*** war and social upheaval: World War I occupation

World War I: Occupied Countries

World War I food
Figure 1.--This soldier is searching the boys' basket for contraband during winter 1917. At the time, severe food shortages were developing among the Central Powers. We are not sure where this photograph was taken. The boys look Belgian or French. The soldier looks Austrian. German police had caps like the soldier here. we do no know to hat extent the Germans used police to enforce their occpation.

There is a huge body of literature on World War II occupation regimes and policies. The goal of seizing territotory and exploiting occupied territiry to support the war effort was a major cause of the War. It also resilted in unbelievable attrocities. Countries were also occupied in World War I, but it was not a major cause of the War and not a major factor in the war effort. There were also attrocities and abuses, but not on the scale of the Axis powers in World War I. As Germany launched the War by invding Belgium and achieved early successes, the primary occupyong power was Germany. Germany in the West occupied most of Belgium, northern France, and Luxembourg. The most controversial occupation regime was the Gemn occupation of Belgium. In the South Germany and Austro-Hungary occupied Serbia, Romania, areas of northern Italy. In the East, the sitiation was different. There were no national states as in the West, but, the huge Tsarist Empire. The Germans occupied most of the Baltics, Poland, and areas of the Ukraine. They did not penetrate into the Russian Heartland. One of the terms of the Armitice ws hat Germany withdraw from occupied areas, meaning primarily a huge swath of Eastern Rurope formerly part of the Tsarist Empire. Outside of Europe, the Allies seized German and Ottoman colonies, modt notably Palestine, the Levabt, and Mesopotamia. After the War, the quwestion of occupying Germany arose. The Allies did not do so, although an Allied Control Cimmissuin attempted to ebforce compliance with the Versailles Treaty. After the War, the French to enforce Germn compliance with the Versailles Treaty, occupied the Rhineland.

Countries Occupied by the Central Powers


After the Battle of the Marne, the Western Front rapidly became a huge system of fortified positions and trenches stretching from Switzerland to the Channel. Although the Germans were stopped, they had overrun most of Belgium which remained in German hands for the rest of the War. The German Army seized control of the civilian food supply setting up a humanitarin crisis and potential starvation. Belgium was a a heavily industrialized country and not self-sufficent in food production. Unfortunately for Belgium, neither was Germany which was intent on using Belgian food to feed its army. German authorities governed with repressive measures. The Germans confiscating houses and other property for the occupying troops. German troops killed civilians who resisted. While the German atrocities were nothing like those persued by the NAZIs in World War II, they were bad enough and shocking at the time. They were effectively used by British to sway public opinion in America. The Germans also used civilians for forced labor. These laborers were poorly fed. The Germans also seized food supplies with little or no concern about the impact on the civilian population. The British naval blockade in the North Sea caused shortages in the occupied areas which eventually spread to Germany itself. Belgium like Germany was not self sufficient in food production. German occupation authorities attempted to take advantage of the Flemish-Walloon division. They supported Flemish Activists--a radical nationalist group that agreed to work with the Germans hoping to gain independence for Flanders. Flanders during the German occupation seceded from Belgium (November 1917). At the time, it looked like the Germans might finally win the War. The great majority of the Flemish remained loyal to King Albert and Belgium. There was little support for the German-supported Council of Flanders. Nor was the German decision to change the University of Ghent from a French-language to a Flemish-language institution well received. (The Belgian government made the State University of Ghent partially Flemish and then in 1930 fully Flemish.)

France (northern)

The World War I western Front was fought out in Belgium and northern France. The Germans occupied Luxenbourg, almost all of Belgium, and areas of northeast France along the Belgian and Luxenmourg borders during the first month of the war. Northern France was one of the most heavily industralized areas of France and thus although relatively small, the area occupied by the Germans was a significant loss to the French economy. Much of the French population was evacuated or fled, but large numbers of people were left in the German occupation zone. After the frontline stabilized behind the trenches, the Germans remained in contol of northern France until the final month of the War. Despite massive offensives and a huge expenditure of ordinance. The area north and south of the Western Front changed very little despite 3 years of of the most intense combat in history. After the Germans were stopped before Paris and had to wihdraw beyond the Marne, as trench system then snaked from the Swiss border to the Channel. It was here that the Germans and Allies fought World ar II in the Wesr. The towns and viiliages the Front crossed and those close by were decestated. The range of artillery as well as offesive ad countr offensives significantly enlarged the area devestaed. Many were totally destroyed. A wide swath of southern Belgium and northern France was devestated leaving a huge scar across the verdent landscape. The towns and cities in the war zone looked like scenes of devestation from the World War II strategic bombing campaign. In sharp contast, the neighboring German Rhineland was untouched. After the War, the Germans and many subsequent historians considered the Versailles Treaty and reparations imposed on the Germans to be unfair and many saw NAZI compainsts as justified. Rarely mentioned is that it was the Germans who first introduced the idea of reparations in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Or that immese damage was done to Belgium and France while Germany was virtually untouched. One of the French cities largely destroyed was the magnificent cathedral city of Reimes, a jewel of the Middle Ages. Damafe to the Cathedral and the destruction other cultural treasuires in the battle zone would feature prominently in Allied propaganda. Perhaps fittiningly, Reims would be General Eisenhower's headquarters in World War II and the place where the NAZIs surrendered to the victorious Western Allies.

Italy (northern)

Italy when Germany launched World War I by invading Belgium (August 1914) was a Gerrman/Austrian ally. The Itaians decided not to enter its treaty obligatioins and enterr the War on the side of the Central Powers. Instead they entered the War on the Allied side (May 1915). The fifgting bogged down into static trench warfare for 2 years, This dramatically changed (Octiber b1817). The Austrians reinforced by seven German divisions attacked the Italians at Caporetto. What followed was a series of battles which shattered the Italian Army. The Italians had to retreat and lost 0.3 million men. Like the French at Verdun, it was a battle from which the Italian Army never truly recovered. The Italians with Allied assistance managed to stop the Austro-German advance at the Piave River, just short of Venice. We donjnot yet have informnation oinnwhat happened in the area of northerrn Italy occupied by the Austrians and Germans.

Tsarist Empire

The Eastern front was largely fought in the western non-Russian areas of the Tsarist Empire (the Baluics, Poland, and Ukraine. The Germans occupoied large ares of the Baltics, all of Poland, and sunbtnatial areas of Ukraine. We do not yet have details on the German occupation regime in these areas. The poor performance of the Austrian Army on the Eastern Front and Emperor Karl's attempt to exit the War, resulted in the Germans assuming command. The Central Powers primarily as the result of German forces had seized Warsaw (1915) and much of eastern Poland (1916). The Central Powers proceeded to proclaim a Polish Kingdom. While a Council of State was organized, the Germans retained effective control. The Germans with the Russians defeated, formed a Regency Council as the governing authority of the Polish Kingdom they claimed to have created. German military authorities, however, continued to exercise full control. The Russians had been the principal target of Polish resistance. Now the Germans held most of Poland. And the Allies now firmly endorsed Polish self-determination dramatically changing the political dynamic.


Romania wven with a Grman monarchy finally decided to enter the war on the Allied side (August 1916). The goal was Transylvania with na substanial Romania population. Given the weakening situation on the Eastern front with Russian defeats, this seems an unwise decession. Thev ing and his ministers were influenced by the impressive Russian Brusilov offensive which scored important victories over the Austro-Hungarian Army. Initially the Romanian Army scored some success. The Romanians attacked Hungarian Transylvania and occupied much of it. Romania wasn't strong enough or well enough equipped to face a modern army. And Russia was unable to sustain the Brusilov offensive. The Austrians stiffened with German units occupied most of Romania (Sepember-October 1916) snd held it for the rest of the War. Romania's declaration of war thus benefited neither the Romanians or the Allies. Onlt the Central Powers benefitted. The Germans were able to exploit Romanian resources. The Allied naval blockade by 1917 was having an increasingly serious impact on the Central Powers, especially industrialized Germany where serious food shortages were beginning to develop. Romanian was an agricultural country and thus agricultural harvests were especially welcome. Most of the food went to the military rather than the civilian population. The major German interest in Romania was oil. German produced virtually no oil and Austria-Hungary only limited amounts, One of the reasons that the Germans pursued the Berlin to Bagdad ralway waso gain access to oil. The use of oil was still limited, but growing. The German surface fleet was still coal fired, but they were expeimentng with oil. The Germans had some trucks but relatvely few. Nor did they have tanks, except for some experimental attempts. But the German needed avition fuel for the air war on the Western Front and the U-boats which used petroleum based fuels. The British, however, managed to blow up the infrastructure at Ploesti before the Germans reached it. It took 5 months to repair the damage, but only partially. Production was only a third of what it had been


While the Central Powers did not destroy the Serbian Army, they did occupy all of Serbia. After Belgium in the west, Serbia was the second Allied country occupied by the Central Powers. The Central Powers occupied Serbia during 1916, 1917, and most of 1918. We have no information at this time on the Austrian-German occupation. Serbian sources report that Croats and Muslims commited atrocities on Serb civilians. This is a highly politicized topic. We know that terrible attrocities occurred during World war II, butwe can not yet confiem just what happened in occupied Serbia. I am not sure just what occurred in the wake of the Austrian-German advance. We have so far been unable to find any reliable account as to what occurred. The fact that so many young men left Serbias part of the Army retreat, we suspect that many Serb families experienced difficult cinditions and that food productuin declined.

Countries Occupied by the Allies




Ottomam Empire


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Created: 6:12 AM 3/11/2015
Last updated: 11:55 PM 4/27/2022