In late April 1915, female workers of the Selliez clothing factory in the French town of Roubaix were insulted for numerous consecutive days by local residents who, a French police report noted, “had built themselves up into an angry state.”1 The women were targeted because the factory was working with the occupying German military authority. Some locals believed it was making uniforms, but it was in fact producing around nine hundred empty sandbags and trellises a day.2 This “conflict” culminated in a “small riot” on 30 April. At 7:00 a.m., the approximately 450 female employees “got to work, but, by a sort of tacit agreement, they did not start work, apart from about fifty who, having a batch of goods to finish, entered to complete this job.” These women left the factory individually between 8:00 and 8:30 p.m., once their work was finished, and were assaulted by locals in “hostile and violent demonstrations.” One of the perpetrators, a cabaratière named Mme Mordacq, “acted in a particularly brutal manner.”3 A diarist recorded that these disturbances were accompanied by children singing: “The [female] workers of Selliez / Have betrayed the French / Who will come and hunt them down / When the peace is signed.”4 Two French policemen were at the scene but were unable to restore order. Despite the violence to which they had been subjected, none of the victims complained to the local police commissioner.5
Another account of events exists, although the source appears less reliable, comprising a simple handwritten note with no details about the author beyond a surname: that morning, a poster appeared in the factory grounds calling for a strike, and 200 workers (sixty of whom were men) “abandoned their work” in response. Despite these discrepancies, the note confirms that a violent demonstration targeting exclusively female workers occurred that evening, and suggests that the local population was spurred to action by former female employees who had earlier resigned.6
Whatever the finer details, the disturbances of 30 April marked the beginning of a period of strikes and public disorder that lasted until July 1915. The events also raise important questions comprising the starting point of this article: To what extent did workers strike out of fear for their own safety? What do these events tell us about the complexities of occupied life, including public disorder and the ways in which the occupied French judged each other? What was the role of gender in all this? Finally, how did the French police react to public disorder, and did they risk accusations of complicity or face criticism during the occupation? Before expanding upon these questions by outlining the aims and methodology of this article, it is necessary to provide some wider context.
From October 1914 until October 1918, the German army occupied 70 percent of the French département of the Nord.7 Roubaix, world famous for its textile industry, was part of the largest and most populous conurbation in the occupied area, the industrial triangle of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing.8 Like other occupied localities, Roubaix faced considerable German exploitation via requisitions of food or goods, the imposition of war taxes, and the use of forced labor. The population lived under strict German rules and faced harsh punishments for infractions. In general, locals experienced widespread penury, hunger, and hardship.9 One specificity was that the Germans desired to utilize Roubaix’s strong industrial infrastructure—numbering eighty-four factories and 43,859 textile workers in 191110—for their own ends, mainly the fabrication of sandbags for the trenches. This policy understandably created tensions between the French and German authorities, but also among the occupied French. In spring and summer 1915, such tensions were laid bare by a series of breaches of public order, strikes, and scandals, in what became known as the affaire des sacs (the “sandbag affair”). According to one diarist, this began in April 1915 once it became clear that factories were producing material for the fighting army, not the army of occupation—causing both factory owners and workers to protest.11 The reality was more complex, including attacks on industrial workers in Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing,12 as well as in Denain.13 At the same time, factory worker strikes took place across the Nord, as did refusals of French mayors and certain industrialists to persuade striking workers to return to their jobs. The potential “resistance” of these groups will not be examined here; suffice it to say that already in 1919 one published occupation diary argued that industrialists had led the strike in Roubaix,14 and in 1921 a narrative of worker resistance concerning sandbags was included in a local exhibition on the occupation of the Nord.15 More recent historical work has reinforced this perception of worker and notable resistance, which has become the standard narrative.16
The affaire des sacs ended in July 1915 when factory work restarted as a result of German repression, explained below. Yet these events and especially the attacks on workers have received little detailed analysis from scholars; the same is true of the complex role of the French police under occupation. Indeed, the most complex account of the affaire is a celebrated work of fiction (or “faction”) concerning the occupation: Maxence Van der Meersch’s 1935 novel Invasion 14, much of which concentrated on events in the author’s native Roubaix.17 However, despite the ambiguities present in Invasion 14, many of those among the occupied population who have left traces in the archives and elsewhere appear to have understood their experience in a rather Manichean manner, through what I call an “occupied war culture” (culture de l’occupé).18 This was a variant of standard French culture de guerre, a still controversial term describing a system of representations through which people made sense of the conflict.19 The culture de l’occupé was a moral-patriotic framework, seemingly based on a notion of bourgeois respectability, that dictated what were considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviors under occupation and thus guided conduct. Adherents of this culture expressed disdain for those perceived as breaching its norms by engaging in “misconduct.”20 Such breaches and disdain are at the heart of this article, which demonstrates that the culture de l’occupé involved more than just the bourgeoisie; working-class French people were also concerned with and had an understanding of “incorrect” behavior under occupation, and expressed this in remarkable ways.
This article is predominantly based on German posters and French police reports and thus contains the attendant methodological challenges one would expect. In particular, some documents appear to have been lost, and often the sequels or further details are unknown or unknowable. Nevertheless, what can be established calls into question the narrative of purely patriotic resistance on the part of factory workers and bosses, revealing a more complicated reality in which some workers were responding more to internecine fighting among the occupied French. However, striking workers could still be considered instruments of resistance because their actions were propelled by public disapproval of their conduct. Examining the affaire also deepens our understanding of the occupation: it provides an insight into the difficult situation in which the French police found itself, shows that the Germans were not in complete control, and underlines the importance of rumors, perceptions, and self-judgment to the occupied French. French behaviors were not always clearly identifiable as resistance or misconduct—but were often perceived as such by compatriots of all social classes, willing to resort to public disorder and risk repression to express their sentiments.
Public Disorder and the Affaire des Sacs
The Germans had difficulty controlling crowds in the Nord from the beginning of the occupation. On 4 November 1914, the Kommandant of Lille complained to the mayor that crowds were blocking the passage of prisoners of war, and reminded the population that gatherings of more than six people were forbidden.21 In Tourcoing, a German poster of 18 December 1914 noted that “gatherings of inhabitants—especially in the suburbs—are becoming more and more frequent,” and the Kommandantur had ordered the immediate arrest of all individuals meeting in the street without a valid pass during curfew hours. Patrols were ordered to use their weapons at the slightest sign of resistance.22 Public gatherings could turn violent: on 12 February 1915 in Lille one hundred demonstrators threw rocks at an estaminet owned by a Belgian man of “doubtful respectability [honorabilité]” suspected of denouncing hidden French soldiers, breaking his windows. No one was injured and within a few hours order was reestablished by French policemen, who made no arrests, although two warnings for refusing to circulate were issued.23
The Germans also attempted to combat overt displays of French patriotism, perhaps because such sentiment might incite public gatherings and hostility. On 23 March in Roubaix, wearing decorations displaying national colors was forbidden.24 The following day the Kommandant banned such decorations on the graves of Allied soldiers, which had previously been “tolerated.”25 The clear desire of a certain section of the occupied population to demonstrate patriotism through various symbols continued throughout the occupation.26 Yet expressions of patriotism via public disorder proved especially problematic in 1915. On 19 March, a gathering of locals ended in the “pillage” of shops. In response, the Kommandant banned any gathering in the streets, which would be broken up using armed force. Indirect involvement in a theft or a violent act would still be treated as direct participation. The poster finished: “Let the population be warned!”27
Nevertheless, a new wave of disorders commenced the following month. Trouble began with the shooting of a German sentinel posted at rue de Lannoy on “20 and 24 April [sic],” which the Germans attributed to a member of the occupied population.28 No perpetrator was discovered, so the town was fined 100,000 francs, which the municipality refused to pay.29
As a result of the attack, German soldiers were permitted to use armed force to quell any disobedience, the number of sentinels was increased, all shops were closed, and all public circulation banned for a period of ten days.30 The disorder at the Selliez factory mentioned above occurred the day after this order. However, that was merely the beginning of the crisis.
On 1 May 1915, a German proclamation explained that those involved in the previous day’s demonstrations at the Selliez factory were “guilty of an action hostile to the German army … punishable by the death penalty.” The Selliez employees were ordered to recommence work; if not, the town would be fined a million francs a day, payments to “the destitute” would be suspended, and German soldiers would use armed force against “demonstrators.”31 The Germans evidently took such events seriously, but the threat of armed force was never implemented. Work did in part restart on 1 May: French police were “here engaged in surveillance,” and German soldiers armed with bayonets were posted outside. About 250 to 300 workers “recommenced work without incident, except one worker from Croix, who was attacked near her home. German gendarmes were informed of this by the factory managers, and they intervened in this affair.”32 The effects of the previous day’s events were evident: “The absences signaled are not all defections, it is estimated in fact that many are still emotionally scarred after the events of yesterday and that they were genuinely not in a state to work this morning.”33
On 4 May, no incident took place, and the director of the Selliez factory was satisfied with the situation, but six days later an attack occurred outside another factory, run by the Motte brothers.34 This culminated in the arrest, by the Germans, of twenty individuals (of unknown sex) sentenced to eight days’ imprisonment.35 The following day two women were punished for insulting “voluntary workers” and attempting to prevent them from carrying out their job.36 Indeed, Motte employees refused to work, as they feared insults and attacks.37 Unrest continued the following month: on 9 June, a woman was punished for encouraging a female worker to stop working,38 and by 19 June, a diarist remarked, “The question of working for the G[erma]ns grips R[oubai]x—we are convinced that our compatriots in France are well informed about what is happening in the region and that our soldiers are furious about the aid given to our enemies by certain industrialists.”39 Two days later, male and female workers were targeted: a man was arrested for screaming, “You must be a coward to work for the Germans and against your brothers,” and three female workers were slapped in the face.40 Further incidents occurred in July: ten women were punished for destroying furniture belonging to a family working for the Germans, and for preventing them from working; three women were punished for taking part in a gathering and molesting female workers and their families; and a husband and wife attacked a female worker.41
Most victims and perpetrators during this period were women. One explanation is that the occupied French population was overwhelmingly female, many men having been mobilized before or during the German invasion.42 Thus, there were simply more women than men in occupied France, making the predominantly female nature of events seem somewhat less remarkable. Yet despite the demographic imbalance, the occupied population was especially critical of women’s behavior. There was an “obsession” with female sexual relations with Germans, and many women were suspected of this, but criticism of sexual conduct and working for the Germans stemmed from similar logic.43 Margaret Darrow’s gendered reading of the conflict proves suggestive: the occupied women’s plight was symbolic of national suffering, thus occupied women behaving in a self-interested or undignified manner were perceived as betraying France.44 French men fought to liberate the mainly female occupied population, so the latter should honor this sacrifice via dignified, patriotic behavior. This reasoning underpinned the culture de l’occupé; perhaps the women perpetrating the attacks, aware of the symbolism of their position, targeted female compatriots undermining claims to dignity. Or perhaps women simply felt more comfortable or confident attacking other women rather than men.
Whatever the reasons behind the gendered nature of the disorder, such violence suggests that at least some of the “strikers” might have done so out of fear of attacks, rather than purely out of patriotic sentiment. Indeed, the Germans’ opinion on the subject varied: posters initially blamed the strikes on the “resistance of factory bosses,”45 then stated that there was “no valid reason,”46 before declaring the cause as “threats and mistreatment by the wider population.”47 It is impossible to establish the precise extent of strikes, as there are no sources outlining the total number of implicated factories or workers, or even the total number employed as factory workers in occupied Roubaix. However, one suggestive statistic exists: in neighboring Tourcoing, whose industrial base was similar to that of Roubaix, around 1,400 men and women worked for the Germans across seven factories in June and July 1915, as disturbances there came to an end.48 Assuming an analogous number of workers in Roubaix, the recorded 260 or 400 striking workers at the Selliez factory alone probably represented a sizable percentage of the total German-employed industrial workforce. The strikes evidently undermined both the Germans’ economic exploitation and their authority. They came to an end on 24 July, accompanied by the restoration of relative calm.49
This was due to a combination of punishments for factory workers and their owners (imprisonment and fines), for the town itself (fines, stricter curfews, taking two hundred notables hostage), German surveillance of factories, and increasingly harsher punishments (including deportation to Germany) for those engaged in antiworker protests.50 Work stoppages or attacks never reoccurred on this scale for the remainder of the occupation, despite some calls to that effect.51 Even during the liberation, physical acts of vengeance or humiliation were rare.52
French Police and the Strikes
The police service of Roubaix found itself in a difficult position during the affaire des sacs. When the Germans ordered factory employees to recommence their work, they demanded that the French police inform the workers of this order and arrest workers “in cases of rebellion.”53 This evidently threatened police integrity, risking the perception that it followed German orders blindly and supported the continuation of factory work. Commissaire central Wargnier consulted with the acting mayor, M. Thérin,54 who stated that the police force should play a role as a messenger, not an active agent: “[P]olicemen must not exert any pressure, in any sense, nor make comments of any kind, leaving the affected parties free to act according to their conscience; and finally not carry out any arrests.”55 At least six policemen did follow this policy.56 Yet Wargnier was shocked to discover in July that some had disobeyed his order.57 An inquiry demonstrated that “[o]ne Mme Lorthiois … had said to M. Diagoras, charged with the distribution of aid, who refused her this aid because her daughter worked chez Selliez: ‘My daughter no longer works there, and in any case if she did work there, it was on the express invitation of policeman Crochon.’”58 Crochon himself explained that “it was on the orders of the Secrétaire général de la Mairie [M. Duez] that he went to the house of Mme Lorthiois to ask her daughter to recommence work.”59 Duez evoked the threat of a daily fine levied on the town and the suspension of aid for the wider population if work did not recommence. Duez went to the factory himself and told Crochon and other policemen present that it was “necessary to find immediately at the very least the closest workers and to invite them to recommence work straight away with the aim of avoiding these punishments on the town.” Crochon concluded: “I left, like my comrades, with a list of names and I invited male and female workers to return to their place in the factory. I limited myself to delivering the message, without influencing anybody in any sense.”60 Other police testimony backed up Crochon’s account.61 Never theless, during the affaire, French policemen were caught between the Germans, the wishes of the French municipality, the wider population, and their individual conscience. They faced criticism from all sides, but perhaps the harshest was the wider population’s disapproval and judgment of their actions.
Once again it was the affaire des sacs that brought public perception and judgment—and the attendant importance of rumor—to the fore. During this period, a French policeman was involved in a local scandal. Police investigations into this incident provide an insight into the nature of the culture de l’occupé, the disorders themselves, and further problems experienced by the French police force. The individual in question was one M. Orlianges.
From One Affaire to Another: The Affaire Orlianges
Barthélémy Désiré Orlianges, a fifty-six-year-old native of the Corrèze, had been transferred at his own request from Nîmes in 1911 or 1912. Orlianges’s then superior wanted rid of him, describing him in the transfer report as “by nature a worrier, a fusspot, jealous, and a grumpy moaner [d’origine inquiet, tatillon, jaloux et grincheux]” with a tendency to be too partial in his police work.62 Transferred to Roubaix, Orlianges became the Commissaire de police of the fourth arrondissement. Here, he soon breached the limits of prewar bourgeois and Catholic respectability: according to numerous witnesses, the previously divorced and now remarried Commissaire had been having an affair since 1913 with Irma Petit, a woman undergoing a divorce. He also began frequenting the cabaret of a widow, Mme Bonte, in 1913 and 1914.63 Rumor had it that Bonte was his second mistress,64 and it was this relationship that would come to a head under German occupation.
In the summer of 1915, Orlianges was the subject of internal police inquiries, suspected of insubordination and gravely lacking in his duties. His troubles began when he was arrested and temporarily imprisoned by the Germans on 27 June 1915. Only on 30 June did Commissaire central Wargnier, Orlianges’s superior, learn of the arrest of Orlianges, “following the destruction of furniture of a family whose members worked for the Germans and for the careless negligence [incurie] of which he was apparently responsible, in not intervening enough or at all to prevent [réprimer] the troubles having as their cause the anger directed [la colère suggérée] at the attitude of those working for the Germans.”65 The Germans had been unhappy with the “disorders” that took place on 23 and 24 June in Orlianges’s arrondissement, during which the house of a widow, Mme Wicart, had been “sacked” (the municipality eventually had to pay 800 francs to Wicart).66
On 2 July, Wargnier learned that Orlianges and two of his auxiliaries were to be imprisoned for four weeks, and the French police henceforth armed themselves with batons to help prevent further civilian unrest. Wargnier acquired grace for Orlianges and one auxiliary.67 This did not represent approval from Wargnier, as Orlianges’s apparent inaction during the unrest had contravened the former’s explicit desires. Wargnier explained that same day, in a letter to be read by all his subordinates, that the German authority had complained that French policemen were showing signs of “softness [mollesse]” regarding public gatherings. He reiterated that these should not be tolerated, and any “noncompliers” should be brought to the station, “where they will be dealt with by the Commissaires de Police.”68 Wargnier evidently desired to avoid incidents that might lead to German repression, even if this involved arresting members of the occupied population and therefore risking their opprobrium; other policemen seemed less keen on this. Indeed, the lack of crowd control and dispersal on 23–24 June 1915 could feasibly have been a purposeful decision on the part of Orlianges or his subordinates, hinting at an underlying approval of the actions of a crowd that was punishing those working for the Germans. This was not the case: in fact, Orlianges had lost all moral authority. He had quite simply been unable to disperse the crowd. The reason for this was his relationship with Mme Bonte.
The complexities of the occupation, but also the ease with which the French judged each other, are evident here: a French policeman, later arrested by the Germans for nondispersal of a crowd attacking those allegedly working for the Germans, was himself assaulted by compatriots as a result of public rumors of complicity and questionable morality, leading him to seek the protection of the Germans.
Yesterday evening [23 June], at around 6, about a hundred people went to wait for M. Orlianges at the exit of this cabaret and threw rubbish at his face. He went to the German gendarme station, rue Dabenton, to ask for help.
A gendarme accompanied him and, in the presence of the crowd, seems to have pulled his revolver from its holster but, at the moment when he threatened the protesters, one of them knocked it out of his hand.
I was not able to establish how this incident ended …
This incident was the object of all conversations this morning.72
This event spurred further investigation, which allows for a better understanding of the connection between the assault on workers and the attack on Orlianges. These documents also provide the testimony of both attackers and victims. One Mme Dubus freely admitted her involvement in the unrest, cases of which had been frequent “because of women who work for the Germans.” On 23 June, while at a friend’s house, “I heard cries of ‘Oh, oh’, [sic] I went outside, like everyone else, to see what was going on. Straight away, seeing that Fernande Berte, whom I know because we were in class together, was being taken somewhere, I approached her and said: ‘Hey, it’s you, you work for the Germans, so you’re going to have to pay after the war.’ As she scoffed at [narguait] me, I slapped her. Many of the women who were present also did the same as me.”73
This is another example of working-class women attacking other working-class women, highlighting the self-judgment so important to the culture de l’occupé and the anger felt by women toward female com-patriots perceived as aiding the war effort of the enemy. The attacks on both Orlianges and Berte demonstrate this culture in action. Although it draws on bourgeois mores, the involvement of the classes populaires in these disorders suggests that the culture de l’occupé went beyond the bourgeoisie, and the working-class individuals studied here arguably engaged in the most extreme expression of this culture.
Events on 23 June 1915 were indeed extreme. Thirty minutes after Berte was assaulted, Dubus was summoned to Orlianges’s office along with her sister, where Berte and her aunt were waiting—the latter a cabaratière who had also been hit by the crowd, “thrown to the ground and pulled along by her hair.” Orlianges ordered his fellow policemen to “[t]hrow these damned women [Dubus and her sister] in the clink.” The policemen did not carry out this demand. Dubus explained herself, after which Berte did not want to press charges, and Dubus and her sister returned home. However, Dubus continued:
This demonstration had attracted a large crowd, which then proceeded to the Bonte cabaret …, to demonstrate this time against Commissaire de police Orlianges, who had gone there, I have no idea why. I also learned that the crowd screamed at the Commissaire’s address: “You’re [tu] letting them get away with it here because she’s your mistress.” I was told upon leaving the cabaret that horse manure had been thrown at him.
It is commonly said in the neighborhood that Mme Bonte is the mistress of M. Orlianges and that her daughter and other women work at her home for the Germans.
Yesterday again [24 June], around midday, demonstrations occurred in front of the cabaret Bonte. The crowd accuses M. le Commissaire above all of being the protector of Bonte and women who work for our enemies.74
Further witness statements reinforced this version of events. The very beginning of the disorder involved one Mme Veuve Gobert, who explained that on 23 June she was at her front door, talking with a neighbor about “the evils of the war,” when Berte walked by with her aunt. Berte asked Gobert if she was talking about her, to which Gobert replied that she “was not speaking about anyone, but if she [Berte] was really working for the Germans, she could … take the conversation as being about her.” Gobert continued, “The public having gathered and this woman Bert [sic] having scoffed at us, many people insulted and hit her, accusing her of being a traitor to her country and putting herself in the service of the enemy. At this moment, I returned to my shop and I did not leave. The demonstration continued a bit longer, attracting lots of people, as well as the police.”75 About two hours later, Berte left the Commissariat and (rather strikingly) visited Gobert’s shop to excuse herself for what had happened. Berte’s father also came “and reproached her vehemently for the facts for which she had been assaulted; she swore to him that she had not made sandbags, but she could not convince anyone among the people who were in my shop at the time.”76 The ease with which such accusations were accepted even by Berte’s father highlights the importance of rumor and the climate of suspicion under the occupation, especially for women.
Berte claimed that she did not work for the Germans and that she had actively chosen to go to Orlianges’s office to press charges against Dubus and her sister. Once there, the latter were persuaded by Orlianges that they had been mistaken in assuming Berte worked for the Germans, and were tasked with convincing the rest of the crowd of this. The crowd refused to listen, and it was at this point that horse manure and insults were thrown at Berte, her father, and Orlianges, with the majority being aimed at Orlianges.78 The rumor and public perception concerning Berte outweighed any claim to the contrary; judgment trumped complicated reality.
On 23 of this month, around 2pm, when leaving my aunt’s [Mme Pardoen’s] house, rue Voltaire, I was assaulted by a certain number of women who were waiting to hit me because I am accused of making sandbags for the Germans. Soon afterward, Mme Dubus, her sister Mlle Marie Réville and yet more women approached me to beat me up. Mme Dubus, on seeing me, said: “Ah, it’s you [toi], we will recognize you after the war.” Then she ripped off my hat and punched me many times in the head and body. Many other women followed this example.77
Orlianges was literally sullied by his relationship with Bonte and the public scandal it provoked. There was one rare example of (qualified) support for him: one Célina Lernoux noted that Orlianges had always acted correctly when talking to her in the street, although neighbors found these conversations “suspicious” and she soon asked Orlianges to stop conversing with her “in order to make these people shut up or rather to no longer give them a reason to talk about us.”79 The importance and strength of rumor and public perception during the occupation is again evident. However, Lernoux concluded: “Following the demonstration of rue Voltaire, I understood that M. le Commissaire no longer had the necessary authority.”80 Investigating policeman Edouard Locufier agreed: “I regret to say that in the sixteen years that I have been in the police, I have never known a Commissaire de police regarded with as much disdain as is M. Orlianges. He does not have the moral authority necessary to carry out his functions in a useful manner and his private behavior is heavily criticized and is the object of all conversations.”81
For the investigations into the conduct of Orlianges, the details of the disturbances were less important than this loss of moral authority. Also crucial was the subsequent insubordination he demonstrated by not only failing to report his release from prison, but actively refusing to present himself at the Commissariat central until the third request.82
The attack on Orlianges engendered further complications. On 16 July 1915, Wargnier was summoned to meet the Kommandant, at which point Wargnier learned that he had been “personally denounced as being the soul of resistance” among striking workers, “by giving orders to my personnel contrary to those I had transmitted, or in manipulating [dénaturant] these men.”83 Yet the Kommandant “had not been influenced by this denunciation, because after ten months of occupation, he had to remark my perfect correctness [in relations with German authorities].”84 The Kommandant did remind Wargnier, however, that no arrests had been carried out by the French police on 23 and 24 June. Wargnier’s response was that the German gendarmes arrived on the scene first and the French police “estimated that it was useless to step on their coattails. I firmly believe that the police of the fourth arrondissement intervened as vigorously as possible during the demonstration.”85 This again demonstrates the awkward position in which the French police found itself: blamed for inaction, officers were allegedly trying not to hinder German inquiries, yet were still criticized by both occupiers and occupied. The Kommandant then asked Wargnier why the public was against Orlianges. Wargnier responded that it was because he frequented Bonte’s cabaret, which “attracted the attention” of the Kommandant, who hinted that Bonte had denounced Wargnier—because, Wargnier suggests, she had tried unsuccessfully to meet with him in his office earlier in the month.86 Perhaps she desired to explain her role in the affaire Orlianges, as she had done to the mayor, to whom she denied working for the Germans, although she did so at Orlianges’s request.87 Not having been able to meet Wargnier, she turned to another means of resolving the situation: denunciation to the Germans, a relatively common occurrence in the occupied Nord.88 Wargnier’s meeting with the Kommandant, however, highlights that not all denunciations to the Germans were taken at face value. Denunciations, although a “weapon of the weak,” still relied on the will of the Germans to come to fruition.89
It is clear that Wargnier believed that the anger of the population toward Orlianges was justified. His last report on Orlianges and the disorders of 23–24 June, addressed to the acting Préfet du Nord, highlighted testimony stating that Bonte did indeed allow work for the Germans in her house. He concluded: “Is this not sufficient to justify the indignation of the crowd towards the French civil servant [magistrat] friend of this woman?” Wargnier reproached Orlianges for “serious recklessness and carelessness [inconséquences graves] in the exercise of his functions and a complete lack of moral sense”; “repeated acts of impropriety and indecency [faits d’incorrection] toward his head of service, even of blatant indiscipline”; and for “being guilty of an undignified action,” because he had told the Préfet that Wargnier “was the author of the punishment he endured from the German military authority” in order “to discredit me in the eyes of my administration.”90 Wargnier’s words reflect not only the high standards expected of a police officer, but also key facets of the culture de l’occupé’s expectation of correct behavior under occupation. And just a few days later Orlianges was under renewed criticism, exposing wider internal problems faced by the local French police force.
Further Police Problems
On 18 August 1915, Orlianges informed Wargnier that a certain quantity of oil, “fraudulently obtained by an unknown person last winter,” had disappeared from his Commissariat.91 Wargnier, “Understandably angered [ému] by this revelation,” noted that this was not the first case of policemen perpetrating thefts, as two municipal policemen had recently stolen wine from a building they were guarding. He ordered an inquiry, but Orlianges refused to lead it, saying he could not be neutral because the thieves were probably his subordinates.92 Wargnier responded that this exact situation had occurred in another arrondissement, where the Commissaire offered no such objections. Orlianges eventually proceeded with an inquiry, but produced a shoddy report accompanied by an extremely rude letter to his commanding officer.93 This was the last straw for Wargnier, who summoned Orlianges to his office, “resolved to put an end once and for all to all these desires for independence, these intolerable acts of indiscipline, and this rudeness.” He let Orlianges know that, despite Orlianges’s past impunity and “the delicate situation in which the German occupation places me,” he would have no qualms about banning Orlianges from the police headquarters or cutting off all relations with him. Orlianges professed his respect and devotion to Wargnier, and the next day sent a revised copy of the report, “although without expressing the slightest bit of regret for his unspeakable behavior.”94 It is unclear if further measures were taken against Orlianges.
Yet Orlianges and his subordinates were not the only thorn in the side of Roubaix’s police force. Indeed, during the height of the scandal, Wargnier addressed a note to all policemen, which began: “I have explained to you in different circumstances and I have frequently repeated to you to always act … with the most perfect correctness, to always demonstrate tact [doigté], prudence and to never forget that, as civil servants, invested with a mission as delicate as it is thankless, you were at the center of critical attention. It is up to you to make sure that you are not open to such criticism [A vous de ne pas y prêter le flanc].” Noting that the mission the police accomplished for numerous months was “extremely difficult,” Wargnier continued: “I am told, without being given proof, that certain among you have apparently confused correctness and courtesy with servility and obsequiousness; that others have allegedly gone as far as accepting bribes or even presents from those whom they are obliged to escort.” Such behavior was “undignified,” and, if those comprising this minority “have forgotten themselves this much, I vow that this inspires loathing and contempt among their colleagues, and I regret that I do not know them to punish them as they deserve.” Wargnier had also been informed that certain policemen aiding German requisitions “pester shopkeepers to obtain merchandise that the former state they no longer have in their shops, by taking … an absolutely ridiculous tone—that is, when they are not going as far as explicit threats.” Wargnier’s response was unequivocal: “This manner of proceeding is absolutely odious. I want it to cease. Is it not distressing to note that men charged with a service of protection are behaving in such a manner?” He called upon the police to remember their obligations: “It is not very important that certain women are making serious mistakes [se vautrent] or that denunciations from French people abound at the Kommandantur, the responsibilities will be established [les responsabilités seront dégagées] when the time comes. For you, the question is greater—‘Do what you must, come what may’—this must be your motto … I will not fail in carrying out my duty; let each one of you accomplish his own.”95
The alleged police corruption or misconduct, an occurrence in all police forces, was considered even more odious during the occupation, when all actions took on extra meaning, when all behaviors became symbolic—when many among the occupied population, like Wargnier, believed in setting a good example and punishing those who failed their “duty.” However, the very existence of the affaires and police problems studied here demonstrate that not everyone adhered to these norms.
Indeed, Wargnier’s note was not heeded by all. In October 1915, he wrote to the acting Préfet regarding a “new and regrettable incident” involving one Gustave Fiévet, an auxiliary policeman recently named by the municipality.96 Fiévet was in charge of the dog impound vehicle in Roubaix and, while impounding dogs, charged their owners various sums—contrary to both French law and German orders. Wargnier explained that Fiévet even “went as far as explicit threats, by indicating that the Kommandantur would punish any contravention of his personal orders with three months’ imprisonment or a one-thousand-mark fine.”97 Thus, Fiévet used the Germans as a form of leverage, hinting at false punishments in order to extract money from the frightened populace. An inquiry found Fiévet to be guilty: Wargnier asked the mayor to fire Fiévet on 11 October 1915, but to his surprise and dismay, this did not happen; the next day, Wargnier maintained his position, also calling for Fiévet’s resignation if that would help things. On 13 October, Fiévet did indeed resign, and the administration seemed content that the reputation of the police force had not been tainted by this affair (which was the reason for the mayor’s refusal to fire him). Yet the following month a clandestine publication attacked the police force, criticizing its chief in particular and accusing officers of being the “matadors” and “valets” of the Germans.98 After the war accusations would be made against Wargnier (by a policeman) concerning his occupation conduct and police complicity. He denied this, but admitted that “police officers were under the German boot, despite all my efforts. I fired many of them for this.” The conclusions of the investigation are not recorded. Wargnier’s own conclusion was that he had been warned during the occupation that “Orlianges[,] Bouladoux, and Appens would denounce me after the war.”99 Questions concerning Orlianges, it seems, outlasted the occupation—as did some of the conflicts of this period.
In 1915, both the Germans and the occupied French were adapting to the reality of occupation. The affaire des sacs, often perceived purely as an act of resistance on the part of French factory workers, also entailed violent physical and verbal attacks on these workers by members of the wider occupied population. Combined with the affaire Orlianges, involving attacks both on a French policeman and at least one Frenchwoman mistakenly believed to be working for the Germans, the events of 1915 underline the strength of public perception, judgment, and occasionally rumor during the occupation. Indeed, these events represent the most extreme manifestations of the culture de l’occupé, which went beyond the bourgeoisie, involving working-class individuals targeting those perceived to have breached the norms of behavior under occupation.
The police force of Roubaix, as elsewhere in occupied France, found itself in an unenviable and delicate situation during the occupation, no more so than in 1915. It attempted to maintain public order at a time when its powers had been greatly curbed and it had to work alongside German police forces. It did not follow German orders unquestioningly, although individual officers did engage in undignified behavior and misconduct, which undermined its already difficult task. The police, like the workers, faced public criticism and judgment, countered rumors, and struggled with the complex reality of occupation that was seemingly ignored by those who were quick to judge.
Events in Roubaix in 1915, although exceptional, highlight some wider aspects of life in occupied France: the German authority could be defied, albeit at great risk and not indefinitely; local police forces and administrations were in an impossible situation, and were not immune to misconduct; and the occupied French faced inevitable internal tensions. Locals were quick to judge each other based on perceptions and rumors, demonstrating a more concentrated form of wider concerns in unoccupied France with civilian behavior and duty, culminating in self-surveillance.100 However, even more than their unoccupied compatriots, members of the occupied population—neither exclusively heroes, victims, nor villains—negotiated a moral-patriotic minefield that could, as in 1915, blow up in their faces. Struggles with the complex reality of occupation, countered by the public judgment and perception at the heart of occupied life, would last for the duration of the war.
Across German-occupied Europe, 1915 was an important year—sitting between the violence of the invasion and the increased exploitation of 1916101—during which the limits of German authority, the norms of daily life, and the framework for understanding the experience were established. The attacks, strikes, and scandals of 1915 in Roubaix represent an extreme example of this. John Horne argues that the period between 1914 and 1915 represented a turning point for the entire conflict, encompassing a shift toward a logic of totalization, including increased demonization of the enemy, of which “tensions between norms and acts, between language and facts” were symptomatic.102 In Roubaix, the year 1915 did represent a turning point, with similar tensions underlying attacks on workers and criticism of the local police force. As unoccupied populations began to try to comprehend the conflict by 1915, so the population of Roubaix forged an understanding of the norms of occupation—an understanding separate from but sometimes reflective of wider trends among belligerent nations. The public disorders and problematic policing of this isolated town therefore comprise an important addition to the overall picture of this global conflict, as well as to the fascinating history of occupied France from 1914 to 1918.
My thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the research behind this article, and to the editors and peer reviewers for their useful feedback. All translations are my own.
Archives départementales du Nord (henceforth ADN) 9R735, Commissaire de Police Barthouil, Commissariat Central de Roubaix, to the Préfet du Nord, 30 April 1915. Note that following the deportation of the original Préfet (Trépont) in February 1915, the Sous-Préfet d’Avesnes (M. Anjubault) became the acting Préfet. All archival references will henceforth refer to Anjubault by name rather than title.
Archives municipales de Tourcoing (henceforth AMT) H4A32, Report by “Schittelecalle” (no further information is available), “Cessation du travail chez Mr Georges Sellier [sic] à Roubaix,” 4 May 1915.
ADN 9R735, Barthouil to Anjubault, 30 April 1915.
ADN 74J225, Journal de M. Blin, instituteur en retraite at Auchy-les-Orchies (1914–1918), 30 April 1915.
ADN 9R735, Barthouil to Anjubault, 30 April 1915.
AMT H4A32, Report by “Schittelecalle.”
Philippe Nivet, La France occupée 1914–1918 (Paris: Armand Collin, 2011), 9.
Félix-Paul Codaccioni, “Une puissance industrielle arrivée à maturité,” in Histoire du Nord-Pas-de-Calais de 1900 à nos jours, ed. Yves-Marie Hilaire (Toulouse: Éditions Privat, 1982), 67–77. The population of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing in November 1918 was four hundred and fifty thousand: Service Historique de la Défense 17N394, Rapport sur l’aide apportée par les troupes britanniques à la population libérée pendant l’avance du 1er Oct. au 25 Nov. 1918, 1.
See Annette Becker, Les Cicatrices rouges 14–18: France et Belgique occupées (Paris: Fayard, 2010), 137–138, 296; J. P. Whitaker, Under the Heel of the Hun (An English-man’s Two-and-a-Half Years in Roubaix and Lille) (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1917); Yves-Marie Hilaire, ed., Histoire de Roubaix (Dunkirk: Éditions de Beffroi, 1984); Philippe Waret, L’occupation allemande à Roubaix, 1914–1918 (Tampere: Atramenta, 2013).
Médiathèque de Roubaix, “Plan de Roubaix industriel et commercial,” 1911, accessed 20 July 2015, www.bnr.fr/img/collections/RBX_AMR_PLA/original/RBX_AMR_PLA_DEL_001.jpg; L’industrie en France occupée: Ouvrage établi par le Grand Quartier Général allemand en 1916—traduction intégrale (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1923), 315.
ADN J1933, François Rouesel, “Pendant la C. C. I [Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie] de Roubaix durant l’occupation allemande,” chapter entitled “Le Travail dans l’Industrie,” 19 July 1916.
For archival sources on events in Lille and Tourcoing, see ADN 9R753; Archives municipales de Lille 4H121; AMT H4A32. Evidence in the latter folder directly contradicts later claims that “no fabrication [of sandbags] existed in Tourcoing”; see AMT H4A25, Comité Historique du Nord, Questionnaire de la Guerre de 1914, Tourcoing, 29 April 1921, response to question 97.
ADN 9R513, unnamed commissaire de police from Denain to Sous-Préfet à Valenciennes, 24 December 1918, 3; Archives départementales de la Haute-Savoie 4M513, Évian, Rapatriés, report no. 705, 9 February 1917.
Jules Hélot (Président de la Chambre de Commerce de Cambrai), Cinquante mois sous le joug allemand: L’occupation allemande à Cambrai et dans le Cambrésis (Paris: Plon-Nourrit et Cie, 1919), 275–278 (8–11 July 1915).
AML 4H76, Exposition des Œuvres Sociales du Département du Nord, “Nos familles sous le joug allemande 1914–1918, département du Nord,” 5. The exhibition was inaugurated 16 May 1921 by President Millerand and held in Lille’s Palais Rameau from 16 to 30 May 1921.
Becker, Cicatrices, 175–176; Jean-François Condette, “Résister au travail forcé dans le Nord occupé (1914–1918),” in La Résistance en France et en Belgique occupées (1914–1918) (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses de l’Université Charles-de-Gaulle Lille 3, 2012), 15–62; Villes et Pays d’art et d’Histoire, Roubaix, Chemins de Mémoire 14–18: Laissez-vous conter la Résistance à Roubaix durant la Grande Guerre (online publication, 2010), 6, accessed 20 July 2015, fr.calameo.com/read/00005313760b8e50cd934; Jacques Bonte, Patrons textiles: Un siècle de conduite des entreprises textiles à-Tourcoing, 1900–2000 (Lille: La Voix du Nord, 2002), 114–115. Notable resistance is examined in James E. Connolly, “Notable Protests: Respectable Resistance in Occupied Northern France, 1914–1918,” Historical Research 88, no. 242 (2015): 693–715, doi: 10.1111/1468–2281.12095.
Maxence Van der Meersch, Invasion 14 (Paris: Albin Michel, 1935). See also the new translation by W. Brian Newsome, Invasion 14 (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).
Coined in James E. Connolly, “Encountering Germans: The Experience of Occupation in the Nord, 1914–1918” (PhD diss., King’s College London, 2012), then later present in James E. Connolly, “Mauvaise conduite: Complicity and Respectability in the Occupied Nord, 1914–1918,” First World War Studies 4, no. 1 (March 2013): 7–21; James E. Connolly, “Fresh Eyes, Dead Topic? Writing the History of the Occupation of Northern France in the First World War,” in France in an Era of Global War, 1914–1945: Occupation, Politics, Empire and Entanglements, ed. Ludivine Broch and Alison Carrol (London: Palgrave McMillan, 2014), 31–49; W. Brian Newsome, “Occupation, Race and Empire: Maxcence Van der Meersch’s Invasion 14,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 40, no. 1 (2014): 47–66.
Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audouin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker, France and the Great War, 1914–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), xv.
Connolly, “Encountering Germans,” 7; Connolly, “Mauvaise conduite.”
ADN 9R557, Extrait des Procès-verbaux de la Commandanture de Lille, 4 November 1914.
ADN 9R744, German poster, Tourcoing, 18 December 1914.
ADN 9R581, Report of Commissaire Central du 5e arrondissement, cited in report from the Commissaire Central de Lille to the Préfet du Nord, 12 February 1915.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 23 March 1915.
AND 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 24 March 1915.
See Connolly, “Encountering Germans,” 207–231; Nivet, La France, 210–225.
ADN 9R717, German poster, Roubaix, 19 March 1915.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 29 April 1915.
AND 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 9 June 1915; ADN 9R730, letter from Thérin, acting mayor, to Kommandant of Roubaix, 24 June 1915; see also Connolly, “Notable Protests.”
ADN 9R745, German poster, Roubaix, 29 April 1915.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 1 May 1915.
ADN 9R735, Barthouil to Anjubault, 1 May 1915.
ADN 9R735, report of Barthouil, 4 May 1915.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 10 May 1915.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 11 May 1915.
ADN 74J225, Blin diary, 12 May 1915.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 9 June 1915.
ADN 74J225, Blin diary, 19 June 1915.
AMT 4HA32, Commissaire Central de Roubaix to mayor of Roubaix, 22 June 1915.
ADN 9R716, German posters, Roubaix, 7, 21, and 22 July 1915.
Philippe Nivet, “Les femmes dans la France occupée (1914–1918),” in Les femmes et la guerre de l’antiquité à 1918, ed. Marin Trévisi and Philippe Nivet (Paris: Economica, 2010), 275.
Nivet, La France, 279; Connolly, “Mauvaise conduite,” 11–17; Jean-Yves Le Naour, Misères et tourments de la chair durant la Grande Guerre: Les mœurs sexuelles des Français, 1914–1918 (Paris: Aubier, 2002), 276–300.
Margaret H. Darrow, French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front (Oxford: Berg, 2000), 100–101.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 18 June 1915.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 22 June 1915.
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 26 June 1915.
See various documentation in AMT H4A32, notably Commissaire Central de Tourcoing to Mayor de Tourcoing, 1 June 1915, stating that twelve hundred workers were present at the “établissements LEPERS-DUDUVE”; and Commissaire Central de Tourcoing, “Situation du Travail,” 30 July 1915, listing the following establishments and numbers of workers: Snauwaert (thirty-five), Donckels (eighteen), Beuque (twenty), Tiberghien (three), Welcomme (two), Pollet (ninety-two).
ADN 9R716, German poster, Roubaix, 24 July 1915.
See various posters in ADN 9R716 and documents in AMT H4A32.
Connolly, “Mauvaise conduite,” 16–17.
Jean-Yves Le Naour, “Femmes tondues et répression des ‘femmes à boches’ en 1918,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 47, no. 1 (2000): 148–158; Connolly, “Encountering Germans,” 106–107.
ADN 9R726, Wargnier to Anjubault, 20 June 1915, cited in a report from Wargnier to Anjubault, 15 August 1915.
Thérin resisted many German demands during the occupation; see documents in ADN 9R730.
ADN 9R726, Wargnier to Anjubault, 20 June 1915.
ADN 9R726, undated report from officers Ghesquière, Delreux, Havrin, Meirhaeghe, Lambin, and Mestdagh, cited in a report from Wargnier to Anjubault, 15 August 1915.
ADN 9R726, Wargnier to Anjubault, 15 August 1915.
ADN 9R726, procès-verbal no. 1 of Barthouil, 20 July 1915, cited in Wargnier to Anjubault, 15 August 1915. This was not the only instance of refusals to provide aid to those working for the Germans: in April 1915, an employee of the comité de secours was arrested by the Germans for refusing to provide aid to a male worker. The mayor explained that this was in accordance with regulations, because the person had a job and thus lost the right to aid: AMT H4A32, Thérin to Kommandant, 17 April 1915.
ADN 9R726, procès-verbal no. 1 of Barthouil, 20 July 1915, cited in Wargnier to Anjubault, 15 August 1915.
ADN 9R726, procès-verbaux no. 2, 3, and 4 of Barthouil.
ADN 9R726, transfer report of Orlianges, dated “1911 1912? [sic]” in pencil.
ADN 9R726, Commissaire Central Wargnier to mayor of Roubaix, 5 July 1915 (“Au sujet de la conduite de M. ORLIANGES”), 5–6, testimony of policeman Florimond Bockstael, and 6–7, testimony of policeman Edouard Locufier.
ADN 9R726, Commissaire Central Wargnier to mayor of Roubaix, 5 July 1915 (“Au sujet de la conduite de M. ORLIANGES”), 6–7, testimony of policeman Edouard Locufier; ADN 9R726, Commissaire Central to Anjubault, 7 July 1915, cited in Wargnier to mayor, 7 July 1915, 4. Here Mme Orlianges displays ignorance of her husband’s mistresses.
ADN 9R726, Wargnier to Anjubault, 7 July 1915.
ADN 9R726, statement issued by Wargnier, 2 July 1915.
ADN 9R726, note of agent Benet, 12 April 1915, in Wargnier to mayor, 5 July 1915, 1; testimony of agent Léon Mestdagh, 3; testimony of agent Gérard Lefebvre, 3–4; testimony of agent Jules Devogle, 5.
ADN 9R726, report of Benet, 24 June 1915, in Wargnier to mayor, 5 July 1915, 8 and passim.
ADN 9R726, testimony of M. Georges Puravelle, cited in a report of Barthouil, 28 July 1915, itself cited in Wargnier to Anjubault, 15 August 1915. Original emphasis.
ADN 9R726, report of Benet, 24 June 1915, in Wargnier to mayor, 5 July 1915, 8.
ADN 9R726, testimony of Mme Dubus in report of Benet, 25 June 1915, in Wargnier to mayor, 5 July 1915, 9–10.
ADN 9R726, testimony of Maes Philomène (Veuve Gobert) in report of Benet, 25 June 1915, 10–11.
Ibid. Connolly • Sandbags, Strikes, and Scandals 27
ADN 9R726, testimony of Fernande Berte, in Wargnier to mayor, 5 July 1915, 15–16.
ADN 9R726, testimony of Célina Lernoux in report of Benet, 25 June 1915, 12–13.
ADN 9R726, testimony of agent Edouard Locufier, 26 June 1915, 14.
ADN 9R726, handwritten letter, n.a., dated 26 July 1916.
ADN 9R726, note of Wargnier, 17 July 1915. This is numbered “5” from a report of Wargnier to Anjubault on 15 August 1915, of which the first four pages are missing.
ADN 9R726, Wargnier to Anjubault, 28 July 1915, cited in idem., 15 August 1915, 17.
Connolly, “Mauvaise conduite,” 15.
James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985).
ADN 9R726, Wargnier to Anjubault, 15 August 1915, 18.
ADN 9R726, Wargnier to Anjubault, 31 August 1915, 1.
ADN 9R726, Wargnier, “Au Personnel de la Police de Roubaix,” n.d. (seemingly early August 1915), in Wargnier to Anjubault, 15 August 1915, 13 (the first four pages are missing).
ADN 9R726, Wargnier to Anjubault, 14 October 1915.
ADN 3U281/77, La Liberté: Organe n’ayant passé par aucune censure—bulletin de propagande patriotique (15 November 1915).
ADN 9R727, Handwritten report, n.a., “Déclaration de M. Appens,” 14 January 1919.
Le Naour, Misères, 14.
Sophie de Schaepdrijver, “L’Europe occupée en 1915: Entre violence et exploitation,” in Vers la guerre totale: Le tournant de 1914–1915, ed. John Horne (Paris: Tallandier, 2010), 121–151.
John Horne, “Introduction,” in Vers la guerre totale, 30.