# The missions of the Germans : posts and patrols

The German pointy helmet  - Private collection, Mr. Willy DE BUSSCHER ©

The German pointy helmet - Private collection, Mr. Willy DE BUSSCHER ©

With the exception of the city centres, posts and patrols are organised as part of the protection of the railways. As such, a company in charge of the security of a track between several villages is often, at the same time, assigned the role of a gendarme. Nevertheless, this latter mission encompasses fundamentally different realities: as is happening with regard to the railways, the missions of the battalions posted in the city evolve over the course of the war. Patrols and guard posts in and of themselves remain until November 1918, while their related missions change over time.

Indeed, an absurd rumour states that 400 irregulars have gathered in the woods and are about to swoop down on Liège.

1914 : irregulars hidden everywhere?

The first task entrusted to the battalions upon their arrival in the cities involves the active search for all weapons in the possession of civilians. Throughout September, as the alarm rings on a daily basis, investigations are carried out in the "homes, villas, gardens" of individuals, with no great success. For example, the Erlangen battalion scours the Saint-Gilles district in Liège, then inhabited by 9000 persons, including "many Germans". Only two visits to homes bear any fruit. The first, based on denunciations from a German in the neighbourhood, leads to the most significant discoveries: 20 hunting rifles, 8 revolvers, 3 bayonets and 9 cases of grenade detonators are seized in the Saint-Gilles district. The second leads to the seizure of 32 revolvers without ammunition in another neighbourhood. These searches also bring to light the presence of certain precious items such as an automobile and 700 L of gasoline, as well as correspondence and four Japanese who are taken prisoner (the reason for their presence in Belgium remains unknown). More rarely, these searches result in the capture of wounded Belgian soldiers, taken in by the inhabitants. The military hospitals that accommodate them are placed under guard, both day and night. In one particular case, the reason for which is unknown, the presence of a single man will nevertheless mobilise 18 men and one non-commissioned officer.

These rather fruitless searches are abandoned as of October, giving way to shooting and alarm exercises, and to training marches. In reality, some men have not touched a rifle in years, and twice a week for months, each company in turn comes to the communal firing range in order to become more familiar with their new weapons, some of which are of Belgian manufacturer and, later, of Russian manufacturer.

Battalions in the city centre are also dragged along by the consequences of rumoured attacks. At the end of September, anonymous German civilians inform the government that a revolt has been planned by the population and will be carried out on the 27th, with the main target being the bridges over the Meuse. Nevertheless, the nights once again remain calm. The most bizarre rumours circulate in the battalions, particularly relative to the King's Feast that takes place on November 15th. As such, it is heard that on November 8th, Belgian reservists and volunteers will be routed towards Maastricht with the help of the civil guard and the police and that, on the 9th, there will be an attack on the Meuse, where the workers will gather! A crazy rumour keeps the companies on alert for two nights, namely 6 and 7 October. Indeed, the first company of the Würzburg battalion indicates that 400 irregulars have gathered in the woods and are about to swoop down on Liège. While these rumours may appear to be fantastic, they produce a palpable fear, conveyed by the legend of irregulars, that fills the occupier with expectations of popular uprisings.

The men who leave the cities in order to serve as gendarmes in the country receive thanks from the burgomaster for the police services that they provide.

1915 : return of calm and reorganisation

The arrival of 1915 marks the end of this period of panic, and the return of calm. The daily routine is punctuated by rifle and, later, machine-gun shooting practice, training of all kinds, and sometimes long marches. The patrols must then ensure compliance with the curfew, help with the transportation of prisoners and carry out confiscations of metals from the population, such as copper. More numerous are the arrests for theft, contraband in illegal newspapers or even attacks on German citizens. The patrols are rarely required to use their weapons. The usage of firearms in the city is governed by strict rules, perhaps with the aim of channelling the men who occasionally lose their composure. For example, the command structure is obliged to clarify that firing at an aircraft is prohibited without a specific order from an officer, and to specify to the posts and patrols along the Meuse that they must remain attentive and "not shoot at the labourers".

One of the new missions involves monitoring civilians of military age, with the aim of discouraging candidates from travelling to the Netherlands. Moreover, since September 1915, these men have been required to check in every month with the Meldeamt in order to sign an attendance register. The authorities strengthen the oversight to which these men are already subject: every two or three days, Landsturm (occupation soldiers) troops in small groups travel to the various villages and suburbs in order to verify that these men are still in their homes.

In an effort to help the men to diversify their skills, new training sessions in trades such as dog handler or train conductor are made available.

The men who leave the cities in order to serve as gendarmes in the country receive thanks from the burgomaster for the police services that they provide. The characteristics of the missions entrusted to the gendarmes in the villages can be quite original. As such, in Hesbaye, there are countless arrests, particularly for smuggling. In the months of May and June 1916, the company in charge of the gendarmerie arrests some 20 smugglers of cereals and potatoes, 26 people for violating the curfew, and half a dozen postal smugglers. Inversely, villages that are not on the routes used by smugglers are not confronted with events of this kind.

During the harvest months in 1917 and 1918, primarily in Hesbaye, the Landsturm are required to clamp down on embryonic revolts that goes so far as public lynchings of farmers and "hoarders" by a crowd of famished labourers.

The war goes on, routine sets in

The day-to-day routine is made up of ordinary tasks, often more comparable with civilian work than with the duties normally assigned to soldiers. The men are called on to monitor the harvests, but also to gather and seize the wool produced in the region in order to prevent it from being sold too expensively on the markets, while also having to install barbed wire and put out fires. During summer months, they must cut down poplars or cut and gather forage or wild grasses, as well as nettles. Finally, as part of their policing duties, there is an increase in the number of arrests of thieves in the countryside, caught in the act of rummaging through farms in search of food. According to the officer drafting the field journal, this phenomenon is due to "famished inhabitants of the surrounding industrial cities and locations", and it results in an increase in the number of patrols during harvest times. When confronted with such cases of theft, the men on patrol are even authorised to use their weapons. Over the years, Belgian civilian patrols are also implemented in order to complete the surveillance provided by German patrols.

The patrols must also deal with the many Russian prisoners who, transferred en masse to Belgium in order to work on the jobsite of the Aachen-Tongres line, escape by the dozens and even hundreds. Between June and December 1917, dozens of fleeing Russian prisoners are arrested, including some who have been on the run for more than two months. Most are alone when arrested, but the patrols sometimes come across groups. The occupiers are also required to arrest their co-citizens who have deserted. The command structure congratulates them for these actions.

In conclusion, the tasks assigned to the troops as part of the posts and patrols clearly vary on the basis of the time and location. Indeed, the men patrolling the city in 1914, nervous and filled with tales of irregulars, move into a much more serene daily routine once posted to the countryside. Nevertheless, this idyllic tranquility in the countryside is interrupted at certain times. As such, during the harvest months in 1917 and 1918, primarily in Hesbaye, the Landsturm are required to clamp down on embryonic revolts that goes so far as public lynchings of farmers and "hoarders" by a crowd of famished labourers. For such missions, they are ordered to fire on civilians.

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