Teacher guide


Although the Great War involved a lot of troop movements we should not forget that the movements of the civilian population also involved large-scale migrations. Whether displaced by force or voluntarily, as prisoners or as free men and women, to work or to flee, the situation and the status of these displaced civilians were varied and complicated.

As soon as the conflict erupted in August 1914, civilians decided to flee the advancing German forces and the violent fighting. The inhabitants of the cities and villages on the frontline decided to do this with the aim of saving their life but they also spread rumours about the atrocities committed by the Germans. The Germans resumed the offensive on October 29th, 1914. The resistance of the Belgians, with the assistance of British and French forces, helped stem their advance and led to trench warfare.

Evacuated, returnees

In other cases, the civilians were also forcefully evacuated by the German occupying forces, from March 1915 onwards. A circular letter from the German Supreme Command, dated September 1917, uses specific terminology: "those who had to live under enemy rule in an occupied country are considered to be repatriated when they are sent back to France by the German authorities". The evacuees were mostly women, children, the elderly, the destitute, the sick, and persons who were deemed undesirable. As a consequence 30,000 inhabitants of Lille were thus sent back to France between 1915 and 19181. These people were primarily sent to the Tarn and the Garonne departments and to the region around Paris. There they were mainly helped by charities or by locals who provided them with housing, clothes and food, while waiting for their town halls to take over and to pay the compensation that was given to the families of the mobilized. In order to put an end to their unemployment, these civilians were quickly incorporated in agricultural or workers’ units. Locally however, differences in language, in customs and especially the unemployment generated by these evacuees meant that people did not like their presence. Sometimes dubbed the “Germans of the Nord”, these civilians finally returned to their region from December 1918 onwards.


Healthy men and women were also deported to the labour camps. Often living in precarious conditions these evacuees were often assigned jobs in sawmills, in construction or menial tasks. In all the cases, the deportation for the purpose of forced labour served to benefit the occupier, while cutting off the deported individual from his family and daily surroundings. Prisoners from the Nord were thus sent to the Ardennes, while the prisoners from the Aisne Department were sent to the Nord.

The occupying forces also organised the deportation of hostages. The German army also put together groups of hostages made up of civilians in defiance of the “Laws of War”, defined by the Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907). These hostages - elected officials and important persons in the occupied cities and villages - were deported en masse on two occasions - at the end of 1916 and in early 1918 - to Germany, i.e., to Rastatt, Holzminden or Güstrow. There, these men and women were held in appalling conditions, with poor sanitation, deprivation and humiliation. They only were able to return to France after the Armistice was signed.

Following the Armistice

Finally, after four years of conflict, the migration flows turned around in the opposite direction. Following the Armistice of November 11th, 1918, however, several communities had been devastated and their conditions were anything but propitious for returning residents. Some temporary shelters made of wood and corrugated metal hardly made up for the lack of housing, which had been destroyed by bombs. At the same time there were hardly any drinking water or food supplies. At the end of the war, in other words, thousands of refugees were unable to return home as a result. 

To study this topic in more detail the following book is recommended: NIVET Philippe, Les réfugiés français de la Grande Guerre, 1914-1920, Economica, Paris, 2004, 598 p.

 1 WALLART Claudine, Le Nord en guerre (The Nord during the war) 1914-1918, published by the Departmental Archives of the Nord Department, Lille, 2008 (2nd edition), 107 p.