from the memoirs of a Finnish volunteer in the German army
'Everyday Life in Occupied Areas'
by Arne Sommer
Unteroffizier of Hussars, German Army

A German View

German soldiers in a small French town
illustration by Ernst Vollbehr


The 1st Squadron of Hussars extended its traditions in Freniche (sic!) to the early mobile days of the war. One dark August night 1914 it was the first German unit to arrive in that long and narrow village, when pursuing English dragoons. The tired Hussars stopped at the Northern end of the village. The English, equally tired, were sleeping in the other end of the village. The population did not betray either. In the morning the pursuit continued and there was fighting in front of the village.

As the war became stationary the Hussars returned and became regular "guests" of the village. Although the inhabitants had initially shied from them and feared them, the relationship changed in a short time. "Huns" were normal, friendly men. The population was short of meat and the Hussars were lacking potatoes. This became the basis of a mutual common market that became the closer the longer the billeting lasted. Germans learned French, the French learned German, they conversed with a pidgin language consisting of both. They understood each other better than Bavarians and Hamburgers each other...

Often one saw soldiers helping the inhabitants in farm work. As a German would in the evening sit on the stairs of a house, sucking his pipe, the children used to come about, talking and begging for sugar. Patting their heads a German soldier, a family father himself, would remember his own home with yearning.

In the countryside there was no national hatred worth mentioning. The peasants in occupied France understood the situation, obeying all orders with commendable calm - as long as they were not wronged.

During the mobile war they had seen a lot of misery and death that had been equally suffered by the Germans and the French. The inhabitants knew that a soldier has to obey orders, and did not blame him for the misfortune that had fallen on his nation. They even symphatised with our fate, expressing sorrow for our men killed in action, even grieving for those they had learned to know.

During a long time billeting even intimate relationships came about in the usual way. The French men were away... Moral ideas were liberal enough initially. Later, as troops were rotated, they became totally stunted. The Army command had to organize a strict medical control which did not allow any exceptions, therefore being deeply offensive for the more moral individuals... The Germans were succeeded, as the fortunes of the war were reversed, by French, English, Moroccans, Negroes etc.. The nation sunk ever deeper on its way to perdition.

The fate of an occupied region was also in the happiest case extremely heavy. From early night to late morning the inhabitants were not allowed to leave their abodes. In the daytime they could not leave their village without a passport issued by the Kommandant. They could send letters only by the German Field Mail. They had to live in one room - the others were quarters for German soldiers. They could make use of their property only partly. Almost all farming was under the German army administration. Every family had been left with only a small plot, enabling them to survive. Horses and cattle were registered and could neither be sold nor butchered without the permission of the Kommandant. Products with military usability were confiscated. Even a part of the production of the hen coop had to be handed over. The Kommandant was the lord and king of the village: any time he could order the inhabitants to work duty or put them under arrest. He had to be humbly greeted on the street.

Kommandants were set by the Army or Army Corps HQ. Usually he was the commander of a locally billeted transport column, an older Reserve Officer, who could employ his men and numerous horses for large scale farming. Their tasks were strictly regulated and closely controlled. But the HQs had more important worries, and the Kommandants were fairly independent.

If a Kommandant was good, the village was happy and the inhabitants open-minded and friendly. But a bad Kommandant could bully his subjects to the blackest despair. Most were just and humane, but every one ruled with a heavy hand.

The inhabitants did have some rights. Expropriation and billeting could be executed only by the Kommandant. German soldiers knew what were the consequences of a spontaneous confiscation. After the 1870 war the Army Revision Bureau had sent reminders and payment demands to officers who had acted without orders for more than 30 years. Considering this had a dampening effect, but it did not prevent injustices from happening. Proving a case was often very difficult, especially as troops were moved about. (...) No inhabitant had to starve. The American Relief Committee delivered food with the authority of an international treaty. Export of food (to Germany) was forbidden. Soldiers in furlough were ordered to use trains which were inspected at the German border under the control of the Committee. But as the food crisis in Germany deepened, extra trains were put in traffic. These were not inspected, and the regular trains ran empty.


German soldiers working in a French village
illustration by Ernst Vollbehr


As the war went on, the ideas on law and justice were modified and "Besorgung" (marauding) became ever wilder. In the rear of the front there happened things seen only in Russia so far. Front troops would strip unoccupied houses of the furniture, for the interest of their unit though, not for any individual.

Health care was provided free of charge in every occupied village by German military doctors. Before the war the hygienic standards in the countryside of Northern France were appalling. The buildings for quiet isolation called for by human natural needs were totally unknown in large areas. As the Squadron would ride through a village early in the morning the street was lined by a great parade of most various human posteriors. Our laughing muscles were strained and our hands, holding lances, were itching.

Bathing amenities were unknown in chateaus and towns. Once, scouting for quarters for an Army HQ, I entered an unusually large chateau of a count. Built 10 years before the war, it comprised some 60 rooms, including a library of four halls. The librarian was a Jesuit. I enquired him about the bathroom. At first he did not understand my question, then answered perplexed: "The count and the countess naturally have their baths in Courtai" - 20 km away.

German order made miracles happen. Villages were transformed. Garbage heaps disappeared, the village streets had to be weeded. The inhabitants were forced to clean their courtyards. At first they wondered and grumbled, finally yielding.

Their homes, however, were meticulously clean and orderly. Stone floors were mopped daily and desktops were shining. Vermin was unheard of - except after billeted soldiers. French peasants seemed to concentrate their cleanliness instinct in their homes, only to be the more dirty outside of it...

In towns the relationship between the inhabitants and the occupiers was worse. There was less military billeting, and military administration was strict. Townspeople had not suffered much from the war - except the paralysis of trade - and they could take a more detached look at us. They were clandestinely in contact with the "mainland", receiving information - and hope. When a German entered a café all talk was interrupted. They had been talking about the coming liberation. Hated German soldiers received veiled hostile looks.

A woman showing herself on the street with a German officer had defiled herself for ever. That did not however, prevent them from making closer acquaintance within four walls. Public and clandestine dancing halls flourished. Their number increased in step with the unemployment. All sorts of vices sapped the vitality of the nation, corroding ever deeper as the war continued.

In the country we were like at home, but in towns we were treading volcanic ground. Cemetry soil covers the dust of many a French hero in once occupied areas. Spying for your country, assisting able-bodied young men over the border and passing information are dangerous deeds in an occupied country.


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