University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > Communities under fire: civilians on the Western Front, 1914-1918

Communities under fire: civilians on the Western Front, 1914-1918

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Much recent First World War historiography has highlighted the inadequacy of the conceptual divides between soldier and civilian, front and home front. This conflict witnessed the blurring of these neat categories with the civilian and the home front increasingly becoming legitimate targets of military force, both directly through atrocities and bombardment, and indirectly through economic warfare. This paper proposes to approach this problem through an examination of the civilian populations of four towns in the north of France situated on or near the front line for much of the war – Arras, Lens, Reims and Nancy. These four towns retained elements of their civilian populations in spite of their direct proximity to the front. Those living there faced the constant threat and reality of intense artillery bombardments, and civilian casualties were high in all cases. The focus of the paper will be on the civilian experience of artillery bombardment, and how their suffering at the front defined these civilians’ engagements with the French national war effort. Local community identity was constructed in the light of the war experiences of the front line town, to the extent that ‘communities of suffering’ emerged among civilians along the front. These ‘communities of suffering’ situated themselves in opposition to civilians living further back from the front, who were not suffering as much as they, while simultaneously identifying themselves with the sufferings of the soldiers in the trenches. In effect, civilians living near the front came to see themselves as soldiers, and, as a result, demanded a privileged position within the social relations of the French nation at war. The aim is to understand how local experiences were related to the national war effort, and how, through the experience of life at the front, the local community was constructed in relation to the national community.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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