Without a doubt, ensuring the security of the border with the Netherlands is the most important task assigned to the battalions of the Landsturm (occupation troops). It's also quite likely the toughest job on the men. In fact, they must follow specific orders: civilians coming too close to the area are twice called upon to stop with a firm "Halt", followed by a warning shot in the air, prior to targeting the outlaw. Though this posting ensures recognition and medals for the battalions, most of the men are happy to leave it.
Border security undergoes many reorganisations over the course of the war years. Until mid-1915, only a few Landsturm guards or soldiers pulled back from the front in order to rest are there to bar the road to French and English soldiers lost behind the lines during the German advance. Watchtowers and floodlights are quickly installed in an effort to stop them, but most still manage to cross into Holland thanks to groups of smugglers. These groups will secure passage to the Netherlands for more than 200 soldiers from the Entente, i.e. the alliance between France, England and Russia.
The start of the war, soldier smugglers and other smugglers
Upon their arrival, the battalions receive bicycles in order to carry out their patrols, in addition to the dozen horses already at their disposal. They establish themselves in the villages, where they also serve as gendarmes, even though the latter role remains secondary.
To encourage the zeal of the troops and to decrease the hardship factor of certain postings, arrests are made lucrative for the people making them. Each one is heralded before the whole battalion, the man responsible for the arrest receives official congratulations, as well as a bonus of at least 5 marks. This system quickly helps the men to enrich themselves; as such, a soldier who single handedly arrested a group of Belgians, Dutch and Swiss received 40 marks (by comparison, a smuggler cost around 20 marks per person)!
The very accurate records of the Würzburg battalion allow for an in-depth study of the nature of the missions that some of its companies, and even all of them, had to perform between February 1915 and mid-1917.
Until August 1915, only two of the battalion's companies are in the area of the front, primarily around Mouland and Beaudael. The sector is considered to be calm even though, during these six months, the two companies will make 762 arrests, including 25 people for food smuggling, 138 people for false papers or lack of papers, 104 people for smuggling of letters or newspapers, 7 "spies and accomplices of the traitors" and, finally, 488 arrests (including 43 Belgians of military age and 4 French soldiers) just for attempting to cross the border. This group of people included railway employee Bury, judged to be a traitor and shot, as well as eight spies, arrested after a long and significant investigation, and are also shot.
The Belgians attempting to cross the border are men wanting to join up with the army, as well as metalworkers, assemblers and engineers trying to reach England in order to participate in the war effort by building weapons and munitions. Most civilians are released the same day, after the goods are seized from any smugglers. The people responsible for more serious actions remain locked up for longer periods, just like the smuggler who spent 52 days in prison, whereas her customers, five women and one child, were released. To avoid having to transport prisoners to Liège, a prison is built in Lixhe and opened in March 1915.
As elsewhere, the border area also feels the consequences of the rumours that are making the rounds at the time. The companies are put on alert in August, in view of fears that the Meuse River will be used to smuggle 1000 hand grenades intended for civilians across the border.
Attempted corruption is commonplace, and only unsuccessful attempts are reported. The guards are offered sums ranging from 20 francs to 50 marks. This problem is reported to be governor of the Liège Kreis. He gathers together all of the officers and learns that corruption is endemic. He orders them to better supervise their men, while recalling the severe penalties applied in case of established guilt.
The Belgians attempting to cross the border are men wanting to join up with the army, as well as metalworkers, assemblers and engineers trying to reach England in order to participate in the war effort by building weapons and munitions.
Electricity and deportations: a new mission
Once put into service, the electric fence results in a sharp decline of evasion attempts in the latter part of 1915 and throughout 1916. In more than a year, from September 1915 to November 1916, the same Würzburg battalion only arrests 385 people, which represents only half of the arrests made in six months by two companies the previous year. For a good understanding of these figures, we must analyse them more accurately. In addition to Belgian men of military age, these arrests include 37 women primarily arrested for contraband soap, letters or newspapers, or as smugglers, 31 Russian prisoners fleeing the labour camps, half a dozen German deserters and a few French civilians, doubtlessly driven from their homes when the front was established in the West. These arrests were made in the regions of Fourons-le-Comte and Mouland. Each company monitors around 12 km of the border. As an example, the first company organises 11 patrols and 27 guard posts.
In these regions, electricity-related deaths are quite rare, with only nine people losing their lives in this manner, most of whom were escaped Russian prisoners who were unaware of the danger. Few striking events occur during this period, other than a significant investigation that causes the troops, starting on 28 December 1915, to monitor the convent of Fourons-le-Comte both day and night. Indeed, at the end of the investigation, the mother superior is found guilty of having smuggled letters across the border. The nun isn't arrested, but the convent remains under close watch until the armistice.
The last major upheaval in the day-to-day lives of the companies guarding the border occurred in November 1916. Indeed, it was on this date that the General Headquarters decided to apply the order to deport thousands of unemployed Belgians to Germany, where they were supposed to receive appropriate wages. On 21 November, the officials in the cities receive a letter asking them to provide an inventory of the names and occupations of all men within the communities. Starting in December, "both small and large groups of Belgians attempt to cross the border with all of their possessions in order to avoid this fate". On four occasions in November, the electric fence is attacked using insulating tools, while one guard post comes under attack using revolvers and an old hunting rifle.
After two years at the border, the commander of the Würzburg battalion, now transferred to Tilff, gives a quick appraisal. "This mission was doubtlessly the one that will provide them with the most honours and medals, but it was also the most difficult that they had to fulfil, complete with its share of danger, resulting in the deaths of 3 men in service at the border. The responsibilities were also the greatest, and men who do not correctly carry out their duties must be severely judged, with several men having in fact been condemned to death […]".
At the end of the investigation, the mother superior is found guilty of having smuggled letters across the border.