Germany launched World War I by attacking France through Belgium (August 1914). The German Army poured across first the Belgian frontier and within a month the French frontier as well (1914). Only the Miracle on the Marne (September 1914) prevented the Germans from reaching Paris and almost certainly winning the War. Civilians fled the invading German Army in large numbers. Some of the Belgians sought refuge in the Netherlands. Most headed south toward France and were joined by French refugees as well. The Germans occupied most of Belgium and areas of northern France until the final months of the War. The refugee problem does not begin to capture the enormity of the problem. The German Army seized cthe civilian food stocks. The Belgians would have starved without American food aid. Thus France throughout the War had a sizeable refugee problem. By the end of the War there wete more than 2 million refugees in France. At the same time the Germans struck at France, the Russians in the East honoring their treaty with France (1914). Attacked in East Prussia. The Germans gained a great victory. Fighting would, however, go on for 3 years, at first mostly in what is now Poland, but eventully spreding into the Baltics and Ukraine. The refugee problem may have been greater than in the West, but with much less outsie aid because it was very difficult getting American food aid into Russia and the Central Powers had little food to spare. In the Balkans, the Central Powers invaded and ovvupied Serbia (1915). The Great Serbian Retreat created large numbers of refugees. And during the Central Powers occupation conditions were very difficult. Some food began to reach Serbia as the Allies reopned a Balkan front (1917). A German offensive broke through the Italian lines (1917) creating large numbers of Italian refugees. Germany with limited exceptions was not invaded by foreign armies. It would have ben had the War cotinued into 1919. But as Germany was not invaded, there was no refugee crisis. The major exception was the Germans expelled from Alsce-Loraune after the War. A much larger problem was the huge food shortage that developed during the War. The refugee problem is closely linkedwith food. The greatest dnger to refugees is the lack of access to food Europe was on the brink of starvation when the War finally ended. Even in France with much of its agricultural sector still in tact, it was not adequate to feed the huge numbers of refugees. Only American food aid prevented mass starvation.
America did not enter the World war I when it broke out in Europe, but remained neutral for 3 years. American officials attmpted to negotiate a diplomatic end to the War. The British humored the Americans, realizing America's potential The Kaiser showed not interest, dismissing America's importance. This reflected his general assessment of America, a country with out a core ethnic base. And in part because the United States had no substantial Army. Also the United States immediately began war relief efforts. The immediate problem was Belgium, both the refugees and the people who remained in the country. The refugees who fled to France could be aided. The refufgees in the Netherlnds and the Belgians who stayed in their occupied country were more of a problem and in danger because the German Army seized the civilian food supply. Difficult negitians were needed to get relief ships through the Allied naval embargo. Then there were Allied and German minefields. Finally there needed to be assurnces from the Germans that the food would not be diverted to the military. The American relief supplies saved millions of Belgians. This was, however, just the beginning of the effort. Here you can see food being distributed (figure 1). Much of the initial efforts were private charitable programs like the Ameican Committee, more accuratly the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB or Belgian Relied). This began as an effort organzed privately by Herbert Hoover, at the time an an unknown mining engineer, to get Americans stranded in Europe home after the outbreak of the War. When the United states finally entered the War, an even larger food ais effort was launched by the U.S. Food Administration. Presient Wilson turned to Hoover to lead the effort. Europe was on the brink of starvation when the War finally ended. Even in France with much of its agricultural sector still in tact, it was not adequate to feed rhe huge numbers of refugees. Only American food aid prevented mass starvation.
Armenians who escaped or managd to survive the Ottoman Genocide conducted by Turkish troops sought refuge across the Middle East and in Tsarist territory. Fellow Armenians in the Tsarist Caucusus did their best to care for them. Efforts were orgnized to provide food and medicine and look after orphans. Schools were established. The American Field Servuc was especially active. Relief efforts were conductd by non-Armenian sympathisers who saw the Armenian refugees as innocent Christian victims. The most important relief was Near East Relief, which was largely funded through the effort of American missionaries and nurses in Syria, Palestine and even Turkey. Many of the survivors eventually migrated to Western Europe or the United States.
Austria had been one if the greatvpowers of Europe for centuries. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a huge multi-ethnic states encompadsing a huge area of central Europe. It was Grmany's principal ally forming the Cntral Powers. It was much less industrialized than Germany and was self-sufficent in food. The conscription of workers in rural areas and shortahes of supplies like fertilizer adversely affected food production. The most serious refugee crisis was that of the Jews. Russia had a terrible reputation for anti-Semitism. Russian pograms wrer the most terrible attacks on Jews during the 19th century, driving Jews oiut of the Tsarist Empire into Western Europe ad America. Thus when Russian armies advanced, some 0.2 million Jewish refugees fled Galicia and Bukovina (1914-15). More were resettled within the region or dispatched by Tsarist offgivials to the Russian interior. The refugees were settled in Vienna and rge Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia). [Rozenblit, p. 66.] Austrian Ministry of the Interior authorities reported that at the end of 1915 some 386,000 refugees were living in Austria and fully 40 percent were Jews. Others sheltered in the Hungarian region of the Empire where there were also refugee camps. The different ethnic groups had various addittudes toward the Empire. The zechs began to see the possibility of independence as the War draggd on. The kmost histile were the serbs and Italians. Austrian authories expelled and rellocated about 0.1 million ethnic Italiabs.
Germany launched World War I by attacking France through Belgium (August 1914). The German Army poured across first the Belgian frontier and within a month the French frontier as well (1914). Large numbers of Belgian civilians fled the advancing German armies. Fear of an invading army was part of the reason for flow of refugees. But as word of the behavior of German troops and terrible attrocities spread, fear of the Germans spread and more Belgians began abandoning their villages and towns. Although Belgians along the border had little opportunity fo flee, the effective resistance of the small Belgian Army and the quick reaction of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) bought Belgians further west time to flee the advancing Germans. Some fled north to the Netherlands. Other fled south to France. About 1 million Belgians sought refuge in the Netherlands. Most of the civilians in the Netherlands gradually returned to Belgium even though it was occupied by the Germans. About 100,000 Belgians remained in The Netherlands throughout the War. Some had the resources to support themselves. The Dutch Government opened refuge camps for those who could not support themselves.
Most headed south toward France and were joined by French refugees as well. Only the Miracle on the Marne (September 1914) prevented the Germans from reaching Paris and almost certainly winning the War. The German Government gave vitually no attention to the plight of the refugees and other civilian mtters, actually seizing sivilian food supplies. The Germans did not think such matters consequential. The world press, including the American press, picked up on such matters. And from an early point of the War the Germans acquired a ruthless reputation, sometimes referred to as the Huns. As regards many countries, the Germans were right, it did not make a difference. They were wrong about one country whereit would prove to make a huge diference--the United States. Until World War I, Germany was a very admired country in America--World War I changed this. The Germans occupied most of Belgium and areas of northern France until the final months of the War. The final German 1918 Sping Offensive created another wabe of refugees. The refugee problem does not begin to capture the enormity of the problem. The German Army seized the civilian food stocks. The Belgians would have starved without American food aid.
Germany launched World War I by attacking France through Belgium (August 1914). The German Army poured across first the Belgian frontier and within a month the French frontier as well. Thus France becme a country inundated with refugees from the very beginning of the war. The Germany Army at the time was not motorized. Belgian and French civiians had time to flee before the Germans arrived. Reports of German atrocities added to the refugee flow. And thus substantial numbers of civilians poured into France. The Germans occupied large areas of northern France. Only the Miracle on the Marne (September 1914) prevented the Germans from reaching Paris and probably winning the War. Many Belgians sought refuge to the north in the Netherlands. Others headed south toward France and were joined by French refugees as well. Thus France became a country which had many people turned into refugeees as well as a country caring for fireign refugees. The Germans occupied most of Belgium and large areas of northern France until the final months of the War. Some of te Belgians reaches Britain by sea, but the lrgest number sought refuge in France. Many of the Belgians in the Netherlands returned to their homes in a relatively short period. The refugees in France were unable to do so. They spent the entire war in France south of the trench lines. Thus France throughout the War had a sizeable refugee population and all the problems associated with caring for displaced people. By the end of the War there were more than 2 million refugees in France. Most were from Belgium and northern France, but there were also small numbers of refugees from other Allied countries. France was self-sufficent in food, but feeding such a large number of refugees was beyond their means. The agricultural sector was affected by the conscription of such a large number of men, especially men comprising the rural work force. Unlike Britain, there was no woman's land army. Only American food relief prevented severe shortages. Unlike German-occupied Belgium, it was a simple matter for America to get food to the refugees in France.
Germany with limited exceptions was not invaded by foreign armies. The War mostly progressed as Germany invading other countries and causing refugee flows in those countries. The major exception was after Germany invaded Belgium and France, the Russians honoring their treaty obligations struck in the East (August 1914). The Germanswere caught off guard by the speed with which the Russians executed their offensive. The brief Russian occupation of East Prussia caused about 1 million Germans to flee their homes. Here there does not appear to be any precise accounting. It proved, however, a temporary crisis because stunning German victories allowed most of these refugees to return home. We are not sure at this time how quickly this occurred or to what extent the 1914 harvest was affected. East Prussia was an important agricultural area. While Germany did not have a major refugee crisis, it did experience major food shortages. This was essentially a refugee-type problem with a population in place. Germany would have been invaded by the Western Allies had the War cotinued into 1919. But as Germany was not invaded, there was no refugee crisis. The major exception was the Germans expelled from Alsace-Loraine after the War. A much larger problem was the huge food shortage that had developed in Germany during the War. Although Germany did not have a major refugee problem, it did have a huge food problem. Shortges befan very early because imports were cut off and harvests were adversely affected by labor shortages and the lack of needed inpurs like fertilizer. The Turnip Winter (1916-17) was the major event mid-way through the War, but shotages by the end of the War were very severe. he llies occupied the Rhineland after the Armisice (November 1918). This was not a war-time occupation. Thus German civilians were mo displaced. The greates problem in Germany after the War was children who had lost their fathers and thu families unablle to care for their children. This and the severe food shoerahes created a seious situation for children. Thus children's homes were set up for the children (Kinderheime).
Italy was allied with the Central Powers at the onset of the war. The Germans and Austrians wre shocked when the Italians decided to side with the Allies. Lured by the opportunity to gain territory, however, Italy entered the War on the Allied side (May 1915). The Allies not only offered territory, but also promises of financial amd material support. This immediately sent populations in movement, but not the movement of refugees seen in Belgium and France. Rather large numbers of young men fled the Austrian Adriatic populated by ethnic Italians. Austria-Hungary was a multi-ethnic empire and among its various ethnicities were Italians. Some 87,000 ethnic Italians from Trieste, Trento, Dalmatia, and other locations flee to Italy. They wanted ast all cost to avoid escape conscription and service in the Austrian Arm. Many wanted to join up and fight for Italy.
Adding to this movement, the Austrian authorities began expelling ethnic Italian civilians (mostly women, children and the elderly) which were of no use to the war effort. Availavle evidence suggests tht 42,000 ethiv Italians were expelled into Italy. A companion measure was to some 52,000 etnic away from the front and relocated to other areas of the Empire. There were also .
additionl relocations on based on ‘national security’. We have less information on this, but apperantlyh several thousand people were involved. The greatest refugee crisis ocurred in the final year of the war. The Germans and Austrians achieved a major break through at Caporetto (October-November 1917). Some 400,000 Italian civilians streamed out of northern Italy into the south to avoid the advancing Austrian-German armies. One million Italian soldiers retreated and with them some 0.5 million civilians. Even before the war, Italy was not self-duffient in food productio. Drafting a massive army, meant concripting large number of agriculturl workers--which of course adversely affected food production. Italy could not have fed its army and the huge influx of civilin refigees. As in mnu oher combatant countries, omly america food aid precented mass starvation.
The Netherland was neutral throughout the War. It was, however, severly affected by the war. It had an industrial economy and was not self sufficent in food. Food imports, however, were cut off by the Allied North sea blockade instituted to disrupt the German war economy. The British were willing to allow food shipments into he Netherlands, but wanted guarantees that the food would not be directly or indirectly diverted to the Germans. Complicated arrangements were worked out. Not only were the Dutch not self-suffuent in food, but the influx of Belgian refugees meant that even more food was needed than before the war. Unlike World War II, there was considerable sympathy for the Germans among the Dutch. The Germans did not invade the Netherlands when they smashed through Belgium. And it was the British Royal Navy that was maintaining the North Sea blockade. Arangements were worked out with the British to allow some food into the Netherlands. It was, however, not as much as the Dutch wanted and there were food shortages throughout the War. The blockade also disrupted the Dutch economy. The British wanted to make sure that the Dutch would not export food to Germany. After the war, the Dutch offerd refuge to Kaiser Wilhelm who the allies wanted to try as aar criminal. Dutch attitudes toward the Germany would be drastically changed when the Germans invaded and occupied their country during World War II.
The Ottoman Empire had become known as the 'Sick Man of Europe'. It had lost substangial territiry, especialky to the Rusins, but also to the new Christkn kingdoms in the Balkans. It joined the War, hoping that with German support they could regain the lost territories. Tbey also hoped to reconquer Egypt and gain the vital Suez Canal. The Ottomans did not have the largest refugee problem, but it was the most deadly. And unlike other refuge problems, it was created by Ottoman forces--not an ennemy invasion. It is know to history as th Armenian Genocide. Turkish troops turned on the Christian Armenians who they suspected of siding with the Russians. The Armenians and Kurds had lived lived in peace together with their Turkish neigbors for centuries. Talat Pasha, a key offical directing the killing, explained the Armenian Genocide in a coded cable to local officials, "The objective that the government expects to achieve by the expelling of the Armenians from the areas in which they live and their transportation to other appointed areas is to ensure that this community will no longer be able to undertake initiatives and actions against the government, and that they will be brought to a state in which they will be unable to pursue their national aspirations related to advocating a government of Armenia." (April 1915) [Akçam, p. 135.] There were also many exmples of actual killing like this incident at Aly Zrna (figure 3). An offensive jnto the Tsarist Caucauses proved to be a disaster. Armenian men were conscripted for war work. Many were eventually murdered. This was done in many ways, including beheadings. These are the remains of the the Armenian refugees Turkish soldiers burnedt alive in the cattle-shed in Aly-Zrna. After killing many of the men the men, the Turkish soldiers rounded up Armenian women and children and drove them into the Syrian desert without water and supplies. There is no evidence that there was any significant collaboration with the Russians, although the Armenians held generally critical attitudes toward the Ottoman Government. And the Young Turks saw them as an impediment for a united Turkish state streaching into Central Asia. Like the NAZI Holocaust, there was shooting and other killing actions, but much of the killing was driving women and children withoy water and food into the Syrian desert. Few survided. Syria at the time was a non-Turkic area of the Ottoman Empire. The Armenians perished through exposure and lack of water and food. In many cases they were roibbed by the Kurds of the meager assets they had. In the last year of the War, British forces invaded the Ottoman Empire, seizing the arab populasted areas. The Arabs generally remined in place seeing the British as feeing them from Ottoman rule. The British did not enter Trukish populted areas and as aresult, there was no major refugee problem.
Romania entered the War hoping to make territorial gains (1916). Their primary interested was seizing Transylvania from Austria-Hungary. The privince had a substantial Romanian ethnic popultion. The Germans with support from Austria, Bulgaria, and the Ottomans overran most of Romania (1917). At the time of the October Revolution in Russia, the Romanians only held Moldavia. We do not yet have details, however, about the refugee situation. One source reports that large numbers of civilian refugees followed the retreating Romanian and Russian Armies into the unoccupied or free zone. We have been able to find very little information about the Romanian refugees.
At the same time the Germans struck at France, the Russians in the East honoring their treaty with France (1914). Attacked in East Prussia. The Germans gained, however, a great victory. Fighting would, however, go on for 3 years, at first mostly in what is now Poland, but eventully spreading into the Baltics and Ukraine. The world focus on the Western Front. Fighting on the Eastern Front received much less coverage, but vast armies battled it out and unlike the West was not confined to a narrow line of trenches. This meant that civilans were even more affected than in the west as well as food production. The refugee problem may have been greater than in the West. Some estimates place the number of refugees at some 6 million people--although no one really knows. Russian food production plummeted. And these refugees received much less outsie aid because it was very difficult getting American food aid into Russia and the Central Powers had little food to spare. The popuatioin became desperate in towns abd cities across the western areas of the Tsarist Empire. Refugees poured into urban areas, mostly areas just behind the front. At first there was a hope that the War would soon be over and they could soon return to their homes. It soon became obvious that this would not be possible. The Germans gained substantil victories over the Tsarist armies which withdrew from Galicia. Civilians in their thousands fled into to L’vov and adjacent towns. Many simply fled the Germans, without any preparations or food supplies. Stting out away from the advancing armies without having any real destination. Most moved on foot. Tsarist officials directed refugees to specific destinations by rail or on the waterways if possible, but the military primarily controlled the railways and used them for their own purposes. Towns and cities throughout the western areas of the Tsarist Empire were transformed. After the German military success and occupation of Poland, refugees contitutes more than 10 percent of the population of major western cities and many towns. And in many cities the refugee population was even larger: Samara (30 percent), Ekaterinoslav and Pskov (25 percent) Municipal authorities tried to cope, but were quickly overwealmed. In cities and towns behind the fronty 25 percent of the population might be refugees. They often had faced extremne hardships trking from the frint lkine areas with many dieing along the way. Local authorities tried to find emrgency shelter in whatever buidings could be found. This included railway stations, schools, empty factories, breweries, hotels, bathhouses, army barracks, monasteries, synagogues, theatres, cinemas, cafes, and even prisons. They attempted to evacuate the refugees further east. The initial sympathy and hospitality quickly disappeared as refugees kept coming and the reality of the situation settled in. Authorities began viewing the refuggees as an aliennplgue as dangerous as the Germans. Authorities began to fear disorders and riots. [Purseigle, p.41.] There were some who exploited the refugees. Many more began demonizing them. [Gatrell, p. 200.] The refugee crisis had both economic and political consequences. One was the large number of Jewish refugees. The refugees had no money to pay for either accommodation or food. And terrible food shortages for the entire population devloped. The non-Russian minorities (Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Jews were disproportionately concentrated in the western borderlands where the Eastern Front fighting took place. Not only did serious food shorthes develop, but Tsarist military commanders exhibiting traditionl Russian paanonia of foreignets, accused these minorities of aiding and abetting the invaders. There were deportations to the Russian interior. For the most part, the suspions were untrue. That said, there was a significant yearing for independdence in the western borderlnds. And many were uncertin who to support. Many thought that there might be better opportunity for a degree of autonomy from the Germans. Pnly slowly as the war progressed did many begin to see a real opportunity for independence.
While the world's focus was on the plight of the Belgians, an even worse situation was unfolding in Serbia which had lit the fuse that ignited the War. Austria's invasion of Serbia resulted in a humanitarian crisis, but was limited to the northern frontier regions for the first year of the War (1914). Even so there were serious difficulties Towns north of Belgrade which before the war jd a population of just a few thousand people suddenly were inundated with refugees Populations often grew ten fold. Some towns even more. There was no preparation for such a refugee crisis. Any the humanitarian needs were beyond the capabilities of local authorities to handle. The numbers of staggering. The population of Prizren, just to take one example, had a pre-war population of 20,000 inhabitants. Days after the Austrian assault, refugees swelled the population to 150,000 people. Some orphaned children were moved south and eventually into Greece. The crisis became a catastrophe as the Austrians bolsetered by the Germans and Bulgarians suceedded in defeating the Serbin Army and occupying the country (1915). The Great Serbian Retreat created large numbers of refugees. Both soldiers and civilians fled the advancing Austrian, Bulgarian, and German armies. Some estimates suggest that as much as one-third of the pre-war population was turned into refugees. Some 0.5 million civilians accompnied the Serbian army as part of the Great Serbian Retreat. There was little time to plan the exodus. They moved in hastily assembled convoys. They crossed Kosvo into the mountains toward Albania during the winter staying ahead of the advancing enemy. They moved on foot across thge snow-covered mountains. Little food or medical supplies were available. Some fell prey to Albanian Muslim guerrillas. An Allied fleet awaited aling the coast.
Nearly half may have died along the way. The survivors reached were transported to Corfu by the Allied navies. Some were moved to Corsica and Tunisia. Others were intterned in Austrian camps and forced to work for the Central Powers war effort. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and the American Red Cross provided some assistance to refugees that escaped occupied Serbia. The Serbian Relief Fund brought some of the refugee children to Britain. And during the Central Powers occupation conditions were very difficult.
The Bulgarian Army moved into northern Serbia (1916). This resulted in massive movement of civilians to the south. The property belonging to Greek residents of Macedonia, who fled from the Bulgarian Army was seized. Some estimtes suggest that as a result of the military movements, especially the Great Retreat, and refugee situation, one-third of Serbia’s pre-war populationwas displaced. [Opfer, pp. 115, 120.] Some food began to reach the Serbs as the Allies reopned a Balkan front (1917).
Akçam, Taner. The Young Turks' Crime Against Humanity: the Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
Gatrell, Peter. A Whole Empire Walking: Refugees in Russia during World War 1 (Indiana University Press, 1999).
Opfer, Björn. Im Schatten des Krieges. Besatzung oder Anschluss - Befreiung oder Unterdrückung? Eine komparative Untersuchung über die bulgarische Herrschaft in Vardar-Makedonien, 1915-1918 und 1941-1944 (Münster 2005).
Purseigle, Pierre. ‘‘A wave on to our shores’: the exile and resettlement of refugees from the Western Front, 1914-1918’, Contemporary European History vol. 16, no. 4, (2007), pp. 427-44. (p. 441).
Rozenblit, Marsha. Reconstructing a National Identity. The Jews of Habsburg Austria during World War One (New York 2001).
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to Main World War I displaced children page]
[Return to Main 20th century refugee page]
[Return to Main refugee page]
[Aftermath] [Alliances] [Animals] [Armistace] [Biographies] [Causes] [Campaigns] [Casualties] [Children] [Countries] [Declaration of war] [Deciding factors] -------[Diplomacy] [Economics] -------[Geo-political crisis] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[Military forces] [Neutrality] [Pacifism] [People] [Peace treaties] [Propaganda] [POWs] [Russian Revolution] [Terrorism] [Trench warfare] ------[Technology] [Weaponry]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War I page]
[Return to Main war essay page]
[Return to CIH Home page]