World War I Belgium: German Atrocities--Forced Labor

German atrocities in Belgium forced labor
Figure 1.--These are Belgian workers conscripted for forced labor and deported by the Germans. the photograph is not dated, but we suspect was taken about 1917. Notice the German guards. There seem to be quite a few for such a small group. These men were not systemetically abused, but the Germans were experiencing food shortages, and the Belgians in German labor camps were not a high priority. In Belgium they had access to American food relief. Onece in German laboir camps, it was the German responsibility to feed them. Many but an unknown number died as a result of malnutrition. Survivors returning home after the War were in dredful condition (1918).

The War, especially, as it dragged on created a severe labor shortage in Germany. Both industrial workers and agricultural labor were concripted by the military in the meat grinder the war became. This adversely affected production, especially agricultural harvests. The German occupation authorities as the War dragged on began conscripting Belgians for forced labor (October 1916). The German occupation authorities noticed that a lot of Belgian workers were not working as a result of the war. The Germans estimated that there were some 0.5 million Belgians who were not working. This was possible because of American relief food reaching occupied Belgium. German military commanders began calling the Belgians as 'arbeitsscheu' (afraid of working). Yhey hit upon the idea of making them useful to the German war effort. The calculation was that every German worker in the factory or farms that could be replaced by a Belgian was an additional German soldier for the front. Most of the conscripts were deported to Germany. Some went to northern France. Beligums living close to the frontline in western Flanders were not intened in labor camps, but were forced to work for the Germans near their homes, helping to build the German trenches and other works. We are not sure if they were included in the numbers of Belgians conscripted. One historian reports that 120,000 Belgian workers were conscripted. [Cook, pp. 10207.] The number may well have been larger. This would be a template on how the Germans would deal with its World War II labor shortage, albeit on a much larger scale and with more murderous intent. This is not a well-studied subject. Conditions in the came were rough. One journalist reporter into the subject tells us, "The number of Belgians that was ordered to work for the German regime that was installed during the First World War, has been heavily underestimated so far." He references the work being done by researchefr Donald Buyze from the Wervik region (West Flanders). Buyze reports that the number of people that died as a result, is much higher than has been reported in the literature. Buyze got interested in the subject because of his grandfather--Victor Perneel. His was conscripted by the Germans during the German 'Verordnung' (October 1916). He was put on a train with hundreds of others Belgian workers. They were deported to Northern France. Once in German labor camps, they no longer received American relief supplies. "Hunger, hunger, hunger. These are the words he repeated most of the time to me". His grandfather had a weight of 35 kilos when the war ended. His normal weight as a young man in his 20s was 70 kilos. [Torfs]


Cook, Bernard A. Belgium: A History (2002).

Torfs, Michael. "Forced labour during First World War 'underestimated'," Flanders News.BE (November 17, 2014).


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Created: 9:27 PM 3/2/2016
Last updated: 9:27 PM 3/2/2016