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Members' research

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

James E. Connolly

The occupation of Northern France in the First World War

My research focuses on the occupation of northern France in the First World War. In particular, I concentrate on the French department of the Nord – two-thirds of which were occupied from 1914-1918 – and the way in which its inhabitants responded to the occupation. I examine French behaviours, from forms of resistance to what I term ‘mauvaise conduite’ (misconduct) and criminality, as well as the memory of this occupation. I am also interested in questions of national and local identity, exterior perceptions of this occupation, the role of gender in the occupation, and war culture more widely.

My aim is to study the occupation at a local level, highlighting the different behaviours of the occupied French via a wider analytical framework, what I term the ‘culture de l’occupé’ – a form of occupied war culture, allowing the occupied population to understand and react to their situation, and for which the idea of respectability was central. I hope that my research will increase awareness of this occupation (and the way it was perceived by contemporaries), one was central to the First World War and which provides an interesting terrain of study, particularly when put in a comparative context.

My research is based upon various sources from numerous French and occasionally British archives: occupied and non-occupied French police reports, letters between occupied French notables or from such notables to the Germans, German posters, personal diaries of occupied people, and Allied secret service reports, clandestine publications, and German-edited occupation newspapers. Due to language limitations at the time of writing, I only use one German-language source, the illustrated version of Liller Kriegzseitung. All other sources are in English, French or the local French ch’ti dialect. I also use numerous secondary sources from the inter-war period and beyond, whether published occupation diaries or memoirs, amateur or professional histories of the occupation, or studies contextualising the wider war effort and importance of ‘culture de guerre’ (war culture) for the French and beyond.

Examining the ‘negative’ aspects of the occupation has proven rather difficult as this is a topic rarely dealt with in the published accounts of the occupation, and it involves an eclectic mix of behaviours not readily categorised in the archives as ‘resistance’ often is. Much work, sifting through thousands of pages and using sources up to this point largely neglected or undiscovered (such as poems and songs in ch’ti) was required to overcome this. Another problem in my research is my lack of German, but I am attempting to resolve this in an auto-didactic fashion!

The potential originality of my research is an attempt to impose an analytical framework on French behaviour and perceptions, via my notion of the culture de l’occupé and also through my emphasis on the messy reality of those breaching these unwritten patriotic norms via my concept of mauvaise conduite. In this sense, my work builds upon the pre-existing historiography which has seen a renewed interest in this occupation since the 1990s, with the shift among the ‘Historial’ school towards the culture de guerre (war culture) and neglected fronts. In particular, Annette Becker and Philippe Nivet have made a considerable contribution to the history of this occupation, and my arguments occasionally tweak of some of their theses, and other times disagree; ultimately my overall approach owes a debt to their work but is distinct – possibly a result of my British (outsider’s) perspective.

My interest for this topic began when I chose to study inter-war representations of this occupation for my MA thesis. I had studied the Occupation of Second World War France in great detail and asked myself whether there were any equivalents in the part of France behind the German trenches in 1914-1918, and why one rarely heard about this topic, in the Anglophone world especially. After that initial study, I wanted to delve into the reality and perception of this topic during the war itself, and to see what the archival sources offered. I was lucky enough to received funding for this project from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Institute of Historical Research, King’s College London, and the Historial de la Grande Guerre (a research grant kindly offered by the Gerda Henkel Foundation).

My work has culminated, thus far, in a PhD thesis at King’s College London submitted in 2012 entitled ‘Encountering Germans: The Experience of Occupation in the Nord’ – as well as an article in First World War Studies published in 2013, entitled ‘Mauvaise Conduite: Complicity and Respectability in the Occupied Nord, 1914-1918.’ I have also recently submitted an article to the Revue du Nord on the British perception of this occupation, and an article on what I term ‘respectable resistance’ has been accepted by Historical Research. I hope to secure a book contract in the near future but my research into this topic is continuing.

Key words: occupation, Nord, northern, France, resistance, collaboration, mauvaise conduite, war culture, culture de guerre, criminality, memory, respectability, perception.