Primary Documents - Aristide Briand on German Policy of Deportations from Lille, April 1916

Aristide Briand Reproduced below is the text of an official statement released by French Prime Minister Aristide Briand in April 1916.  In his statement Briand addresses reports of a new German policy of deporting able men and women from German-occupied Lille in France to other districts to provide a form of enforced labour.

Also concerned about this policy were the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, and the Spanish Ambassador.  These allegations followed earlier similar reports from Belgium.

The original German proclamation which triggered these protests, issued by General Graevenitz, the German commander in Lille, was published on 22 April 1916.

Official Statement by French Prime Minister Aristide Briand on Deportations from Lille

On several occasions the Government of the Republic has had occasion to bring to the notice of neutral Powers the action of the German military authorities towards the population of the French territory temporarily occupied by them as being in conflict with treaty rights.

The Government of the Republic finds itself today obliged to lay before foreign governments documents which will establish that our enemies have put in force measures still more inconsistent with humanity.

By order of General von Graevenitz, and with the support of Infantry Regiment No. 64, detailed for the purpose by the German General Headquarters, about 25,000 French - consisting of girls between 16 and 20 years of age, young women, and men up to the age of 55 - without regard to social position, were torn from their homes at Roubaix, Tourcoing, and Lille, separated ruthlessly from their families, and compelled to do agricultural work in the Departments of the Aisne and the Ardennes.

Better than any comment which we can make, the official notices of the German authorities, the despairing protests of the Mayor and the Bishop of Lille, and extracts from the letters received from these localities will throw light upon this new outrage committed by the Imperial German Government.

The Minister of War, under date of June 30, 1916, gives us the following accounts of these occurrences:

Not content with subjecting our people in the North to every kind of oppression, the Germans have recently treated them in the most iniquitous way.

In contempt of rules universally recognized and of their own express promises not to molest the civil population, they have taken women and girls away from their families; they have sent them off, mixed up with men, to destinations unknown, to work unknown.

In the early days of April, official notices offered to families needing work a settlement in the country - in the Department of the Nord - with work in the fields or at tree-felling.

Finding this overture unsuccessful, the Germans decided to have recourse to compulsion.  From April 9th onwards they resorted to raids - in the streets, in the houses - carrying off men and girls indiscriminately, and sending them Heaven knows where.

A wider scope and a more methodical application were soon given to the measure.  A General and a large force arrived at Lille, among others the 64th Regiment from Verdun.

On April 19th and 20th, the public were warned by proclamation to be prepared for a compulsory evacuation.

The Mayor entered an immediate protest, the Bishop tried to gain access to the local Commandant, local worthies wrote letters of protest.

No effect!  On Holy Saturday, at three in the morning, methodical raids began at Lille in the Fives quarter, in the Marliere quarter of Tourcoing, and at Roubaix.  After a suspension on Easter Sunday, the work went on all the week, ending up in the Saint Maurice quarter of Lille.

About three in the morning, troops, with fixed bayonets, barred the streets, machine guns commanded the road, against unarmed people.

Soldiers made their way into the houses.  The officer pointed out the people who were to go, and, half an hour later, everybody was marched pell-mell into an adjacent factory, and from there to the station, whence the departure took place.

Mothers with children under 14 were spared.

Girls under 20 were deported only when accompanied by one of their family.  This in no way relieves the barbarity of the proceeding.  Soldiers of the Landsturm blushed to be employed on such work.

The victims of this brutal act displayed the greatest courage.  They were heard crying 'Vive la France', and singing the Marseillaise in the cattle-trucks in which they were carried off.

It is said that the men are employed in agriculture, road-mending, the making of munitions and trench digging.

The women are employed in cooking and laundry-work for the soldiers and as substitutes for officers' servants.

For this severe work, housemaids, domestic servants and factory women have been taken by preference.

No servants are left in the Rue Royale at Lille.

But some brave girls of the upper middle-class have come forward and refused to allow the working-class girls to go alone.  The names of Miles. B and de Bare mentioned as having insisted on accompanying the girls of their district.

The unfortunate people, thus requisitioned, have been scattered from Seclin and Templeuve, as far as the Ardennes.

Their number is estimated at about 25,000, from the towns of Lille, Roubaix, and Tourcoing.

The Quartier de la Place at Lille, the communes of Loos, Haubourdin, la Madeleine, and Lambersart are said to have been spared.

Unequalled emotion was felt by the population of the north of France, without distinction of classes, during these days of Holy Week.

These measures surpassed in inhumanity those previously adopted.  It is, however, necessary to return to the latter.

It appears necessary to compare the documents annexed to this Note with a reply given by the German Government to a previous complaint relating to work enforced, in violation of the Convention, on the civil population of Landrecies and Hancourt.

After declaring that at Landrecies the French who are liable to military service have work suitable to their profession assigned to them, the German Government asserts that at Landrecies, Hancourt, and everywhere else the population of the occupied French districts is treated with justice and perfect humanity.

The documents annexed to the present Note will show the value of this assertion.  It is not a matter of men liable to military service having been forced to work; women, and girls between i6 and 20, have been taken into captivity and sent into exile.

Does the German Government, denying the principles, the sanctity of which it accepted in the Hague Convention, maintain that a belligerent has the right to compel enemy civilians to work?

In a Note dated March 22, 1916, it stated that it felt compelled to "request the French Government to issue orders to all commandants of internment camps on the subject of forced labour, and to require a formal declaration with regard to the matter."

This declaration was made to the Imperial Government on several occasions and in the most definite form.  How can that Government reconcile its claim in respect to interned German civilians - whom it declares not to be liable to forced labour - with its admission that French civilians, liable to military service, but at liberty, are constrained to labour, or with the disgraceful measures taken at Roubaix and Lille with regard to women and girls?

In orders placarded at Lille the German military authority has endeavoured to justify the wholesale deportations ordered at Lille and Roubaix as a retaliation for the attitude of England in making the provisioning of the population increasingly difficult.

Nothing, however, can justify such a barbarous measure.  Seizure of contraband and interference with enemy commerce are acts of war; deportation of the population without military necessity is not an act of war.

Moreover, to dispose of this pretended justification, it is sufficient to show that Germany has not only stripped - for her own profit - the occupied districts of all the products which would have insured the subsistence of the inhabitants, but also, previously to any interference with enemy commerce, organized for her own benefit the exploitation of the labour of French civilians.

To show this, extracts from the depositions of French citizens who have been evacuated from the invaded Departments are annexed to the present Note.

These depositions were made on oath before the magistrates of the districts where the evacuated people found asylum in all parts of France, by refugees from all points of the invaded Departments.

They were made in response to a form of inquiry in which the question of forced labour was not in contemplation - it was too much at variance with international law.  They emanate from persons of all ages and conditions, and their absolute agreement (more than two hundred have been taken) proves that the civil population of the Departments occupied by the German troops has been reduced to absolute servitude by the army of occupation.

Article 52 of the regulations annexed to the Fourth Convention of the Hague permits requisitions in kind and in services for the needs of the army of occupation.  In the recorded depositions there is no question of any regular form of requisitions.  Services, sometimes of a most repulsive nature, have been forcibly imposed on the entire civil population, without distinction of sex, age, or social position.

These unhappy people had to present themselves for the work imposed on them by night or by day, at all sorts of places and at great distances from their homes, sometimes even under artillery fire, in most cases without any kind of remuneration, in others for a few crusts of bread.

The German military authority has never concerned itself with the care of the population which the war has brought under its provisional administration.  The products of the forced labour of the population have been transported to Germany in spite of the absolute destitution of the workers.

Finally, it can be established from these depositions that the German authorities have not hesitated to compel the population to take part in military operations against their own country; they have even obliged them to assist in pillaging their own countryside!

They have employed them as direct auxiliaries of the combatant forces, either by placing them in front of the German troops to serve as shields or by compelling them to do work in connection with military operations.

Where this working material - for there is no more a question of human beings but of mere machines moved from place to place as required - where this human material gives out in certain districts of the occupied territory, the German authorities draw without limit either on the internment camps where, contrary to all law, the mobilizable men belonging to this territory have been confined, or on the other invaded districts.

The people are not sent back to their former homes.  These civilians are formed into regiments and, although the Germans themselves acknowledge that they ought not to be compelled to work, they are sent to any point of the districts occupied by the German army and compelled to perform the most severe labour.

And when France demands, in the name of some agonized family, information as to the fate of an unhappy exile, the German Government replies that the military authorities do not consider themselves under any obligation to explain their reasons for these transferences.  For entire months it is impossible to find out what has become of the unhappy people.

The indisputable result of the following declarations, read as a whole, is that, without any immediate necessity, not in the excitement of battle - moments which might excuse the violations of international law committed by the German authorities - those authorities, in pursuance of a deliberate purpose and according to a predetermined method, have reduced the unfortunate population of the invaded districts to a condition which can be likened only to slavery.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

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