The living conditions of civilians during the 14-18 war

The living conditions of civilians during the 14-18 war

  • Madame Bazin's house in Nouvron.


  • A family resettled in a military shelter.


Madame Bazin's house in Nouvron.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

A family resettled in a military shelter.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: September 2020


The lives of civilians during the First World War


Historical context

During the First World War, the tribute paid by the hairy was certainly impressive - 1,390,000 dead, nearly three million injured, including 60,000 amputees - but this deadly conflict did not spare the civilian populations. In Belgium, which they invaded despite its neutrality, the Germans did not expect any resistance, but the Belgians slow down the progress of the enemy, who retaliates against the population: 200 civilians are killed in the fire in Louvain, 400 hostages were executed in Tamines, 200 in Andenne, 670 in Dinant, men, women and children combined. In August and September 1914, during their advance in Belgium and northern France, the Germans burned down villages, bombarded defenseless towns, and claimed no less than 6,000 civilian casualties.

For four years, the enemy fully or partially occupied around ten French departments in the north and east, and took most of the resources and manpower it needed. Any resistance on the part of the populations gives rise to severe sanctions - summary executions or high fines -, the objective of the occupier being to set examples to ensure the docile cooperation of the inhabitants.

During the war of position, the towns and villages located in the immediate vicinity of the front are, of course, the most exposed to bombardment and destruction. In all, in the north of France, 289,000 houses were destroyed, 422,000 severely damaged; 11,000 public buildings - town halls, schools, churches, etc. - are to be rebuilt; three million hectares of arable land are unusable. The reconstruction will be long and costly.

Image Analysis

When World War I broke out in Europe, many American volunteers crossed the Atlantic to come to the aid of the Allies involved in the conflict. This is how Anne Morgan (1873-1952), the daughter of banker John Pierpont Morgan, decides to spend her time and money in humanitarian work. The private funds that it collected in the United States will allow the creation, in 1918, of the American Committee for Devastated Regions (C.A.R.D.). In June 1917, with a group of American women, Anne Morgan moved into temporary barracks, among the ruins of the Château de Blérancourt, in the Aisne. For seven years, 350 American volunteers will thus crisscross Picardy aboard their Ford vans and rescue, treat, distribute supplies, help rebuild the social fabric by acting in the field of health, education and leisure. . When they left in 1924, they left behind, in addition to a remarkable social and humanitarian work, a considerable documentary collection which brought together films and numerous photographs. These iconographic riches make it possible to discover the daily life and living conditions of the affected populations.

The two photographs are taken from this Anne Morgan collection and were taken in villages near Soissons. The first, particularly moving, shows an old woman, Madame Bazin, alone, sitting in front of her house, of which only the walls remain. With her hands resting on her knees, she contemplates the desolate expanse of the village of Nouvron-Vingré, which for three years suffered from the crossfire of the belligerents and is now nothing but ruins. In the foreground, we see a C.A.R.D.

The second, taken in the village of Chavigny, presents a family whose house was probably destroyed by the bombardments. Refugees in an underground shelter, the couple and their six children now live without any comfort, in extremely precarious hygienic and sanitary conditions.


Small villages of the Soissonnais plateaus, Nouvron-Vingré and Chavigny are located on the front line from 1914 to 1917. Despite a heroic but fruitless French defense, Nouvron-Vingré was occupied during the night of September 19 to 20, 1914 by German troops who set fire to homes and retaliate with murder against the civilian population. Evacuated by the Germans at the time of their withdrawal behind the Hindenburg line in March 1917, it was again invaded during the German offensives of spring 1918. At the end of the war, it was nothing more than a vast field of ruins like we can judge by the first photograph.

Located like Nouvron-Vingré or Anizy-le-Château in the heart of the "red zone", Chavigny is not immune to material destruction. The inhabitants of these villages in the Aisne, whose houses have been seriously damaged or even razed to the ground, have no other resources than to take refuge in caves, in military cagnas, in stone quarries or in caves. - the “creutes” - natural shelters, numerous in the region, which dot the sides of the limestone plateaus. After the armistice, these populations can only be relocated at the cost of urgent repairs to the houses still standing or the establishment of temporary barracks ... which will remain in place for several years. From 1917 to 1924, the American Committee for the Devastated Regions will play a significant role in the reconstruction of the stricken villages of the Aisne.

  • War of 14-18
  • ruins
  • campaign
  • bombing raid
  • hairy
  • reconstruction
  • destruction
  • monuments
  • civilians
  • misery
  • Anne Morgan


American women in Picardy in the service of devastated France, 1917-1924, catalog of the exhibition presented at the Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, 2002. Jacques BECKER, 14-18, Photographic documentation n ° 6074, Paris, C.N.D.P., December 1984. Roger-Alexis COMBET, The Witnesses of the Great War, Paris, Ofrateme, Radiovision RV 150, 1974. Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, Paris, Fayard, 2004.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The living conditions of civilians during the 14-18 war"

Video: Life in a Trench. World War I. History