Chapter 1 - The First Liberation of 1918. Écourt-Saint-Quentin, France

The First Liberation of 1918
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Chapter 1: The invasion of France (Scroll below for photos)

Germany declared war on France on August 3, 1914. On the heels of this the Kaiser, William II, declares his intention to invade France via Belgium, a neutral country. The violation of Belgian neutrality is what incites the involvement of the British Empire (and consequently Canada) in the European conflict.

The British Expeditionary Force, with their French Allies meet the Germans in Belgium. The allied dash is not enough to stop the German steamroller. The Germans push past the Allies and cross the Meuse at Liege and reach Brussels. Farther South, five German Armies cross into France between Valenciennes and Verdun on the Meuse. This German force reaches the Marne where they crash into the French positions, in September.

The French have had enough. After a month of failure, the German inroads in France was stopped at the Battle of the Marne. The invaders retreat to the Aisne, pursued by the Allies. The French victory is fleeting as the Germans decide to settle on a front from the Chemin des Dames ridge, to the North of the Aisne, up to the region of Verdun. A bloody battle (The Battle of the Aisne) is attempted to dislodge the Germans for their positions but it is for nought.

The adversaries have reached a stalemate, so each belligerent attempts to outflank the other, with no side ever gaining the upper hand. There are combats in September on the Oise and on the Somme. In October, the Germans are in Artois and attempt to capture, without success, the city of Arras. Operations continue in French Flanders to the North of Arras and the climax of the Fall battles is reached in Ypres, in Belgian Flanders. (This series of battles is remembered as the Race to the Sea which ends in stalemate.)

At the end of the campaign, the front stabilizes on a line that we trace from the Swiss border to the Belgian coast. Ten percent of the French territory and most of Belgium[1] finds themselves occupied by the enemy. A strip of territory that separates the occupied territories and Free France becomes a no-man’s land.

On the Free French side of this no man’s land the cities of Arras, Armentières, Albert, Soissons, Reims and Verdun find themselves on the front line. Even though the offensive operations are ended for the winter, the cities endure an almost continuous siege and are subject to frequent bombardments.

In the occupied territory, cities like Lille, Cambrai, Saint-Quentin, Sedan as well as hundreds of villages find themselves isolated from the mother country. The civilians have no choice but to endure the German military occupation. Streets are renamed with German names and clocks are set to Berlin time. More than two million French people are separated from their compatriots in Free France. For them, travel between communities is very difficult and communication with the rest of France is nearly impossible.

The repercussions of the occupation on the economy is great: the French economy as a whole is disrupted as much of France’s coal fields are in the occupied zone or part of no man’s land. The backbone of France’s textile industry is also concentrated mostly in the occupied zone. The mines close to the front are sabotaged and those behind the front line are exploited by the Germans to feed their war economy.

From time to time, certain French people, who are deemed by the occupier as a drain on the economy are repatriated to Free France via neutral countries.

Because of the reduction in agricultural production, caused by the war, and due to German requisition of foodstuffs, the nutritional needs of the civilian population are never fully met. Therefore, throughout the war, the people of occupied France are always hungry, and after the war, it was said that the young aren’t tall for their age.

Food is not the only thing preoccupying the civilians: under the German administration: the French are humiliated, shot, taxed, imprisoned, levied with fine after fine are clearly exploited. They are deprived of basic liberties and they have no choice but to accept a sometimes-brutal regime. The suffering of these people during 1914-18 and beyond is real. It is my duty of remembrance to tell the story of a few of these brave people.

One of the hundreds of villages occupied by the Germans was Écourt-Saint-Quentin, in Artois, located half-way between Arras and Cambrai, near the canal du Nord. The village is surrounded by lakes and marshes and has a small stream (the Hirondelle, a creek really) running through it. To the North of the village are the Sensée marshes as the Sensée river runs through them and to the South-East we find the Bequerel marshes. We must not confuse the Sensée river with the Sensée canal which connects the canal du Nord at Arleux with the canalized river Scarpe at Courchelettes.

Écourt-Saint-Quentin is part of a cluster of villages which include Rumaucourt, Récourt and Saudemont. To the East Écourt is connected to the village of Palluel via a causeway through the Sensée marshes.

Écourt is situated North of the Arras-Cambrai road, and is East of Mont Dury and the village of the same name, where we find the Canadian Memorial that commemorates the Battle of Arras of August 26 to September 3, 1918. Near Écourt we find two hills which are important to the story: Mount Robin and the Sablière Hill. (Sand pit hill.)

By local standards the village is large with a population of about 1,800 at the beginning of the Great War. Because of the mobilization of 1914, then deportations during the occupation the population dwindled to about 300 in August of 1918. When the Canadians arrived on September 3, 1918, there was less than fifty.

Merovingian tombs were discovered in Écourt, which confirms that the village was settled for a very long time. The church, which dates to the 1860’s was damaged during the war. It has been restored to it’s prewar splendor. Apart for some residential developments, the village plan is still recognizable and hasn’t changed much in the hundred years since the war.

On the outskirts of Écourt-Saint-Quentin there is a German military cemetery, opened in 1916. It measures 5,810 square meters and contains the graves of 1578 dead including twelve which are unidentified.

In August 1914, the order to mobilize the Army arrives in Écourt, like in all the other communities of France. In September French and German soldiers come-and-go. It’s only after the fighting near Arras in October that the front stabilizes, and the Germans settle in their role as occupiers. Clémence Leroy tells the story of the arrival of the Germans in September 1914:
…at first it was a car, then cavalrymen and about 700 uhlans. These men find lodgings including the smallest houses. At Madame Godefroy’s[2]  they had them take out the horses and the cows so that they could put their horses in their place. The courtyard of the manor house[3] is filled with cars and carts. At M.B.’s[4]  they took out the linseed from the stores and replace them with their beasts.

Since I am at the wicket of the town hall[5] busy giving information to a woman looking for the Mayor or the Teacher, an officer comes towards me and says ‘Are you the Mayor?' -  'No, I am not the Mayor'-'It’s the town hall?' -'Yes, it is but the Mayor doesn’t live here'-'Are there rooms?' -'There is the lodging of the schoolmasters'. -'Are the schoolmasters gone?' -'Well, I’ll find a room in any case!' He imposes and finds his way to a room, feels the bed, requisitions sheets and settles down like a master, in a chesterfield…'Madame I will be back.’ And addressing himself to my little niece Suzanne he says: ‘I will bring you lots of chocolate, I am uncle chocolate’ and he reaches for her hand which she promptly withdraws.

He came back, our enemy, the enemy of our country; he sits at our table, we had to eat with him amongst us, we had to listen to his hurtful talk. Barely he was done eating he complained of a sore stomach, he was annoyed because the sons of a Count, young soldiers had taken his room, a room with two windows and nicer than ours. He is rich, he is the son of a banker from Berlin and he himself is an engineer. He wants for nothing, everything goes his way: They get mail and parcels from Berlin, it’s necessary for the moral of the soldiers; we have nothing etc, etc.Then he speaks to me: ‘You would be happy to see the French here again?' – 'Yes, I would be happy, certainly I would.' – 'I think that will never happen again.' – 'Oh yes Sir, we sincerely hope so.' – 'Oh well! You can hope.' – 'Oh! Yes we hope.'

The French, he says, ‘hate the Germans, but the Germans do not hate the French. You exclaim, '‘down with Germany'’ and we never say ‘'down with France'’. But the English, oh! It’s them that caused the war. France wanted peace, for sure, but England! …And the Arabs, your allies they are savages who dispatch the wounded and cut the ears and nose of their enemies.' – 'What you are saying here', I interjected, 'we have said of you before we said it of them.' – 'We never did that.' – 'What of Belgium?' 'We have shot women and children who were by their father’s side who was shooting at us. We burned Orchies[6] because the civilians had killed three of our own, etc, etc.’

The journal of Clémence Leroy gives us a very good idea of daily life in occupied France, for the entirety of the war.

I did ask myself where did Clémence Leroy live during the occupation? I asked Francois Bélin, the editor of her journal and he answered:

…Suzanne Révillion (the niece of Clémence Leroy, who lived with her during the war) pointed out a place between the rue Barbusse (the main road) and rue Jean-Jaurès and the rue de la Fabrique, the lot going from the rue Barbusse to the rue Jean-Jaurès (in the East end of Écourt). We know from a contemporary post card that the Révillon family lived in February 1917 at 132 rue Kaiser, according to the naming convention of the period. (The rue Kaiser is now the rue Barbusse.)

The location of the German Kommandature[7] in Écourt remains a mystery. However, it’s quite possible it was set up in the town hall which was close to the church at the time. (It has moved since the war.) What is certain is that the town hall was repurposed during the war. According to Francois Bélin:

Clémence states that the Révillion family saw their lodgings requisitioned, and that the new lodgings was in a room of the town hall.

It’s possible that the town hall office might have been displaced in favour of the Kommandature.

We know from Clémence Leroy that on May 18 1917, the church bell was requisitioned and, left for parts unknown. Godspeed. Ah! Prussians, damned Prussians… Clémence mourned the church bell but the war wasn’t through with the church. On March 12, 1918 the roof of the church was hit and the glass windows are shattered by a terrible bombardment (presumably by the British). The calamity is magnified as the church, for some time, had been turned into a military hospital. Clémence Leroy describes the scene on March 12, 1918:

My God! What a day! It started with a gas attack which seriously inconvenienced us, then 30, 40, 50 artillery shells fell in the village. The second one was for us. It hit the barn around nine thirty. It killed three horses, destroyed the building, cut down a tree, wrecked the branches of another, perforated the house from end-to-end, breaking all the glass on the North side and the complete windows. Nobody in the house, be they civilian or military received not a scratch; but our emotions were high. For a moment we thought it was a stray shell, because in amidst the noise we were living in, we hadn’t heard the first one, which landed in the marnière[8]; and bang, more were to follow, destroying a house burying I don’t know how many soldiers and officers. Then the church was hit. There, the scene was terrible. The roof caved in; all the glass windows shattered, many hundreds of soldiers were killed or wounded.[9] There were cries and screams of pain. Survivors attempted to flee from gaping holes in the walls; Others, distraught and bloody, simply fled.
More shells came and three landed on the same house where many Germans disappeared. One German left half his hand against the stairs of the cellar, another has no limbs, the third is twisted and decapitated. The lady of the house is safe because she escaped by a window facing the road; had she used the door she would have been taken out by the second shell. The Kommandature is in a bad state as well as a barn in front[10], the post office and more houses.
About 50 metres from our house maybe, a house was destroyed and our windows on the South side are shattered; only one window survives. Some neighbours run to our house to hide in our cellar; one of them almost passes out. We are all pale as corpses. The horrible storm of shell continues. One yard received up to five shells. Some civilians, some soldiers, run for the marshes and lay flat when they hear a shell coming. At last, a little before evening the calm returns, but already officers and soldiers left their lodgings in favour of the East end of the village which was spared the bombardment, or they are in a bivouac. In the centre of the village is only left the poor civilians, of whom none were hit, but who are understandably in a state of physical and moral depression. I have never been this frightened in my life as today.
Night comes, and there is no electricity; we light a lamp while covering our windows, as already airplanes were seen. The abyss will not be more favorable than sunlight. Everybody stays awake, and soon we hear more rumblings; the machineguns clatter, shells explode on one side then another. At the first signal we head for the cellar; only to return when we think the danger has passed. We go back again a moment later and so it goes for the rest of the night. We try to get some shut-eye but it is cold and humid in the cellar. It’s here that I write in the company of our only chicken, who was saved twice from the jaws of death and the bombardment. I can’t see clearly even though daytime is here and it seems a complete calm has returned.

I don’t know why Écourt-Saint-Quentin was bombarded so aggressively on March 12, 1918. But, in March 1918, the Allies were expecting a major German offensive, somewhere on the Western Front. The Allies weren’t wrong, as many German offensives were undertaken in the spring and summer of 1918. The first was on the Somme towards Amiens, on March 21, 1918. In volume I of Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1918 it mentions that in March 1918…For some days the British artillery had been very active, assisting raids, testing barrages, and shelling trenches, hostile gun positions and special points and routes behind the German lines. They might have decided to target Écourt-Saint-Quentin. In any case, the work of the artillery was certainly to interfere with German logistics in order to impede their preparations. I have to assume the bombardment of Écourt-Saint-Quentin on March 12, 1918 was part of these initiatives.

One of the many mundane chores required by the Germans of the civilians was sweeping the main roads. It seems that this was done to prevent the kicking up of dust during troop movements. Dust clouds kicked up by marching troops apparently could be detected across no man’s land.

M. Léon Relaut of Écourt-Saint-Quentin, an acquaintance I made during my trips there, shared with me a rhyme in the local dialect known as ‘Ch’ti’, that his father used to sing during the occupation. Here is his email message to me:

Here is the rhyme that my father taught me (born 1904 at Écourt) that he used to sing with the teenagers his own age, in the village, during the occupation of 1914/18.
I have reconstituted it in the original dialect with the translation:
Si j’arroe chon frincs d’monnoe
(If I had five francs coins)
J’aquatroe in tiot beudet
(I’d buy a donkey)
In beudet américain
(An Americain donkey)
Pou fare peur à ché Prussiens
(To scare the Prussians)
Ché Prussiens ché d’s’imbécils
(The Prussians are imbeciles)
I n’arront jainmais Paris
(They’ll never take Paris)
In leu fra tains d’inbarras
(We will piss them off so)
Qu’i n’arront jainmais Arra
(They’ll never have Arras)
Arra, Arra, Arra est imprenape
(Arras, Arras, Arras is inpregnable)
Such was the life in occupied France.

[1] A small portion of the Belgian coast and the city of Ypres would remain in Allied hands for the entire conflict.
[2] The Godefroy’s had a large farm in Écourt-Saint-Quentin.
[3] Clémence calls it a chateau.
[4] Clémence frequently referred to people by their initials.
[5] Clémence lived with her brother-in-law, the village secretary.
[6] Orchies, a town near Lille was set ablaze by the Germans on September 25, 1914.
[7] The local German headquarters.
[8] I think the marnière was a neighbourhood in Écourt.
[9] It seems Clémence was right, as there probably was many casualties. The September 14, 1918 edition of l’Illustration puts the number of casualties at 400, killed and wounded. The local historical society surveyed the graves in the German cemetery of Écourt and counted 81 graves German dated March 12, 1918.
[10] There is a post card that there was in fact a barn, which still exists, in front of the contemporary town hall. This supports the thesis that the Kommandature was in fact in the town hall.
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