From the start of the war, ensuring the security of rail convoys coming from Germany and going to the Western Front is crucial. Battalions of Landsturm (occupation soldiers) are naturally assigned to carry out this task within the territory of the "Generalgouvernement Belgien".
This is one of the first tasks assigned to them upon their arrival in Belgium. Troop transports continue to circulate both day and night, with the Landsturm soldiers deployed starting in 1914 on the vital inter-city tracks in Liège, notably the ones that cross the Meuse.
All of the railway sections that are useful for the German troops are defined and distributed to German battalions. The areas that include vital points such as bridges or tunnels are naturally much more limited in number, which makes it possible to concentrate troops around these structures. Similarly, country areas are much more extended (20 to 25 km per battalion) than is the case within the cities.
Finally, in August, the patrols once again become more intensive, after rumours of an attack "under the orders of a very blond 24-year-old Frenchman".
A vital mission…
The men posted along the railways are not assigned to the most complicated of tasks. The officers writing the war journals exercise their imagination in order to find 1001 ways of describing the inertia that provides the rhythm of their days. Starting in 1916, they record the arrest of food thieves operating in the army's supply trains, but the punishments inflicted on these thieves remain very light. The only moments of excitement are tied to rumours of attacks conveyed by the commanding officers, or external events that could result in risks of an uprising. As such, rumours of this type lead to increased patrols in early November 1914, with alarms bells ringing incessantly between the 14th and 16th of the month. These noises are associated with the King's Feast, which could result in protests. Nonetheless, the nights remain calm.
The danger is not only from within, however. A period of disturbances starts on 23 September 1915. Indeed, until October 28th, the battalions in charge of the railways are on virtually constant alert. On September 23rd, the German secret police provides information indicating that 15 French agents will be entering the general government territory within the coming days. Civilians are kept away from the tracks, and the number of stationed guards is doubled, particularly around tunnels. All is calm for the first night, but new orders arrive from the general headquarters starting the next morning. Indeed, French planes had been spotted above Belgium, and they supposedly dropped off passengers. An African fighter plane has already been captured. The orders found on the pilot refer to the destruction of the Chimay-Marianol line. The general headquarters then envisages the possibility of a major destruction operation carried out by the enemy throughout the centre of Belgium, as the prelude to an attack. This scenario is confirmed by the content of a document from the Hasselt police, which relates a prisoner's comments that a generalized attack on the railways, and especially tunnels, is planned for the following night. This second night remains quiet though the guards remain on high alert, as they have been ordered to be ready to deal with the presence of enemy secret agents armed with pistols or even with "poisoned cigarettes". Such alarmist orders continue to circulate and "increasing numbers of Belgians and Frenchmen are arrested for wanting to destroy the railway lines". The number of guards is again increased, which leads to the arrest of a Belgian who had been circulating without a pass in the rue Natalis in Liège, on the railway bridge. He's taken to the palace prison. In early October, rumours circulate about an attack targeting the Aachen – Liège line. The arrest of Pierre Adolf, a French aviator whose aircraft had been shot down above Belgium and who was trying to get across the French border in civilian clothes, heightens these concerns. Finally, a new psychosis replaces the fear of attacks on the railways: the bombing of the tracks. Orders intended to counter this threat arrive in the second half of October and, for the first time, they promise a bonus of 1000 marks to anyone who stops an activist.
1916 begins calmly enough, but this calm is shattered by the occurrence of three events. In May, an enemy spy is arrested in the province of Hasselt. After interrogation, he admits having received orders to initiate a large railway sabotage campaign behind the German lines, in order to facilitate an offensive by the Entente at the end of May. The patrols and outposts are strengthened as a result. At the end of July, patrols are increased once again in view of the Emperor's visit. Finally, in August, the patrols once again become more intensive, after rumours of an attack "under the orders of a very blond 24-year-old Frenchman".
1917 and 1918 also see little movement on the railways, other than a few rumours initiated in early 1917 by agents in the Netherlands, claiming that Belgian activists are preparing for attacks against tunnels and engineering works in Liège.
As the months pass, the psychosis dissipates and the attention begins to slacken.
… and that serves as a reward!
Battalions that distinguish themselves, notably at the Dutch border, are sometimes rewarded for their bravery by the government, with an assignment to monitor the railways. In fact, assignments at the border are known for being difficult both physically and mentally, unlike those related to the railways.
For example, after two difficult years at the border, the Würzburg battalion is transferred to the "most beautiful territory of the Liège government", the fields in the valleys of the Ourthe and the Amblève, where they will perform "very calm" work. Indeed, these districts are of lesser importance for the German war effort, in particular when compared with the Valley of the Vesdre. Dispersed over more than 80 km, the companies are very happy with their posting.
For a year and a half, i.e. until the end of the war, the daily duties of these men are limited to the organisation of guard posts and patrols, putting out brushfires along the tracks that had been started by the passage of somewhat excessively hot locomotives, arresting a few local smugglers, organising the departure of French refugees and working in the fields.
In the order of priorities of the occupiers, the security of the railways fluctuated somewhat. In 1914 and 1915, obsessed with stories about irregulars, the German governors gradually slip into a state of paranoia and assign a large part of their resources, notably in manpower, to monitoring the railways. As the months pass, the psychosis dissipates and the attention begins to slacken, except along the main tracks that remain well guarded (such as the Liège-Brussels line). Being assigned to protecting the railways brings the troops less prestige than postings at the borders, meaning that the men received fewer honours and medals. Nevertheless, most of the time, the Landsturm companies prefer to carry out secondary tasks while comfortably sitting in the heart of the countryside.