Rebuilding European Lives. 1914-1939

Rebuilding European Lives. The reconstitution of urban communities in interwar France and Belgium (1914-1939).
Paper presented at the “Recreating historical cities after WWI” Conference, Kalisz (Poland), 16-17 April 2015


In July 1998, in Noyon, a medium-sized town in northern France, construction workers pulled down the decayed community hall and chopped down the acacias which had stood there since the 1920s in order to make room for a brand new leisure centre. The street sign was also taken down; until then, the plaque indicated:

“Place de Béziers, marraine de guerre de Noyon”
(« Béziers square, to the war god-mother of Noyon »)

This was the last testimony of the particular bond that used to tie Noyon and the town of Béziers, in southern France, that in March 1920 had decided to “adopt” her in a spectacular move designed to state its commitment to the recovery of a town which had been entirely destroyed after the German invasion of 1914. In that way, the “ville-marraine” had pledged its financial aid towards the recovery of the town and to foster the link between the two towns by organizing charity fêtes and civic rituals.
The acacias were not replanted and the plaque never put back in place. 80 years after the Armistice of 1918, the memory of a distinctive feature of the post-WWI reconstruction had faded away as collective memory and historiography seem to collude in oversight.

At the end of 1920, the President of the French Republic awarded its highest distinction, the Legion of Honour, to J.P. Morgan, Jr., senior partner of the American finance company, J.P. Morgan & Co., in recognition of services performed for the French government during the First World War. Indeed, the importance of J.P. Morgan & Co that was regarded as the main commercial and financial agent of France and Britain in America has for long been acknowledged by contemporaries and historians alike. They have stressed the major role played by the New York firm in the funding of the war effort and economic reconstruction which followed the Great War. In the very same year, the American Committee for Devastated France, founded and chaired by Anne Morgan, the sister of J.P. Morgan, Jr., received the Gold Medal of French Reconnaissance for the work being done in favour of the ruined areas of northern France. This work had previously won her the Croix de Guerre in 1918. In 1932 Morgan even became the first American woman to be appointed a Commander of the Legion of Honour.

The fact that the latter distinctions and the work done by Anne Morgan, is usually passed over in silence in the historiography of reconstruction betrays how exclusive an emphasis has been put on the financial and economic dimension of the post-WWI recovery of the devastated areas in Belgium and France. However important, this traditional focus on the responsibilities assumed by the Allied states and financial institutions has actually led scholars to overlook the significant role played by a host of initiatives and organizations which, originating in the civil societies of the Allied nations and prompted by infra-national, imperial and international solidarities, lent its distinctive features to the post-WWI reconstruction of western Europe.

Relatively neglected the social history of the reconstruction of France has not been wholly ignored of course. While the French countryside and its agriculture have been meticulously researched, the reconstruction of urban communities has mainly been studied from a local perspective, thanks to the efforts of local historians, archivists and museums intent on preserving the memory of a key episode in the modern history of their regions. Likewise, Anne Morgan’s contribution might indeed have been forgotten without the efforts of local historians and of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Historians are also dependent on the efforts of other social scientists who, from the fields of geography, architecture, urban planning or heritage studies, have studied the urban reconstruction from their own, often technical and professional, perspective. Tellingly, the few historians to have published on the matter have done so in other disciplines’ journals. There remain, therefore, significant gaps in our knowledge that this project proposes to address.

I would suggest that those gaps, this relative neglect of the reconstruction is yet another illustration of the detrimental dominance of national approaches in First World War studies. Indeed, the legitimate but often exclusive focus on the nation-state has hindered our understanding what was an intensely local and transnational process. The point here is that local and transnational approaches need to be seen as undermining national history, quite the contrary.

The First World War transformed many French and Belgian towns and cities into industrial battlefields. As armies fought their way through the continental landscape, the conflict inflicted unprecedented levels of destruction upon urbanized Europe. In 1914-1918, Leuvre, Rheims, Ypres, Verdun, Arras and scores of French towns along the Western Front came to encapsulate the nature and meaning of the war.

This paper aims to introduce and collect feedback on the design and conception of a comparative history of urban reconstruction in France and Belgium. This comparative history of reconstruction also sets out to offer a transnational history to unearth an underestimated circulation of representations, people and funds as well as the international networks of sociability that contributed to the stabilization of Western Europe after 1918. Such networks operated both within and across national boundaries, as spared local communities in the French and the British Empire, pre-existent associations, war-relief organizations in France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States, and prominent individuals came to the fore and shaped, culturally and materially, the renaissance of the ruined areas of Belgium and France.

This project will thus depart from traditionally state-centred and technical accounts to combine social, urban, environmental and transnational perspectives on the reconstruction and demobilization of belligerent societies.

The pragmatic imperative of the research means that, in lieu of an exhaustive undertaking, a series of local case studies will underpin its comparative and transnational analysis. At this point however, I must confess that I have done far less in the local archives than I expected when I submitted my proposal, so the following is largely drawn from national archives and printed contemporary sources.

Before I get any further, allow me to make a few remarks about the chronology, the geography and the terminology of reconstruction.

Chronology, first: the point here is a rather obvious one. The planning for, if not the actual work of, reconstruction started as soon as the German army penetrated onto French and Belgian territory. Reconstruction is, in this sense, concomitant to destruction; its history therefore starts in August 1914.

It is however – and again obviously – much more difficult to establish when the reconstruction ended. The state’s focus on infrastructure, industries, and agriculture explained why some commentators declared the end of reconstruction as early as the mid-1920s. In addition to state officials keen to burnish their record, I have been struck by the number of publications aimed at allied investors, often produced and disseminated by American financial institutions that worked hard to convince existing and prospective clients that France was not only back at work but back in working order and open for business and investment as early as 1919 and 1920.

While most publications produced for and by the populations of the devastated regions seem to have ceased publication by the mid-1920, official sources and publications document the work of reconstruction until the 1930s. In fact, most communities were certainly still completing their reconstruction by the time they had to face another war and its own destruction. And of course, the initial cleaning and decommissioning of the battlefield was never achieved as attested by the recurrent discovery of unexploded shells and ammunitions.

The official geography of reconstruction is not exclusively defined by damages but by disruption and suspension of civilian life and tells you more about the imperatives of bureaucratic administration than about the actual the destruction itself. It amounts to about 6,5M hectares. This area is larger than Holland and Belgium.

It was estimated than 50% of this area required simple clearing; the rest calling for extensive work. The restoration was deemed more costly than the land itself over 116,794 hectares. This defined the so-called “red zone”. (BDIC F delta 874/9)

In Belgium, the zone of military operations corresponded to a large swathe of territory – sixty-kilometers long and twenty-kilometer wide – and was completely devastated. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, Ypres was the outstanding illustration of the devastation visited on the urban landscape of Belgium. As Stephen Graham, a British journalist put it in 1921,

“death and the ruins completely outweigh the living. One is tilted out of time by the huge weight on the other end of the plank, and it would be easy to imagine someone who had no insoluble ties killing himself here, drawn by the lodestone of death. There is a pull from the other world, a drag on the heart and spirit. One is ashamed to be alive.”

Behind the stabilized front lines, however, many towns and cities on the path of the German army had suffered from the invasion: Dinant, Termonde, Louvain – of course – Malines, Namur, to name but a few.

There is little room for – and indeed point in – to roll out statistics. I should like to point stress the importance of the process of evaluation of the damages. In the highly-charged context of the peace negotiations and subsequent wrangling over reparations, the process whereby the state and local populations attempted to place a price tag on damages does not only matter for the economic history of the reconstruction. It does also reveal the nature and interpretation of the losses and damages suffered by the populations. What is striking here, even through the dry, bureaucratic sources accounting for the destruction is the centrality of furniture, linen, that also feature prominently in the correspondence with authorities and the local press. This underlines the domestic nature of the loss and the need to consider reconstruction as an attempt to rebuild homes and domesticity, not merely roads and houses.

One last word of introduction on terminology. It is also important to make a distinction between reconstruction, conceive as a re-creation and reconstitution, the reproduction what used to be, the latter being the preferred notion for sinistrés and rapatriés. This is not mere academic pedantry, for a great deal of the tensions we will have to consider between local communities, policymakers and urban planners and other experts hinged on that very distinction. Although French was the dominant language in Belgium, commentators and authorities there also speak of “restoration”, a restoration that was not merely material but also point to the need to restore Belgian sovereignty, if not to restore its pre-war political system. (Pirenne)

I- A social history of reconstruction

The invasion of Belgium and France in the first weeks of the First World War brought to light the civilian dimensions of the conflict and its characteristic ‘totalizing logic’ (Horne 1997, p.1). The experience of those 4 million people who fled their home before the German army only to return to the ruins of the battlefield has however been long neglected. Both the historiography and the collective memory of the First World War seem to have concurred in consigning them to their respective margins. (Becker 1998) Though recent publications have shed new light on the exile of Western Front refugees, the history of their return and resettlement remains largely unexplored (Nivet 2004; Purseigle 2007; Amara 2008). Yet this experience nonetheless offers a vantage point from which to study the shaping impact of wars in twentieth-century Europe. Indeed, the reconstruction and stabilization of Europe in the post-war period entailed not only the reconstitution of the devastated areas, but also involved the rebuilding of the lives of those who had fled the combat zones. The landscape of total war and the challenges of reconstruction provided the backdrop to their reunion with demobilised soldiers. In France alone, 91% of settlements in the 10 devastated Départements suffered some degree of destruction, with 620 communes entirely destroyed by military operations. (Clout 2005, p.3). In Belgium, few regions had been spared the devastation and the reconstruction was a truly national undertaking: 200,000 buildings, 4,000km of railway tracks had been destroyed. The devastation in and around Ypres were such that the Belgian government contemplated in 1919 that the town not be rebuilt and the ruins be left to attest to the “martyrdom” of Belgium. (Van Ypersele 2008, p.228)

This project sets out to understand, analyse and explain how urban communities overcame the upheavals and ruptures of war to re-establish social ties torn asunder by the conflict. The physical reconstruction of towns and cities and the reassertion of communal identities and relations were not merely concomitant but entwined processes. Rebuilding infrastructures and restoring local markets and economies were not mere material challenges, for they provided the framework for the reconstitution of social relations, of local political life, and for the reintegration of refugees and combatants into the post-war social order.

Photographic evidence often presents the populations of the devastated regions as listless victims of war, standing against the backdrop of urban ruins. The historiography’s emphasis on the role of states and international institutions has unwittingly perhaps reinforced the vision of these populations as passive beneficiaries of relief operations. By contrast, this project will strive to emphasize the active role played by these communities in the reconstruction of their town.

Too little is known for instance of the moment and circumstances in which local populations returned to take the measure of the devastation. One such moment has been described thanks to a single letter written by a French soldier, Gustave Dieu, on 12 août 1918. Strikingly, while at that point in time, this soldier did not yet know when he and his family would be able to come back and start rebuilding, Gustave Dieu nonetheless made the effort to restore a semblance of domestic order to his devastated house on the Somme. It is clearly essential to bring to light the intimate and domestic aspects of both destruction and reconstruction

By 1918, the town of Montdidier recorded 5,000 inhabitants, down from 56,000 in 1911. A year later, the return of refugees and demobilized soldiers had brought 25,000 people back to the town (Voldman 2003, p.43). The challenge of reconstruction was not simply material; its social history will highlight the ways in which urban populations set out to rebuild the social fabric torn asunder by the war. The reconstitution of families calls for attention to children and their schooling; professional communities were particularly concerned with the local markets and industries; civil society, religious, and political organizations strove to rebuild the associational life indissociable from urban modernity. In doing so, the local populations reasserted their political identities after the conflict had redefined existing notions of citizenship (Purseigle 2005). National legislations providing for the reconstruction thus created new categories within the citizenry (e.g. the “Charte des Sinistrés” promulgated in France on 19 April 1919), echoing the post-war emergence of “human rights” in the international arena. As King Albert spoke of the “common heritage” of war on 22 November 1918, the devastated regions of Belgium and France also had to deal with the divisive legacy of foreign occupation. (Schaepdrijver 2004)

II- An urban history of the transition from war to peace

This project sets out to analyse the processes of cultural and political demobilization which governed the transition to peace in former belligerent societies and underpinned the reconstruction of Europe. Reconstruction, remembrance, and renewal appear indissociable, as the experience of war violence and invasion, of exile and occupation, determined visions of the post-war urban and national communities. The challenges of material reconstruction were indeed construed within a broader political and cultural narrative which lent its significance to the way in which Allied nations came to terms with the war experience and its legacy. In the context of post-war cultural demobilization, the reconstruction was indeed one of the ways in which nations ascribed meaning and validate their wartime sacrifices.

The role of urban communities, states and Allied civil societies in the process of reconstruction was construed and constructed within a broader cultural narrative which lent it significance and shaped the way in which the Allied nations came to terms with the legacy of war and its violence. Alan Kramer and John Horne have shown, the experience and memory of the 1914 German invasion of Belgium and France and of the subsequent ‘German Atrocities’ were absolutely central in the shaping of the war effort among the western allies. (Horne & Kramer 2001; Kramer 2007). The evocation of ‘martyr towns’ – an image elaborated and disseminated by well-known propagandists like Gabriel Hanotaux – lay at the core of the rhetoric of social mobilization in the first weeks of the conflict and was equally central to the remobilization effort mounted in 1916-17 (Gabriel Hanotaux, Les villes martyres. Les falaises de l’Aisne, 1915). Of course, the ‘martyr towns’ as a new category soon pointed to the cultural model, that of Christian and catholic martyrdom, upon which the victimhood narrative was to be grounded.

With the transition to peace, the issue of reconstruction gained a new acuteness. As the Armistice uncovered the full extent of the destruction and the dire necessity of a sustained national effort, it was also welcome with relief and the desire to discontinue wartime exertions. Therefore, voluntary organizations and national and local elites took on the challenge to maintain and redirect the momentum of mobilization to the reconstitution of the devastated areas. To some extent, the schemes of adoption and support to the ‘martyr towns’ restated the war culture in its initial stages of 1914-15, as Lord Derby made it plain clear in an appeal in favour of the British League of help for the devastated areas of France. Not only the mobilization in their support reiterated the hatred and the dehumanization of an enemy responsible for those damages and atrocities, but also attempted, in Derby’s words to pander to the “sentiment that animated England in the early days of the war”, for he did “feel that sentiment, as it brought the British nation together, may bring the English and the French together.”

The debt of honour, contracted by the British (and French) towns which had been spared from the invasion, thanks to the resilience of France and Belgium, was deemed to be the driving force behind the assistance to the French war areas.

The case of Noyon is most interesting indeed, in that it illustrates the geographical scope of this history of the ‘martyr town’ inasmuch as these ‘adoptions’ also developed at a steady pace after the armistice in the allied countries and especially in Great Britain and the US. In fact, Noyon was soon to be adopted by Cirencester (UK) and Washington, D.C., which thus became, beside Béziers, her ‘god-parents’. Among a vast number of adoptions, one may cite the examples of Cambrai, adopted by Birkenhead, La Bassée by Preston, Mezières by Manchester, Soissons by Chester, Verdun by London, Fayet by Oxford, Albert by Birmigham, Eton (Meuse) by Eton, and Arras by Newcastle, etc.

In the United States, whilst the adoptions are likely to have been less numerous, many cities like Washington or Detroit (which adopted Soissons) committed themselves to the reconstruction in Europe through similar schemes, whereas other communities had not recourse to them but nevertheless chose to support one specific locality. Rheims, benefiting from its international recognition and its prominent place in the propaganda over the ‘German atrocities’ of 1914 thus received the help from of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Pasadena.

It is therefore essential to place the reconstruction in the context of post-war remembrance, for the local memory of the devastated areas’ experience interacted and sometimes clashed with national and diplomatic agendas in the inter-war years.

It pointed to the nexus between post-war reconstruction and cultural demobilization which were geared to different phases but strongly linked to the issue of remembrance and mourning. The ‘mothering of ruined churches’, advocated and organized by the Catholic Oeuvre de secours aux églises dévastées and the British Catholic organizations such as the Catholic Women’s League offers here a case in point. In many instances since families or group of families, often became the god-parents of the churches in an endeavour to link the memory of dead soldiers to the place where his sacrifice was offered.

The adoptions by British towns and cities partook of a similar rationale and added another dimension to this expression of international solidarity, for it too was part of a larger process of mourning. Indeed, as the Lord Mayor of Liverpool put it: “You keep vigil over our dead, we will help your survivor”. The British system of recruiting and military mobilization had actually reinforced the identification of British localities with a precise part of the western front since local regiments had generally fought and suffered considerable losses in one battlefield which came to symbolize their participation in the war.

The reconstruction thus sealed a national, transnational and indeed imperial covenant of mourning and remembrance. (Winter 1995; Lloyd 1998; Winter & Sivan 1999)

III- Understanding the process of urban recovery

It will place the interwar activities of architects, planners, and decision-makers into their national and international context and trace the intellectual history of urban planning and policy-making back to the experience of war and exile (Uyttenhove 1985; Uyttenhove 1990). In doing so, the project will place the professional communities involved in their national and international contexts, to highlight the critical role of transnational networks in the transformation of urban expertise in the interwar years.

The project will also draw on the most recent developments in urban history to study the reconstruction as decommissioning of the urban battlefield and will position itself at the crossroads of the history of war, the city, and the environment.

The analysis of local and national sources also reveals another defining feature of the reconstruction: its transnational and imperial dimensions. Indeed, the press, as well as the correspondence of local and state authorities, and the archives of voluntary organizations demonstrates the extent to which the reconstruction was supported by a range of networks and organizations which operated across national boundaries. These initiatives can be traced back to wartime relief operations, organized in Allied as well as neutral countries. American collections document the role of international relief operations, like the Commission for Relief in Belgium. American cities often functioned as critical nodes in these transnational philanthropic networks. New York City will here serve as an exemplar.

The contribution of transnational philanthropic networks is now receiving the attention it deserves within a growing and fascinating body of scholarly on humanitarianism. Ann Morgan’s American Committee for Devastated France (CARD) stands out by the duration, success and ambitions of its activities in the devastated regions. Between 1917 and 1924, the CARD collected nearly five million dollars from over one million U.S. donors to sustain its activity and had, by 1920, gained official recognition from the U.S. and French governments. Primarily staffed by American women of a professional background, it did not limit itself to the supply of basic necessities (food, clothing, housing) but also assumed a wide range of services including medical care, vocational and educational training, and contributed to the rebuilding of social and cultural facilities.

New York collections are also particularly useful to illustrate the role played in the reconstruction of Belgium and France by intellectual, policy-making, and expert networks. The project will focus on a few prominent philanthropists like Anne Morgan, organizations like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace or the Rockefeller Foundation, and urban planners like G. B. Ford (1879-1930). Ford is a particularly good example. A graduate of Harvard, MIT and the Beaux-Arts in Paris, he had been working as an architect in New York City until 1917 when he returned to France to serve as Head of Reconstruction for the American Red Cross. He was hired by the French government as a consultant and was a popular speaker across the country. Urban planning was already an established discipline and practice in the US and Britain. As the French state required each commune to design its own plan in March 1919, it provided a significant impetus to urban planning. Ford for instance directly contributed to the reconstruction of Arras, Soissons and designed the plan adopted in Rheims. The particular outlook of the experts involved in the reconstruction also led them to mobilize other transnational initiatives and organizations like the International Garden Cities and Town Planning Association.

To an extent, the devastated areas benefited from transnational solidarities which mirrored, at the level of civil societies, the multinational and multicultural contours of the Entente. The French “martyr town” of Noyon was for instance “adopted” by Béziers (France), Circenster (UK) and Washington, D.C. This project seeks to reveal the cultural transfers (Espagne 1999), the circulation of people and funds, as well as the international networks that contributed to the reconstruction of Western Europe. It will explore three types of transnationalism (Clavin 2005): caritative, municipal, and urbanist. The “caritative transnationalism” under scrutiny here corresponds to the work of pre-existent organizations like the Red Cross or the Society of Friends and to philanthropic initiatives which originated in the Allied or neutral nations during the war and continued their work after the Armistice. Private initiatives like that of Anne Morgan directly drew on class as well as on urban (New York City) sociability, while the British Catholic Women’s League relied on faith to sustain the “mothering” of ruined churches. Gender identities also played a role in framing both the rhetoric and activities of many such organizations. Involved in both the intellectual, political and physical reconstruction of Western Europe, an organization like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace played a critical role in the reconstruction of towns like Louvain or Reims, whose wartime fate encapsulated the nature and meaning of the Great War.

“Municipal transnationalism” refers to the exchanges and relationships established by local authorities across national boundaries, prefiguring twinning and other developments which prospered after WWII (Saunier 2002). Finally, the project will analyse the “urbanist transnationalism” which played a key role in the reconstruction and largely shaped its intellectual and technical history. It will be placed in the context of wider reflections on reformers and technocracy in the first half of the twentieth century (Topalov 1999; Dard & Deschamps 2005) and it will highlight the role of transnational networks in the redefinition of urban expertise in the interwar years. (Kohlrausch et al. 2010)

The proposed research would investigate, in a comparative and trans-national perspective, the work done by such foreign voluntary organizations as well as the “adoption” schemes devised and implemented to support the reconstruction of localities laid wasted by the German invasion and the military operations. In this process, spared local communities and notabilities across the French Empire came to the fore to assist the renaissance of the ruined areas of the metropole.

In the aftermath of the conflict, the local elites of formerly occupied or devastated zones in northern France called on their counterparts across the French empire for their help in reconstructing the ruined regions. Georges Barthélémy, Député of the Pas-de-Calais, thus published in the Annales Coloniales an appeal to “my colonial friends, my brothers”. In a significant gesture, Martinique adopted the town of Etain, while Guadeloupe did the same for Neuvilly (Meuse). As a consequence, the mayor and the municipal council decided that once the church had been rebuilt, a marble slab should proclaim: “We owe the recovery of our town to the good French island”. Similar schemes of towns’ adoption spread once the hostilities had ceased and involved towns and cities in Pondichéry, Senegal, Indochina, and Madagascar.

The reconstruction also reveals the local, metropolitan, implantation of many leaders of the colonial lobby in France. Indeed, eminent colonial administrators and eulogists of French imperialism were also heavily committed to the reconstruction of France. Charles Jonnart, former Governor-General of Algéria and President of the Comité France-Afrique, would dedicate his last years of public service to the reconstitution of the devastated regions of France, which included his Pas-de-Calais constituency. Lucien Hubert, Député of the Ardennes was another fervent supporter of the imperial project who chaired the Senate’s Committee for colonies and for “Liberated Regions”. In the book he devoted to the reconstitution of his region in 1918, he explicitly compares the challenge of reconstruction to that of colonial exploitation. It certainly is worth remarking that the post-war reconstruction of France was also regularly seized upon by colonial experts and administrators to further the case for the French imperial project. In many pamphlets, propaganda brochures, and book, the consolidation of the Empire was seen as a central element in the national strategy for renewal and redressement:

“We shall indicate how precious, at the time of the reconstitution of devastated France, the collaboration and these African lands is. Once decried, they already are the flesh of our flesh. Upon the economic development of North Africa will depend in large part the prompt recovery of our Fatherland.”


This project will hopefully produce an innovative history of the reconstitution of urban communities after the First World War. Combining different scales of analysis and historiographical methods, it will address Koselleck’s call for a concomitant analysis of “spaces of experience” and “horizons of expectations” (Koselleck 1985). In the wake of the First World War, a conflict construed in existential terms inherited from religious eschatologies and secular teleologies, the experience of urban communities was determined by expectations framed at the urban, national and transnational levels. The British call for “Homes fit for Heroes” indicates that the challenges faced in Belgium and France were of continental import, for the urban ruins of the Western Front were indeed – to use Walter Benjamin’s words – “documents of civilization” as well as “documents of barbarism”. Reflecting on Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), Benjamin meditated on the ruins of war contemplated by the Angel of History (Benjamin 1968, pp.256-7). Otto Dix’s etching of the “Bombardment of Lens” (1924) was another interpellation to reflect upon the nature of modern warfare and on its impact on Europe’s urban imaginations and structures.


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