After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France after the Great War

After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France after the Great War

After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France after the Great War

After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France after the Great War

Synopsis

After the Ruins uses both official and unofficial records to explore a relatively ignored aspect of recent rural history: how the fields, farms, villages and market towns of Northern France were restored during the 1920s in the aftermath of the Great War. The book contains illustrations and many detailed maps and makes use of both official reports and unofficial critical commentaries.

Excerpt

Between August 1914 and November 1918 the northernmost districts of France experienced death and destruction on a scale unparalleled in human history. Farms and factories, villages and market towns were reduced to ruins, and fields that had yielded some of the finest crops in the land became the ‘fields of death’ (Slowe & Woods 1988). Three-quarters of a century later the horrors of what contemporaries called the ‘Great War’ attract our attention through the photographs, paintings and writings of the time. Popular accounts continue to present memories of events, while more scholarly works interpret the conflicts, analyse the roles of leading personalities, and recount the hardships experienced by the armed forces and by ordinary civilians caught up in the war (Gilbert 1994). By contrast with this enormous outpouring of information, the months and years of what the French called reconstitution have been allowed to pass by relatively unnoticed.

As a geographer with research interests in the French countryside in the past as well as in the present, I had examined a fraction of the archival record of agricultural change during the nineteenth century and appreciated that the most productive départements were to be devastated so savagely during the Great War (Clout 1980, 1983). As an academic visitor travelling slowly along the country roads of those areas I became aware that many northern landscapes still display evidence, albeit now rather muted, of the patient reconstitution of what had been lost as well as examples of modest innovation with respect to property boundaries, villages and farmsteads. I began to wonder how this restoration had come about. Was it conceived according to some grand design, formulated by the state, and undertaken by its employees? Was it left to individual property holders to tackle as best they could? Or was it undertaken in some other way? These were some of the leading questions that prompted my subsequent enquiries.

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