Leaders in France quickly began thinking about the war aims of the Republic.[1] While there was immediate consensus surrounding the reintegration of Alsace-Lorraine, the same was not true of the border regions located to the east of France.[2] Regardless the recommended status – all out annexation, prolonged occupation or a disguised protectorate –, most of the actors involved agreed that these areas should come under French territorial and economic influence.[3] In the end, to garner the widest possible support, including from the Americans and British, the Mémoire du gouvernement français sur la fixation au Rhin de la frontière occidentale de l’Allemagne, which was placed on the negotiating table in February 1919, officially called only for a temporary, inter-Allied military presence.[4]

In Belgium, thought about war aims was focused on moving away from guaranteed neutrality – an option that would have involved territorial adjustment in favour of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany –; such territorial expansion was a thorn in the heel of international authorities who were unable to agree on the subject.[5] Just after the Armistice, a pressure group, the Comité de Politique nationale (CPN) – a watered-down version of the Comité pour la Rive gauche du Rhin – became an apologist for “Great Belgium”: it defended an ambitious programme[6] that diverged from the government’s official, measured line.

Ultimately, Belgium suffered a serious diplomatic blow in Versailles: the eastern cantons were a mediocre consolation prize for its Luxembourger and Dutch aspirations. With regard to the Rhineland, the Belgians cautiously agreed to take part in the military occupation of the left bank of the Rhine, but were wary of being drawn under French military, political and economic influence. For the French, the overall outcome was positive: the military occupation opened the door to a sustainable presence in the Rhineland, which could as such shift into France’s sphere of influence.

Penetrating Enemy Territory (December 1918 – June 1919)

The Armistice agreement suspended hostilities while the negotiations lasted and laid out the conditions for the occupation of the left bank of the Rhine, which was a strategic imperative as much as a symbolic issue. Maréchal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929), the supreme commander of the Allied occupation forces in the Rhenish territories, was in charge of the advancement of troops and their stationing. From 1 to 17 December 1918,[7] the Belgians, British, Americans and French marched on Germany and took position: together they occupied 6.5 percent of Germany’s total surface area, a zone inhabited by some 7,000,000 people. French units set up in the south (Saarland, Palatinate and Mainz), on 75 percent of the occupied territory, while Belgian troops settled in the lower Rhine valley (Aachen sector), which made up about 10 percent of the occupied territory.

The German population was incredulous to such military to-ing and fro-ing. The gradual occupation of German territory did not occur at random. There were rituals that succeeded each other based on a well-rehearsed scenario; marches were planned and enacted in a calculated manner; and important local spots were decked out in the victors’ colours. Everything was done to show that the country and urban space had been claimed. Speeches to notables were chocked full of clichés justifying the occupation for moral reasons and condoning the victory of Law, thus perpetuating a de facto continuity with the culture of war.

On the ground, power remained exclusively in military hands and a state of siege was proclaimed to protect public order and the safety of the occupying army. Measures were taken to considerably curb the freedom of movement, association and expression of inhabitants; the threat of execution was brandished over potential offenders – and hostages. The population reacted in different ways to such measures, which were at times strictly adhered to and at other times applied with discernment. Over time, they were relaxed somewhat.[8]

France wanted to shape the political thrust of the operation and thus quickly acquired the tools necessary to control the administrative and economic aspects of life in the occupied territories. Its partners were, however, quite concerned with France’s prominence in the region and voiced their concerns following which they secured the replacement of the French apparatus with an inter-Allied administration, a precursor to the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission.[9]

Hostilities were only temporarily suspended during the peace talks and there was a serious risk of the conflict igniting again. With over 220,000 Frenchmen and 20,000 Belgians on the ground, the tension was palpable. A defence plan was established and preparations were made for its implementation. As the conditions of the treaty became known in the spring of 1919, the population roused itself. People rallied and protested against the severity of the treaty.[10] The German delegation was loath to sign. On the ground, the occupying troops began to move and assembled around the points of entry to the right bank. Tension was at its utmost in mid-June 1919, particularly as the partisans of Rhenish independence attempted to harness the situation to advance their political cause. They had the support of some French officers who (rightly or wrongly) believed they were anticipating the goals of the Republic.[11] Diverging points of view – and conflicts of interest – emerged between the occupying forces on this topic. In the end, the separatist movement was crushed and a surface-thin sense of collegiality was restored.

Living Face to Face (July 1919 – December 1922)

Once the peace treaty was signed, the occupation became a long-term affair and the period of face-to-face living truly began. The regime implemented by the Rhineland Agreement that was annexed to the Treaty transferred full powers to civilian authorities. On 10 January 1920, the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission assumed its duties. From its headquarters in Koblenz, it governed by decree over all facets of the occupation, from the most trivial to most crucial details. Under the presidency of Frenchman Paul Tirard (1879-1945), representatives from the occupying powers, including Belgian Edouard Rolin-Jaequemyns (1863-1936), debated – at times heatedly – and legislated.[12] The occupying troops, whose numbers had been scaled back (94,000 French and 16,000 Belgians in February 1920)[13], were the armed branch whose job it was to maintain order and security on the ground.

The primacy of civilian over military authority was the source of some discord between the different parties. For the Belgians, this occasionally escalated to the point that Brussels had to intervene.[14] Sustainably influenced by the culture of war, troops and the officer corps shared an unshakable spirit and indeed found themselves at loggerheads with the principles of “pacific penetration”[15] very discretely implemented by Rolin-Jaequemyns based on the French model. The latter tried to follow the policy of cultural infiltration advocated by Tirard, applying it to his own Belgian way (with limited means and little support).[16] Unlike France, however, he could not count on support from “command [of the occupying army] which does not appear to have the political spirit necessary to accomplish its task.”[17] In an attempt to circumvent such issues, a Centre for Germanic Studies was opened in the French zone to offer French field officers and Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission agents combined training into the different facets of France’s Rhineland policy.[18]

In the field, soldiers were put up in barracks and camps that had been deserted by the Reichswehr. Public buildings were further requisitioned and outfitted to palliate the lack of accommodation. Local authorities were made to pay for the construction of additional billeting facilities. Accommodation in private homes also ballooned (mainly for officers and officials who were accompanied by their families). Cities quickly began to resemble garrison towns: everything was in place for the running, supplying, training and entertaining of troop life. Some cities like Aachen, for example, quickly became congested.[19] Such over-population disrupted the daily lives of inhabitants and had predictable consequences, which further exacerbated the underlying tension between the French and Belgians, and the Germans. Shows of force became legion: from simple altercations to assault and battery, both physical and symbolic violence permeated relations between the occupying forces and the occupied, particularly in urban areas.[20] And yet not all interaction was necessarily mired in violence; some encouraged fraternisation in the broadest sense of the term. The boundary between the occupying and occupied communities was not airtight, despite measures taken to limit interaction between the two – particularly sentimental. The Belgian authorities were most opposed to any type of rapprochement.[21] Until 1925, they forced to resign all soldiers who planned a mixed marriage; after this date, soldiers were required to submit their requests for detailed examination, and approval was granted on a case-by-case basis. According to its High Commissioner, the French army was somewhat more liberal and benevolent, granting approval quite easily after a moral investigation into the bride and her family had been conducted.[22] Given all of the obstacles in their paths, not all couples chose to officialise their relationships. Some opted for cohabitation, which occurred more or less discretely due to the ambient sense of moral disapproval. Germans were stigmatized within their own community and were even at times physically attacked (e.g. faces smeared with wax, hair cut off).[23] In an attempt at economic salvation, some women put aside the risk of shame and resorted to prostitution. Despite their efforts (e.g. opening brothels), military authorities never managed to put a stop to such occasional prostitution. German society in turn feared for the degeneracy of the race via the mixing of blood with soldiers of colour. This was the obsessive fear behind the “black shame”[24] (“schwarze Schmach”) that targeted French colonial troops.[25]

Since 1918, indigenous soldiers from North Africa, Madagascar and Senegal had participated in the occupation of the left bank of the Rhine. Their presence was felt to be a supreme humiliation, a kind of reversed colonialism that allowed men of colour (deemed inferior) to watch over white men (deemed to be civilized). While at first the protests against this violation of civilization were diffident and dispersed, they gradually spread and gained momentum. Indignation gave way to genuine concern, then hysteria, as rumours spread that “Negroes” gave free reign to their sexual impulses and would not hesitate to prey on young German girls. This propaganda campaign was brilliantly orchestrated and, in April 1920, was picked up in the foreign media, thus leading to outcries across the Western world and particularly in English-speaking countries. There was an intense and violent battle for public opinion at the national and international level that lasted until 1923; it condemned the bestiality of colonial troops and demanded their retreat from the occupied territories. France’s response to this storm was ambiguous: it denied the claims, but nonetheless withdrew its men, thus lending credence to the suspicion surrounding these outrageous allegations. The “black shame” eventually tapered off with the occupation of the Ruhr which shifted the focus of German propaganda efforts to a new target.

The Period of Confrontation (January 1923 – August 1924)

After the failure of the London Conference, which sanctified the “mésentente cordiale” (August 1922), France again threatened to occupy the Ruhr basin based on Germany’s failure to pay its reparations. A blitz operation had been conducted on Düsseldorf and Duisburg-Ruhrort in 1921 and, under the combined pressure of the Allies, Germany had conceded. The Allies were no longer unanimous this time, however, and differences in opinion led to separate action taken by several different parties.[26] France took control of the operations and Belgium followed suit. Despite not wanting to appear subservient to the French, Belgium – which distrusted the French penchant for encircling – felt that it had no other choice.[27] In the end, it sent nearly 6,000 men to swell the French ranks, which were ten times more numerous. This intervention – referred to in some of the German historiography under the name Ruhrkampf – was a relational apotheosis between France, Belgium and Germany and was perceived as a throwback to the Great War. At the international level, it was also a breaking point in post-war relations.[28]

On 11 January 1923, French and Belgian troops entered the Ruhr: officially, they were there to protect members of the MICUM (Inter-allied mission for the control of factories and mines). Within five days, they had occupied Essen, Bochum and Dortmund. The population remained relatively calm as people watched the troops advance. Yet, within a few days, passive resistance went from being spontaneous to methodically and sustainably organized under the impetus of Berlin. By late February, it had completely paralyzed the railroad and water networks, as well as scaled back industrial activity across all of the occupied territories. The German reaction took the French by surprise; fearful of compromising their Rhenish policy, the latter were hesitant to take drastic measures. They were pressured to be firm and rigorous by the Belgians, who were counting on a short occupation and feared getting bogged down in a politically-motivated operation.

The occupied population retaliated and a state of siege was declared. An arsenal of measures was implemented to repress, control and exploit; tension rose. The number of skirmishes skyrocketed and turned to bloody confrontation. A routine intervention at the Krupp factories in Essen on 31 March killed thirteen people and wounded several dozen workers. Germany used and abused in intense, violent propaganda to condemn the “reign of terror” (“Schreckensherrschaft”)[29] created by the French and Belgian troops.[30] By playing the victim, Germany hoped to mobilize the local population and win empathy from abroad, particularly from neutral states. Articles in the press, brochures, pamphlets and posters listed – and often exaggerated and criticized – the acts of violence perpetrated by soldiers. Those targeted by such propaganda denied the charges and in turn laid blame when they were the victims of attacks and acts of sabotage. Several hundred such acts were indeed committed, mainly against railroad lines and communications networks. The most deadly of these attacks struck a train full of Belgian soldiers on leave as it was leaving the station in Hochfeld on the night of 29 to 30 June. The attack killed twelve men and wounded dozens of others. It marked a culmination in the violence, whose overall total is hard to tally. In retaliation, individual and collective sanctions were implemented but caused controversy given how closely they resembled those imposed by the occupier during the war (e.g. the use of human shields on board convoys).[31] By the summer of 1923, things began to calm down.

Indeed, the passive resistance movement failed to reach its goals and began to clearly lose momentum; lassitude and despondency took hold of inhabitants who gradually dissociated themselves from the terrorist acts committed mainly by paramilitary and nationalist groups from non-occupied Germany. By late September, the authorities in Berlin began to criticize the active resistance movement and called for the end of passive resistance. The occupying forces gradually loosened up on discipline. Deportations, which in nine months had affected roughly 140,000 people[32] on both the right and left banks of the Rhine, were suspended. Amnesty measures gradually allowed those affected to return.

In the end, despite a semblance of harmony and solidarity with the French forces on the ground, the occupation only increased Belgium’s distrust of France’s appetency. While France’s Rhenish ambitions were placed on the back burner in the summer of 1919, they were revived in the spring. They materialized over the summer via projects that aimed, for example, to give the region its own currency and an autonomous railroad network. Belgium distrusted these initiatives which underscored the French desire to sustainably establish itself in the region,[33] although the failure of the separatist uprising that broke out in October put an end to such French aspirations.

A Period of Détente (Starting in August 1924)

In 1924 and 1925, the occupation of the Ruhr as productive collateral continued, but was increasingly invisible. At the same time, the policy of conciliation promoted by England resulted – with financial help from the United States – in the elaboration of the Dawes Plan. Approved in London in August 1924, it laid out a rescheduling of reparations and ushered in a period of détente in relations with Germany which was further reinforced the following year by the Locarno Treaties. A policy of appeasement replaced the policy of constraint. On 1 August 1925, the last French and Belgian soldiers left the right bank of the Rhine. On the heels of this, the evacuation of the zone around Cologne was prepared, along with a reshuffling of cards among the Allies and a major scale back in the number of troops still posted on the left bank of the river. From this point forward, only a policy of presence was ensured. And yet despite the diplomatic calm of 1924-1925, the symbolic struggle persisted. The “millennium celebrations” (“rheinische Jahrtausendfeier”), in full swing along the banks of the Rhine in 1925, were an opportunity to reaffirm the German-ness of the region and erase the boundary between the two banks of the river created by the occupation.[34]

In 1930, French and Belgian troops left the territories of the Rhineland five years earlier than the dates stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles. This retreat led to “liberation celebrations” in all of the garrison towns, which appear to further point up the shallow rooting of the spirit of Locarno amongst the “deep forces” of the affected societies.[35]


In all, the French and Belgian presence along the banks of the Rhine lasted twelve years. Between 1919 and 1924, the soldiers and government officials of the occupying forces were less than eager to compromise with those still considered by many to be their historical enemies. Leveraging a balance of power that was temporarily in their favour, they enforced the treaty to a tee and hinged the issue of security on that of reparations. The atmosphere on the ground was tarnished by the war culture that was struggling to dissipate.[36] Episodes that were sometimes extremely violent continued to sully relations with Germany. This war after the war – which was in reality just its continuation – came to an end only after the failure of the invasion of the Ruhr in late 1923. The initiation of the Dawes Plan in 1924 ushered in a period of appeasement in international relations. The idea of a security pact progressed and resulted in the signing of the Locarno treaties in 1925. France, Germany and Belgium recognized their shared border and agreed to not modify it by force. Ten years after the August 1914 declaration of war, cultural demobilization was finally able to begin, alongside a move away from violence in international relations and within belligerent societies. Locarno truly marked the end of the First World War and the start of a period of fragile stabilization that lasted until the dawn of the 1930s.

Anne Godfroid, Musée Royal de l’Armée

Section Editors: Benoît Majerus; Nicolas Beaupré

Translator: Jocelyne Serveau