Words from the occupying forcesMarch 27th, 2017
A recent perusal of drawers in the Ephemera Collection resulted in the discovery of some posters and other printed material that reflect the situation in occupied Europe during World War One.
While most of this material is a little outside our normal collecting scope, it does give some context to the activities of our own military personnel in Europe at the time, and at this time one hundred years later, it seems an opportune time to talk about it.
Report your threshing
The first object is an undated poster issued by the German forces occupying French-speaking territory, likely to have been Belgium. It tells farmers that crops gathered and threshed must be declared to the local authority office – which will report them to Command every Sunday – or the crops will be confiscated.
Avis très important, 1914-1918. Ref: Eph-C-WAR-WI-NonNZ-01.
The poster probably dates from 1915-1917. In 1914 the Germans had taken over 95% of Belgian territory, and requisitioned or destroyed crops there.
Belgium, the most densely-populated country on Earth at the time, had depended on imported food supplies, but after occupation this dwindled and any distribution was disrupted. Wealthy Belgians formed the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation, which was able to offer some assistance to all Belgians from 1917.
The need for Germany to find food crops for its people was quite desperate, and the opportunity to confiscate crops from occupied territory would have been extremely tempting.
The Germans had expected a quick end to the war, and had not made proper provision for food supplies for their own people. Food was rationed, but sometimes the ration cards were as near as people got to food. The average daily calorie intake available through ration cards was only 1,000 by the summer of 1917. Germany estimated that some 763,000 of their people died during the war from malnutrition and its effects.
Correspondence with Luxembourg is forbidden
Inevitably prisoner of war camps came into existence, and the occupiers imposed rules about how often prisoners could write or receive letters from friends and family.
Avis à la population, 1915. Ref: Eph-D-WAR-WI-NonNZ-1915-01.
Issued by the German forces occupying France, this notice outlines regulations regarding written correspondence with prisoners of war.
The regulations stipulated that:
- Only postcards are acceptable as correspondence.
- Prisoners can write and receive a card only once a month.
- Postcards sent to prisoners must be precisely addressed. If the address is unknown they should be addressed to: Zentralnachweisburo des Koenigl. Kriegsministeriums, Berlin N.W., 7 Dorotheenstrasse.
- Unfranked cards must be left with the command staff.
- Correspondence with Luxembourg is forbidden.
- For the purposes of the above rules, prisoners of war are considered not only those in the French Army but also civilians who for any reason have been sent to Germany.
The poster goes on to say that money could be sent to prisoners, up to the value of 40 marks. The notice is hand signed by an official named Scheibe, at Solesmes.
In practice, some camps were not as strict in their regulations: some camps allowed letters as well as postcards, and the frequency of correspondence with friends and relatives depended on which camp they were in.
Some men complained of being allowed to write home only every two months or so, while others sent a letter or card twice a week. New Zealand papers reported some concern in November 1916 about the conditions in German POW camps.
Germany had initially refused to comply with a request for regular inspections, and in February 1916, it refused to allow hospitals and infirmaries to be visited, and, insisted on complicated formalities and special permissions to visit labour camps. Nor did Germany agree that prisoners should be allowed to write freely to the neutral embassies, and even less, that those letters be allowed over and above the number of permitted correspondence.
The German Government in 1916 further stated than any prisoners making an unfounded complaint would be punished and possibly sent to reprisal camps. This provoked some reprisals – French authorities had already announced in 1915 that German prisoners in France would “henceforth be treated similarly with [sic] French prisoners in Germany. Various privileges have been withdrawn owing to Germany's refusal of better treatment to French prisoners”.
Everyone capable of work
After the invasion of French and Belgian territory early on in the war, the German administration repressed political dissent and launched numerous unpopular measures, including the deportation of Belgian workers to Germany and forced labour on military projects.
The text of this bilingual poster contains some stern rules to make sure labour from the occupied territories would be forthcoming.
Verordnung &emdash; Ordonnance, 1916. Ref: Eph-D-WAR-WI-NonNZ-1916-01.
The poster demands that citizens do their duty and give help when requested.
- Anyone capable of work will be forced to work, even outside of their home area, in cases where they are playing, drunk, idle, unemployed or lazy, and where they could help to maintain someone else.
- Everyone must help in cases of accident or danger, or public calamity, to the extent of their capability, even outside their district. If they refuse, they will be forced.
- Whoever refuses to work as above is liable to be imprisoned for up to 3 years or fined 10,000 marks. If the action is committed as a group, each accomplice will be treated as instigator, and imprisoned for at least a week.
News from occupied countries
As further demoralisation, the Germans published the propaganda newspaper, Gazette des Ardennes four times a week from late 1914 to the end of 1918. The paper was distributed in the occupied territories of France and Belgium, and in POW camps.
Gazette des Ardennes 3e année, no. 410, 1917. Ref: Eph-D-WAR-WI-NonNZ-1917-01.
The main article on the first page of this 1917 issue is titled "Stockholm" and discusses the attempts to hold a socialist peace conference there. There are smaller paragraphs of official German, French and English news bulletins.
The second page has a list of about 200 recently interned French prisoners of war, and there are other articles relating to war matters, naval losses, the tenth Battle of the Isonzo, American and Russian involvement in the war and several other subjects.
This excerpt repeats an English Admiralty report about the loss of 51 naval vessels in a recent week – such reports were intended to dispirit the Allies.
Ready for fresh fighting
This somewhat desperate German propaganda leaflet was picked up in a trench near Esnes Nord, France, on the 10th October 1918.
The Germans were speaking about peace settlements at this stage, as the war turned against them.
Peace in sight at last, 1918. Ref: Eph-A-WAR-WI-1918-03.
The text urges the reader to allow the bloodshed to stop, and not to fight against the German troops "stronger than before and ready for fresh fighting". It is likely the Allied troops would have felt amused rather than cowed into surrender by this message.
From the German perspective
By the late 1920s or early 1930s, the Germans had absorbed the results of the war, and issued this interesting pictorial record for German consumption.
Page from Der Weltkrieg. Ref: Eph-F-WAR-WI-1920s-01-45.
This album 'explains the war from the German perspective', and contains the complete set of 270 cigarette cards stuck into their respective positions.
There is a section for each year of the war, and overall sections relating to ‘the Homeland’, ‘Behind the front’, ‘Politics and personalities’, ‘the War at sea’, ‘the Battle in the German colonies’, and ‘Our opponents’.
Page from Der Weltkrieg: herausgegeben vom Cigaretten-Bilderdienst Dresden, 1920s or 1930s. Ref: Eph-F-WAR-WI-1920s-01-44.
The two pages shown here contain the following cards:
- 157: Abwehr eines Angriffs am Isonzo [Engagement in battle at Isonzo]
- 158: Beute aus unserer italianischen Offensive [Booty from our Italian offensive]
- 159: Verwundetentransport im Gebirge [Medical transport of wounded in the mountains]
- 160: Patrouille in den Alpen [Patrol in the Alps]
- 161: Erbeutetes italienisches schweres Geschütz [Captured Italian heavy artillery]
- 162: Englische Infanterie in der Wüste [English infantry in the desert]
- 163: Minenwerfer [Mine launcher]
- 164: Granatwerfer [Mortar]
- 165: Flammenwerfer [Flame-thrower]
- 166: Leichte Funkstation [Lightweight radio station]
- 167: Künstlicher Nebel [Artificial fog]
- 168: Rauchfackel [Smoke flare]
It is useful to have this documentation from the administration on the other side of the war, even though it focuses on only a small aspect of the broad spectrum.
The Ephemera Collection welcomes such war-related additions to its collection, as they can add further depth for the benefit of future researchers on the social and psychological conditions of wartime, relating to both soldiers and civilians.