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The battlefields of the First World War

For lovers of history

The First World War played a very important role in the history of Oise, a department occupied by the Germans from September 1914 to March 1917, martyred just prior to its first liberation, and then ravaged by the fighting of 1918.

On the eve of the Great War, Oise was experiencing a period of transition, the result of growing industrialization and constant urbanization. The war would accelerate this process, profoundly modifying the department's demography and economy and accelerating the transition from a traditional society to a modern society designed around electricity and the automobile.

Of the 263 municipalities affected by the conflict, 163 would be declared devastated, with 102 entirely destroyed. In addition to the tens of thousands of hectares awaiting restoration, nearly 100,000 inhabitants were homeless and 20,000 houses needed to be rebuilt, not to mention all the schools, town halls, factories, roads and bridges that also needed to be reconstructed.

Between 1911 and 1921, Oise lost 5.6% of its population, the result of a war that proved particularly bloody for both civilians and soldiers, but which also led to the destruction of certain abandoned municipalities.

With its northeastern quarter destroyed, its many commemorative monuments, steles and plaques, and its numerous battlefields, some of which are still intact, Oise still bears the scars of the First World War. And just as the conflict remains visible in the urban and rural landscapes, it also remains present in the collective memory of Oise's families.

The 1914-1918 period was all the more important for Oise due to the fact that the department played a central role in the history of the Great War. Located just outside Paris, the primary objective of the German army, Oise witnessed fierce fighting at the start and towards the end of the conflict. Oise was the theatre of the first victory of the Marne starting from Nanteuil-le-Haudouin (6-12 September 1914) and the race to the sea from the Noyonnais (15 September to 15 October 1914), followed by the "war of positions", as well as the final German offensive (June 1918) and the Armistice signed in the Compiègne Forest (11 November 1918). During these battles, metropolitan and colonial soldiers from the empires of France, the United Kingdom and Germany died on Oise's soil and were then laid to rest in the department's numerous, multiconfessional cemeteries.

During the Great War, the French armies were headquartered in Compiègne, Senlis or Chantilly, while the front was the theatre of a total war which witnessed the use of the most sophisticated weaponry (toxic bombs and shells, military aircraft, tanks, machineguns, fire throwers, etc.), as well as the most reprehensible methods (the taking of hostages, arbitrary executions, mass evacuations of the local populations, deportations, etc.).

The German defeat on the Marne, in September 1914, then, in 1917, the liberation of the northern portion of the department devastated by three years of enemy occupation, proved an opportunity to develop in France an ideological war fought by "patriotic writers". In this manner, in 1916, Georges Clemenceau shook public opinion by declaring "and during this time, the Germans are in Noyon", while, in 1917, official visits to the martyred areas of Oise breathed new hope into a depressed nation. Such symbolism would last into the fighting of 1918, during which Oise would become the "heart of France" in the words of General Humbert.

Did you know ?

Noyon was transformed into a national symbol by the politically astute journalist and orator Georges Clemenceau. On 28 August 1915, the "vanquisher of ministries" signed an article in his newspaper L'Homme Enchaîné, which was subsequently banned for being "in violation of the law, by the censorship of Monsieurs Viviani, Millerand, etc." Indignant at this measure, the senator addressed to his fellow members of parliament the article in question, evocatively entitled: "The Germans are in Noyon". This phrase, repeated nine times on the same page, would become a leitmotiv against the Council President's policy regarding the "Chamber of Deputies", against the substitution of secret committees for parliamentary debates and against censorship.

And so, in his L'Homme Enchaîné of 23 October 1916, he denounced the wait-and-see policy and weakness of the politicians: "The Germans have been in Noyon for two years. And our men fall on the ancestral soil with no other complaint than their not being able to do enough. And we talk politics. Misery of miseries! And we answer the call to arms by drawing up agendas!" Using the name Noyon had the desired impact and Clemenceau's phrase was adopted by other papers and by the French populace. In 1917, in a letter to Madame Strauss, Marcel Proust borrowed what had by then become a common expression: "It isn't easy being cheerful, or even desiring to be, as long as the Germans 'are in Noyon' and elsewhere".

Hidden treasures

While the Oise front has largely melted into the landscape since the war, the department's forests and prairies still bear the scars: trenches and tunnels can still be made out, while small forts of brick and concrete still mark the location of old strategic sites. As for the villages along the front, largely destroyed by shelling and the devastation wreaked by Operation Alberich, they testify to the magnitude of the war's destruction by their architecture typical of the reconstruction period.

Yet the best preserved vestiges of the Great War are to be found underground. During the so-called "war of positions", French and German troops used the subterranean quarries dating from the Middle Ages as barracks, even near the front. The soldiers created specialized rooms, building walls and chimneys, installing electrical systems and telephone networks, etc. While the German occupants inscribed their regimental mottos in Gothic letters (Les Cinq Piliers, in Dreslincourt), the French soldiers gave free reign to their imagination, leaving militaristic, religious, pagan and even bawdy carvings and inscriptions that can still be seen on the walls of the Maison du Garde quarry in Tracy-le-Mont and the Montigny quarry in Machemont.  To visit these sites, contact the "Patrimoine de la Grande Guerre" association or the "La Machemontoise" association, whose guides will lead your group to discover these rupestrian traces of the Great War.