Roubaix, c. 1900. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/
This post is a pseudo-confession: whilst my latest article will be published this month in the journal Historical Reflections, when I was researching and writing it there were often moments when I thought that it would never see the light of day. It is one of the most challenging pieces of research I have carried out, and the writing process was often laborious.
The article deals with events known as ‘the sandbag affair.’ Traditionally, the story goes that in spring-summer 1915, French workers employed in textile factories in German-occupied Lille, Roubaix, and Tourcoing realised that they were actually making sandbags that were being used by the Germans in the trenches. As such, workers and bosses alike refused to continue working until harsh punishments (curfews, fines, imprisonment, hostage-taking) forced them to give in; by July 1915, work had recommenced. However, I had discovered archival documents that suggested that – as is often the case – the reality was more complex. According to these sources, crowds of French civilians had insulted and even physically assaulted factory workers, especially female factory workers. Furthermore, in Roubaix a local police commissioner was himself attacked: a crowd threw horse manure at him, allegedly because of his relationship with women whom locals believed worked for the Germans. This commissioner, Monsieur Orlianges, became the focus of public scandal and rumour. Simultaneously, the police hierarchy became frustrated with him and ordered an enquiry into his actions and attitude. All this occurred at a time when the local French police force as a whole was subject to criticism for the way it followed German orders, and other policemen were involved in actions like stealing evidence.
I wanted to produce an article that dealt with all this whilst remaining more narrative-heavy than anything I have written previously. In short, I wished to provide a (hi)story of this affair and the way it developed, meandered, and involved an intersection of various themes. These different threads needed to be examined and tied together before I could engage in analysis beyond what felt like pure description. However, writing this narrative backbone proved a lot harder than expected. It had to consider the timeline of the ‘sandbag affair’; the motives of strikers, bosses, and attackers; the role of the French police in all this; the role of Orlianges specifically; the German reaction, and more. However, as is almost always the case, the sources preserved in the archives were not comprehensive – for example, there were gaps in the timeline, or some documents were just scraps of handwritten notes containing extremely useful information but no details on the author. I needed to be more than ever a ‘detective through time’ – particularly apt, given that many sources came from or concerned the police. Yet carrying out my own investigation – trying to piece together parts of a puzzle and weighing up the evidence – involved relying heavily on actual police investigations that did the same thing. These contained contradictory witness testimony, just as some of the sources I examined seemed to contradict each other.
It became clear that the messiness of the sources reflected an equally messy set of events. Some of the locals who attacked female factory workers, for example, were themselves factory employees who had refused to work a few days before, now angry at the remaining workers’ decision to continue making sandbags. The French police, on the other hand, sought to reduce public disorder that would lead to punishments for the population. One way of doing this was to inform strikers of German threats: return to work or the entire town would be punished. The Chief Commissioner ordered that the message must be delivered without actively encouraging people to work for the enemy, which was a matter for individuals’ consciences. The problem was, not all policemen followed these orders, so did put pressure on locals to return to the factories. At the same time the French police also tried to disperse street protests or attacks without looking like they themselves worked for the Germans. Orlianges was initially under investigation because he had been unable to disperse crowds, who turned on him because of his alleged relationships with women working for the Germans. The investigation concluded that he did engage in ‘dodgy’ dealings and did have mistresses who worked for the Germans. Worse, he was also ineffective at quelling corruption among his own subordinates. All this points to a complex situation in which the French police and wider population struggled to understand their role under occupation, where some individuals did use the unique situation to engage in shady activities, and where public perception and judgement of compatriots’ actions was keenly felt.
I ended up putting this article to one side for many months, worrying whether it would ever be possible to make sense of the confusing and intertwining events of the sandbag affair. Returning to the topic after a break, with fresh eyes and renewed determination, proved crucial. After a lot more reflection and hard work, I managed to draw all the disparate elements together in a single narrative that aims to highlight the complexities of life in occupied France during the First World War. Most people reading my article will never know how challenging it was to provide a coherent narrative thread; most will never know that I almost abandoned the article entirely. I am glad that I did not!