there were love affairs between soldiers and young women although the registry records show that very few of these liaisons ever led to a marriage.

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  • Caron Achille (1888-1947), Small trade with British soldiers, first quarter of the 20th century, glass plate, © Musée Quentovic – Ville d’Etaples-sur-Mer

    Housewives in Etaples peddling their wares to British soldiers.

  • Scottish soldiers and children behind the frontlines at Ypres, July 1915, photo, Royal Army and Military History Museum, Brussels

    The children follow a Scottish soldier playing the bagpipes.

Small trade with British soldiersScottish soldiers and children behind the frontline at Ypres