Primary Documents - James W. Gerard on German Policy of Deportations from Lille, April 1916
Reproduced below is the text of a statement written by the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, in April 1916. In his statement Gerard addresses reports of a new German policy of deporting able men and women from German-occupied Lille in France to other districts to provide a form of enforced labour.
This allegation followed earlier similar reports from Belgium. It was not just Ambassador Gerard who believed this to be a systematic German policy; a similar view was expressed by the Spanish Ambassador to Germany.
The French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, formally addressed the matter in an official statement. The original German proclamation which triggered these protests, issued by General Graevenitz, the German commander in Lille, was published on 22 April 1916.
U.S. Ambassador to Germany James Gerard Watson on Deportations in Lille
It seems that the Germans had endeavoured to get volunteers from the great industrial towns of Lille, Roubaix, and Tourcoing to work these fields; that after the posting of the notices calling for volunteers only fourteen had appeared.
The Germans then gave orders to seize a certain number of inhabitants and send them out to farms in the outlying districts to engage in agricultural work. The Americans told me that this order was carried out with the greatest barbarity; that a man would come home at night and find that his wife or children had disappeared and no one could tell hint where they had gone except that the neighbours would relate that German non-commissioned officers and a file of soldiers had carried them off.
For instance, in a house of a well-to-do merchant who had perhaps two daughters of fifteen and seventeen and a man servant, the two daughters and the servant would be seized and sent off together to work for the Germans in some little farmhouse whose location was not disclosed to the parents. The Americans told me that this sort of thing was causing such indignation among the population of these towns that they feared a great uprising and a consequent slaughter and burning by the Germans.
That night at dinner I spoke to the Chancellor about this and told him that it seemed to me absolutely outrageous; and that, without consulting with my Government, I was prepared to protest in the name of humanity against a continuance of this treatment of the civil population of occupied France.
The Chancellor told me that he had not known of it, that it was the result of orders given by the military, that he would speak to the Emperor about it, and that he hoped to be able to stop further deportations. I believe that they were stopped, but twenty thousand or more who had been taken from their homes were not returned until months afterwards.
I said in a speech that I made in May on my return to America that it required the joint efforts of the Pope, the King of Spain, and our President to cause the return of these people to their homes; and I then saw that some German press agency had come out with an article that I had made false statements about this matter because these people were not returned to their homes as a result of the representations of the Pope, the King of Spain, and our President, but were sent back because the Germans had no further use for them.
It seems to me that this denial makes the case rather worse than before.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
The USA suffered 57,476 fatal army casualties during the war.
- Did you know?