1914 was the deadliest year of the war.
An outdated notion of war-one of unrealistic cavalry charges, heroic defence and attack and mutual respect by armies- was being replaced by modern warfare, soldiers crushed by artillery shelling or mowed down by machine gun fire, even before catching glimpse of the enemy.
The General Staff, political figures and troops all thought they would see a repeat of the 1870-1871 war: a few weeks of fighting, a rapid end to the war…Some dreamt of repeating the 1871 victory, others of the opposite and of seeking revenge.
All of these illusions were shattered when a much less glorious reality became apparent. The German army thought it could cross the plains of Flanders in little time. But it came up against unexpected, fierce and heroic resistance from “little” Belgium. The French, who were persuaded of the superiority of their artillery, had to lead a counter-offensive, which was eventually victorious on the Marne, after several lost battles, and an often chaotic retreat.
For the inhabitants of the Nord department, disappointment began to accumulate. The shield, which in 1792 and in 1870 had protected the country, was suddenly being destroyed during fighting. The towns were open. Those which were defended were subject to devastating bombing raids. Lille was ablaze. Refugees, homeless victims, captured soldiers-or ones who had to be hidden- and dead bodies all became part and parcel of everyday life.
Another new and surprising moment came when two thirds of the Nord department, entered a period of occupation, which would become established for the long term. The front eventually stabilised. Locals therefore had to live alongside the occupiers.
A new era had started. At the end of 1914, the Christmas truce was all but a brief respite in a lasting tragedy.