Civilians in Wartime: Then and Now


Categorie: History, Kevin Knodell |
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Civilians at Normandy.

Civilians at Normandy.


The “war on terror” has sparked a lot of debate about the relationship between combatants and non-combatants. There has been heated debate about rules of engagement and the escalation of force, and the balancing act that soldiers face in preserving the lives of their comrades and those of civilians. An Army lieutenant colonel told me that this was a new challenge for military planners and soldiers.

Not so, according to the 1st Canadian Army Operations Order for the 1944 invasion of Normandy, which I read at the British National Archive earlier this year:

To put affront, no matter how small, upon a people who have already suffered long at the hands of an occupying army, would be to inspire the same spirit of obstructionism which the German policies have induced. Interference with the person or property of civs is justified only by dire mil necessity

The feeding of civs under certain circumstances may become a mil commitment – this will be decided by local mil comd.

The control of refugees is essentially a staff responsibility implemented by Civ Affairs. Refugee reception areas will be established as require, from which refugees will be dispersed.

In diaries and on interview tapes, Allied veterans of the campaign related that civilians were a frequent concern. Displaced persons were often a nuisance to soldiers, as fleeing refugees frequently clogged the roads, blocking convoys and creating a logistical headache.

At times, civilians were a danger to soldiers. I came across at least two accounts of French civilians opening fire on Canadian troops. One was a teenage girl, evidently pro-German, who attacked Canadian troops with a rifle shortly after the landing. Another was a territorial French farmer who’d allegedly fired a shotgun at Canadian troops.

At the same time, soldiers often relied on the assistance of the locals for directions and intelligence as they tried to navigate the hedgerows and ruined towns, just as soldiers in today’s wars often depend on locals for intel.


One Response to “Civilians in Wartime: Then and Now”

  1. Prestwick says:

    Great War veteran Harry Patch had an interesting account of his interaction with local civilians. At that time during the First World War, when British and Commonwealth servicemen were taken off the front to rest they were usually put to work maintaining communications trenches, ferrying supplies to the front and so on (basically anything but R&R) and were billeted usually at either abandoned farms or farms still in use. Harry and his company were billeted at just such an active farm near Ypres in Belgium and home to a very annoyed Belgian.

    Why annoyed? Well it was because there was something in the region of 200 odd men going about drawing water from his water pump which supplied his entire farm and he was scared that it going to run dry so after complaining to the CO a guard was posted at the pump which didn’t work because if you knew the guard then “you could help yourself!” So the farmer took the handle to the pump away!

    Harry was a plumber by trade however and jury rigged a wooden handle to the pump to get it working again but when the time came to go back to the trenches and he took the temporary handle off it broke the pump altogether! Oops! :S

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