History of the occupation
Before looking at the postal history of the occupation, it is worth recounting the events that took place in the Valenciennes between 1914 and 1918.
On 3 August, war was declared.
The Germans attacked neutral Belgium and approached the French border.
The French move to the border and VALENCIENNES is abandoned. Only a few reservists and mobilised members of the 127th infantry regiment (based in VALENCIENNES) remained.
When it became clear to the French general staff that the Germans were approaching the border too quickly, better-prepared French and British troops were sent into the district. These were to move rapidly towards the border and beyond into Belgian territory.
On 23 August: the first Germans (1st Army) crossed the border near CONDE-SUR-LESCAUT and border fighting took place north of the Valenciennes.
25 August: the Germans arrive in VALENCIENNES.
End of August-beginning of September: the district, which is not yet fully occupied, sees some fighting here and there. The Germans are not yet numerous enough and many small French units retreat and try to return to their lines.
7 September: fall of the stronghold of Maubeuge. 40,000 well-armed Germans took more than 40,000 French prisoners. It must be said that MAUBEUGE was an obsolete fortress and that the General Staff had never entertained the idea that the Germans would invade the North. Nevertheless, it has been established that the 10 days of resistance at MAUBEUGE enabled the French to stop the Germans on the Marne, who would have needed the 40,000 men surrounding MAUBEUGE.
By mid-September, the fate of the Valenciennes was sealed: it was fully occupied. The Germans stayed there until the end of the war.
Propaganda photo showing a group of German soldiers being shown the road to LILLE by a child in 1914.
The years 1915 and 1916 saw the consolidation of the Western Front. The VALENCIENNES region became a hub for the German military apparatus. Requisitions became more numerous, control more oppressive and life in the district harder. The first shortages appeared in Germany. The Germans knew that the war was going to last.
The armistice with Russia at the end of 1917 enabled the Germans to repatriate divisions to the Western Front. However, these troops were not the best and were ill-prepared for the fighting methods of the Western Front.
The year 1918 and the great spring offensive might have led the Germans to believe that they were going to win a decisive victory. But in June, it became clear that the major gains in ground had reached their peak, with the Allied defence becoming increasingly effective. The Germans lost many fresh troops in the fighting. In July, the French counter-attacked the exhausted German troops. The Allied offensive and the victories that followed did not cease until the Armistice.
Since July 1918, Allied counter-offensives had caused German troops to fall back irreversibly, as they retreated towards Belgium via the Valenciennes district.
The first communes in the district were liberated by the Anglo-Canadians at the end of October 1918. Prior to this, the Germans had taken care to evacuate the civilian population first to VALENCIENNES and then to Belgium.
The war of movement had resumed in September 1918 and the Germans were inexorably retreating. They nevertheless hoped to stop the allies on the Hermann Line, of which VALENCIENNES was a key position protected by the Scheldt and the heights of Mont Houy. In addition, the presence of large numbers of refugees from other towns made it impossible to bomb the town directly. The Anglo-Canadians had prepared their attack of the town very well. Mont Houy was taken in a single assault.
3 November 1918: VALENCIENNES is liberated by the Canadians.
The District of VALENCIENNES was occupied successively and/or jointly by 5 German armies, the 1st (end of August to mid-September 1914), the 7th (mid-September to mid-October 1914), the 6th (mid-October 1914-30/09/1916), the 1st (1 October 1916-20 April 1917), the 2nd (20 April 1917-September 1918) and finally the 17th (September 1918-3/11/1918). The 17th Army set up its headquarters in ST AMAND on 1st February 1918. It occupied VALENCIENNES in October 1918.
Parade of the 125th Württemberg Infantry Regiment (26th Württemberg Infantry Division). From 1 to 11 May 1917, this regiment was at rest in VALENCIENNES. It took part in 2 parades: on 6 May in front of the Division General and on 9 May in front of Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria.
For the duration of the war, the district of VALENCIENNES was part of the Etappengebiet (rear area) immediately behind the front and before the General Government zone in Belgium and German territory.
The Etappengebiet was an area through which troops, munitions, equipment and foodstuffs needed to continue the fighting passed.
German troops were therefore in relative safety, despite frequent air raids by the Allies. These raids mainly targeted military installations (airfields, stations, depots and munitions factories). The accuracy of these aerial bombardments was relative and it was not uncommon for civilians to fall victim to them.
Air raid on VALENCIENNES 1915.
Railway tracks destroyed by an air raid on VALENCIENNES, which also destroyed 16 wagons of ammunition.
Each army had its own rear area. These were managed by a lines of communication Inspectorate (Etappeninspektion). It was responsible for coordinating the flow of troops and equipment within its territory, and above all for maintaining communications to the front. It was also responsible for economic management and recovering the financial contributions required from the municipalities in the occupied territories to support the troops. Finally, the Etappeninspektion was responsible for maintaining military and civil order in its area. VALENCIENNES was the rear area capital town (Etappenhauptort) for 4 armies: the 7th, 6th, 1st and 2nd. In mid-September 1918, it was not possible to set up the 17th Army's lines of communication Inspectorate at VALENCIENNES, as the front was too close.
It is important not to confuse Etappeninspektion with the headquarters of an Army. For example, during the period of the 6th Army, the Etappeninspektion was in VALENCIENNES while the High Command was in LILLE.
For 4 years, the Germans settled in the district.