Skip to content

The French version of the site is currently undergoing maintenance work and is unavailable.

Members' research

We invite members of the society to discuss their research or to announce their latest publication through a short blog post.

Alex Dowdall

‘Under Fire: Civilians at the Western Front, 1914-1918’

The Western Front during the First World War is one of the most recognisable spaces in European history. Traditionally, it has been examined from the perspective of the military – be they generals, or ordinary soldiers enduring horrific conditions in the trenches.

My PhD thesis, funded by the Irish Research Council and recently completed at Trinity College Dublin, seeks to present an alternative picture of the Western Front – one where the soldiers are not the sole inhabitants of the battlefield, but share it with civilians. In late 1914, the front stabilised in some of France’s most heavily populated and industrialised regions. Large towns including Nancy, Reims, Arras and Lens were at the centre of the most destructive war that the world had yet seen. During the period of trench warfare they were embedded in the opposing armies’ defensive systems. Their inhabitants risked death and injury from artillery bombardment, endured military occupations and suffered from supply shortages. Many remained in their homes in the face of these pressures until forcibly displaced late in the war. Their presence ensured that the Western Front was a space where the civilian and the military worlds collided. In examining the social and cultural history of these civilian communities, my research engages with a dominant theme of twentieth-century history – how civilian populations respond to war.

Civilians on both sides of the line experienced similar conditions, but their responses varied. On the Allied side, those who remained under fire were heroised, it being claimed that they were resisting the enemy like soldiers. Many recognised the transformative nature of their experiences, and claimed they set them apart from the rest of the civilian population. The experience of artillery bombardment militarised civilian identities, and changed how they saw themselves and their position within French wartime society. On this basis, civilians at the front renegotiated their relationship with the nation and claimed a privileged place in the national community. Civilians in German-occupied France, on the other hand, were cut off from the national community. But they were also set apart from civilians further back in the occupied zone as they were bombarded by their own troops – a fact many found difficult to deal with. Despite these differences, however, on both sides of the line war strengthened rather than disrupted collective solidarities and attachments to local communities.

Because it deals with civilians on both sides of the line under the control of three armies, the British, French and German, the thesis (using sources in each of the relevant languages) is able to study how civilian communities survive the challenges of life in a warzone and create a sense of community in transnational terms. It is thematically and conceptually broad, and makes original contributions to many aspects of the historiography of the First World War, including the use of violence against civilians, the local dimensions of national mobilisations, military occupations, civil-military relations, refugees, and the urban, social and economic histories of the war.

The thesis is based on four case-studies of towns under fire – Nancy, Reims, Arras, and the coal-mining region of the Pas-de-Calais. It develops the social and cultural history of these civilian communities through a series of interlinked research questions. It examines the processes by which the towns of northern France transformed into urban battlefields inhabited by civilians, as well as the responses of civilians to the defining experience of artillery bombardment. Focusing on the period of static, trench warfare, it explores the cultural strategies that sustained civilians in the face of bombardment. Furthermore, the thesis also discusses civilians’ encounters with the military – in the form of military occupation regimes and individual soldiers – on both sides of the lines. It compares the German occupation and Allied ‘friendly’ occupations, noting their differences, but also their important similarities, and charts the complex responses of civilians to the military presence.

The thesis also focuses attention on the material conditions of life within the towns at the front, and the ways in which war affected their local economies and food supplies. It examines conditions in these towns within broader national and international frameworks. It explores how civilians on the Allied side of the lines used their material conditions to position themselves within the wartime national community, while their counterparts in occupied France had more limited options. Finally, the thesis also expands its focus beyond the Western Front, and discusses the refugees who were forcibly displaced. Unlike previous studies, this treats refugees as active agents capable of shaping their own conditions, rather than the passive recipients of aid, and the victims of hostility from unwelcoming host communities. In particular, it explores sociability among refugees, and considers whether they could remain members of the bombarded communities they had left.

In addressing these questions, the thesis argues that, like the military veterans, civilians at the front emerged from the war as an inter-class social group distinguished from other groups by common experiences and a shared set of collective representations. They occupied an actual and a symbolic space between the soldiers in the trenches and the civilians on the ‘home front’ proper. As such, they constitute an as yet unrecognized group that cannot be ignored by the social and cultural history of France or, indeed, Europe during the Great War.