Life under occupation
The number of prisoners of war taken during World War I was enormous. Slightly more than 6.6 million soldiers were taken prisoner during the war, 2,250,000 of them by Germany.
Once they fell into the enemy’s hands, the French soldiers were forced to do heavy labour and lived under harsh conditions. Most of the prisoners were soldiers, but some were also civilians who were taken hostage and kept in detention in Belgium or sent to Germany.
The number of requisitions was to set the pace for the daily lives of the civilian population: oats and hay needed for the German troops’ horses; sheep’s wool; smooth or barbed wire for fencing; objects in leather or tin; inside door handles; name plates; walnut trees of more than 40 cm for fashioning rifle butts; farmers horses for transporting tree, etc.
In 1914, Belgium imports more than 75% of its food. The German invasion and the blockade, installed by the British Royal Navy in the spring of 1915, interrupted trade. This gave rise to an economic crisis and a major food shortage. In order to tackle this food emergency, the mayor of Brussels Adolphe Max, the industrialist Ernest Solvay and the businessman Emile Francqui founded the first “National Aid and Food Commission” which quickly spread throughout Belgium. At the same time, the “Commission for Relief in Belgium” was responsible for supplies in Belgium and in the north of France. This American-led international organisation was headed by three ambassadors from neutral countries: the US, Spain and the Netherlands. Various forms of aid appeared, such as the arrival of clothing, bread, shoes, meat, petrol, etc.
In Erquelinnes, on 1 August 1916 a “Welfare Commission for School Meals” sought to provide a supplementary ration to children in the form of a biscuit and a cup of coffee distributed for free. This various national and international commissions contributed significantly to the population’s immediate needs.
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