Memory of the Occupation in the Lille region

“My memories from the age of 14 on”

This manuscript records the wartime memories of a teenager about whose life little else is known. (*) Nevertheless, these recollections provide a valuable insight into the lives of the men requisitioned by the occupying German army for all sorts of tasks.

The author, Jean Stoll, wrote down these recollections in 1919 during his military service, which he spent as a sapper with the 155th infantry regiment stationed at Commercy, Meuse. The manuscript, written in a largely phonetic fashion which is sometimes difficult to decipher, appears to tell the story of a young man originally from Alsace-Moselle who was in Lille on the “day of the bombardment,” when the Germans entered the city. Jean Stoll busied himself trying to make enough money to feed his mother and brother: he stole black bread, then decided he would be better off working for the Germans. He was sent to La Bassée, and later to Arleux, joining the “columns” of men tasked with unloading artillery shells, often in dangerous areas. It seems safe to assume that his name and accent, as well as his occasional demands, made him a target for punitive action. For refusing to dig trenches (at Arleux on 30 June 1916), he and three comrades were put in the stocks; in July 1917, he was whipped by an officer and thrown into solitary confinement for two days. Between June and September 1918, he was lucky enough to find somebody willing to hide him from the Germans in Lille: a girl (Adolphine Bernard) who would later become his wife. Hiding men “between the ages of 14 and 70” eligible for forced labour was an offence punishable by imprisonment.

The notebook also contains some notes regarding the circumstances in which these recollections were set down on paper: Jean Stoll was called up in June 1919, and returned home in 1921 when his military service was complete. There follows a list of six dates corresponding to health problems which intensified until 1936, when he was admitted to a sanatorium (perhaps in Béligneux, in the Ain département). Many young people who lived through the German occupation suffered from the persistent hunger and tough living conditions associated with these years. Jean Stoll reports being rounded up with other men (up to 200 at a time) then forced to march long distances and do hard labour under duress. He also spent time in jail without food, or with only dry bread and water for sustenance. By the time he returned to his mother’s home in Lille, he reports that he was “crawling with beasties” (lice etc.). These harsh conditions gave rise to numerous cases of tuberculosis which decimated the population of the region, particularly its younger generations.

These wartime memories paint a picture of a canny lad who at first volunteered to work in the hope of getting enough to eat, but was subsequently consigned to forced labour by the occupiers. He became what the Germans called ‘Menschmaterial’: somebody whose person and property could be requisitioned for tasks of all kinds, and only paid for some of them.

Nonetheless, Jean Stoll himself does not use the term ZAB: Zivil Arbeiter Bataillonen (established in 1916), known to the French as the “red battalions,” to describe these forced labourers, housed in camps close to the front line. Was Stoll being coy on this subject, or was he enrolled into one of the labour units that had no particular name?

This account lacks the geographical references and dates we would expect of a first-rate source. Nevertheless, it provides invaluable testimony of the violence endured during the German military occupation and the lasting trauma it caused, without suggesting any longing for revenge.

Marie-Pascale PREVOST-BAULT, Head Curator

Retranscription by Laurine FABURE

(*) Donated in September 2019, Invphys 074215. Manuscript notebook, ink on paper. Ten pages of recollections, coming after a collection of songs.

Bibliography: Annette Becker, Les cicatrices rouges. 14-18. France et Belgique occupées, Arthème Fayard, 2010.