Marie-Rose Piedfort is an 83-year-old woman currently living in the Charleroi region. A former teacher with an interest in her region and history, she responded to our call for witnesses and told us her family's story. Her family was affected by the war in countless ways, and is an example of how civilians were affected by the German invasion in August 1914. Marie-Rose told us about her paternal grandfather who witnessed the German atrocities in Falisolle, near Tamines, about her father accompanied by his aunt and sister who fled the advancing Germans and their violence in order to take refuge in France, and also about her mother, Rose, who was also a Belgian refugee in France. In a touching manner, and so that "no one would forget", she told us about her story, that of her village and of her family.
Falisolle is a small village in the Namur region, currently attached to Sambreville. It's located between Tamines and Fosses-la-Ville, with Aiseau-Presles to the west. It's a primarily agricultural region, with a growing population. In 1914, there were just over 3000 inhabitants. The inhabitants, like everyone in the region, were witnesses and victims of the clashes between German and French troops on 22 and 23 August 1914. They were also the unwilling victims of the reprisals that befell the village.
The Piedfort family lives near the Falisolle train station. The father, Jean-Baptiste, and the mother, Augustine, were married in Fosses-la-Ville in 1891. She's from Fosses-la-Ville, while he's from Falisolle. He's a clogmaker / cobbler, but their house in Falisolle also serves as a café. Augustine serves customers while Jean-Baptiste repairs their shoes. Very soon, their daughter Marie is born in 1892. When she's 16 years old, the family grows to include a boy, Maurice, the father of Marie-Rose, born in 1907. He's therefore seven years old when the war starts. So that his wife and two children will be safe from the invaders, Jean-Baptiste encourages Augustine to leave. We don't know exactly when or with what means, though it's more than likely that the young mother set out on the road on foot, together with her 2 children, but it is certain that they headed off in the direction of France, leaving behind them a village that will suffer.
A village under fire
On 20 August, French and German troops clash near Sambreville, and in the coming days, the fighting between the soldiers is fierce. On 22 August, German troops are approaching, coming from Tamines where they left carnage the day before, pillaging, burning, mistreating civilians and shooting 400 men that same day.
To defend Falisolle and slow the possible advance of the German soldiers into the village as much as possible, one French soldier, Lefeuvre, from the 70th infantry Regiment, performs heroically while holding the Falisolle bridge and shooting several German soldiers.
To explain the violence of the previous days, a French soldier posted elsewhere in the village, having been wounded and lost consciousness during the firefight, describes the scene: “When I woke up, I could see nothing but bodies”.
Pushing the French army that is forced to fall back on Fosses-la-Ville, the German troops enter Falisolle. Jean-Baptiste is then hiding in a friend's cellar where he had taken refuge at some point beforehand, but on 22 August 1914, it's barely 30 m away from the Demanet pharmacy that Jean-Baptiste, incapable of doing anything else, witnesses the carnage: homes are pillaged, some are burned. The dead and wounded from both sides lie here and there. German soldiers spread throughout the village, searching everywhere. Very nervous, they order the pharmacist Demanet, whose pharmacy is opposite the location where Jean-Baptiste has taken refuge, to come out of the cellar where he has been hiding with his wife and children. The pharmacist obeys, leaves his home and is promptly shot down by the Germans. One can only presume that they suspected him of having tried to help Allied soldiers. Bled white, the pharmacist Demanet dies on the doorstep of his house, a few metres from his family that has heard everything. For his own part, the life of Jean-Baptiste is probably only spared because he remained hidden throughout the above scene, even though the confusion of events does not serve to provide a definitive and precise account.
For better or worse, Jean-Baptiste manages to make it back to his home, located a few metres from there. He hides in the cellar, that contains the large cistern used by his café. These memories will never leave him, remaining with him for his entire life.
The Germans gather the men in the village square. They include the burgomaster, whom the Germans accuse of having allowed citizens to shoot at them. They take 14 men and shoot them as an example and to terrorize the rest of the population, as though this were still necessary.
Wounded soldiers are everywhere in the village. Abbot Sohier, parish priest at Falisolle, writes: “It was a pitiful spectacle around the chapel. Amongst the bodies, I found the body of abbot Degouay, from the Bayeux diocese. A little further, in the field of oats, a certain number of the wounded had gathered; others had already been accommodated in neighbouring homes. In one of them, I met up with abbot Lerouzic, from the Vannes diocese. It was then very difficult not only to transport the wounded, but to look after their care and feeding." The wounded will be looked after in an "ambulance" set up not far away. Some soldiers will remain in the village for several weeks.
As far as the German soldiers responsible for massacring civilians, they're never identified, even though one can assume that they're the same men who committed the massacres in the neighbouring community of Tamines. Traumatized by the attack on civilians and the violence of the exchanges between soldiers, Jean-Baptiste nevertheless remains in the village and survives thanks to his business, the cobbler's shop, and probably thanks to the vegetables from his garden.
So that his wife and two children will be safe from the invaders, Jean-Baptiste encourages Augustine to leave. We don't know exactly when or with what means, though it's more than likely that the young mother set out on the road on foot, together with her 2 children, but it is certain that they headed off in the direction of France, leaving behind them a village that will suffer.
To protect the family and to avoid witnessing the arrival of the fighting in Falisolle, Augustine therefore took to the road with her children and headed to nearby France. The route is long and the roads are difficult, especially for little Maurice. It's likely that, in her exile, she was accompanied by other village inhabitants wishing to ensure the safety of their children, but the little group very likely came across other people from the surrounding regions who all shared the same desire: to leave Belgium, feeling lost and uncertain if they would ever see it again.
For Augustine, Marie and Maurice, the final destination will be the city of Caen in Normandy. France accommodates vast numbers of Belgian refugees during the First World War and, obviously, the regions of northern France are the first to receive the streams of people fleeing the war.
They included our witness' maternal grandmother. Her name is Rose and her family takes refuge in Cabourg, not very far from Le Havre, where the French government has taken refuge. Rose has fond memories of this exile. Known as the "pretty little Belgian girl", she sees her mother enter the service of well-heeled French people wishing to forget the war at the coast, and from them, she receives clothing and attention that soften the impact of her exile. Rose forgets the Walloon dialect common in Falisolle, now an occupied village, and will henceforth only express herself in French.
To meet its needs, the Piedfort family can count on the support committees for Belgian refugees that, initially, provide them with accommodations, clothing and food, as well as on the decisions taken by the French authorities and the Belgian government that has taken refuge in Le Havre since October 1914.
Caen is only some 80 km from Le Havre, and many Belgians find themselves geographically grouped not far from the headquarters of the authorities. The refugees try to keep busy, as much as they can, or to make themselves useful: Maurice's sister Marie Piedfort uses her talents as a teacher in order to give lessons to young Belgians who have been disorientated by the conflict. The family is well-liked, and establishes relationships. They will never forget the solidarity conveyed to them by the French.
In 1917, with the front having stabilised for months, Augustine decides to return to Belgium in an effort to meet up with Jean-Baptiste. Perhaps she had had news from him? Perhaps Jean-Baptiste himself asked her to return, with the situation in Falisolle having calmed down? In any event, without knowing what to expect in Belgium, Augustine, Marie and Maurice get back on the road, in the opposite direction. Their trip, the exact dates and resting point of which are unknown, will take them via Paris, Switzerland, Germany, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and finally the Belgian border, and just beyond it, their dear village of Falisolle. It's a massive journey to cover a distance that is, after all, only 470 km away in a straight line.
It's likely that, in her exile, she was accompanied by other village inhabitants wishing to ensure the safety of their children, but the little group very likely came across other people from the surrounding regions who all shared the same desire: to leave Belgium, feeling lost and uncertain if they would ever see it again.
Return to the country and end of the war
But the return home, despite the happiness of the family being together and the concerns of seeing the war continue, even far from the village, is not easy. One must "deal with" the fact of the missing and the memories of a village shaken to its very core, as well as with the occupier that demonstrates its authority with orders and requisitions that can sometimes be absurd. Marie resumes her position as teacher that she had held before leaving for France, but life under the occupation isn't easy, especially in material terms, and despite small pleasures.
At the end of 1918, the Armistice comes. Falisolle is liberated. “They had had enough”, Marie-Rose says. The region and the village had already given so much for the war. All the family wanted was to get back to normal life, without the enemy occupation, but without forgetting. Very soon, the significance of the memories and a desire to honour the lost bring together the region's inhabitants in ceremonies that attract vast crowds.
The war greatly affected a large number of families in Tamines, Arsimont, Aiseau and Roselies. Even today, the community of Falisolle is marked by the German atrocities of 1914 and by four years of occupation. Marie-Rose was born at the start of the 1930s. Her first name, combining the first names of her two grandmothers, will soon transform into “Mimie”, a nickname known to everyone in the region. Just like her aunt, she will make her career as a teacher in the region. As a child, she would especially recall the remembrance ceremonies, and an abbot-teacher who had fought in the war. Returning as an invalid, he often told the children about the horror of the conflict, and openly expressed resistance during the second worldwide conflict.
Marie-Rose still remembers the women dressed in black, marked by adversity: “That generation didn't go out much, they lived in mourning all their lives”. The wounds of the first war had not yet healed when the second, different in many ways but with the same enemy nation, also befell them. Exile is immediate, the family doesn't want to risk a repeat of the events of 1914. Once again, they return to the village and Marie-Rose, then around 10 years old, has her turn with the requisitioning of their home by a German officer, deprivations, rationing coupons and the joy of the liberation. She can still remember the arrival of Allied soldiers in the village, and the relief that peace finally brought. Later, she marries Mr. Bar whose family had also headed off in the direction of France in 1914, but without ever crossing her family's path.
It's the memory of those people touched by violence and grief, but also of all of the soldiers who fell for Falisolle, that Marie-Rose wishes to perpetuate, which is why she decided to tell us her family's story. Hers is but one of many examples of how civilians were affected by the Great War, especially the inhabitants who experienced the arrival of the Germans, though a touching example that demonstrates the importance of preserving the history of these families that witnessed the Great War.
The wounds of the first war had not yet healed when the second, different in many ways but with the same enemy nation, also befell them.
For more information
Private archives: Personal collection of Mrs. Piedfort
Malbruny, C. , La vague allemande sur le pays de Charleroi, D. Hallet, 1919
http://www.horizon14-18.eu consulted in March/April 2014
http://www.sambre-marne.yser.be consulted in March/April 2014
With our thanks to Mrs. Piedfort