Thursday, January 4, 2024

How One Aspect of Adolf Hitler's War Machine Devastated Hundreds of Thousands of French Lives

By Donna Wichelman

In December, I began a multi-month series on the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two. Based on the accounts of three lovely women and one gentleman alive as young children during the war—Mme Pierrette Couillandeau, Mme Marie-José Delage, Mme Josette Melinon, and Msr René Avril—we’ll be talking about their personal experiences and how they relate to the occupation between June 1940 and July 1944.

Mme Pierrette Couillandeau and Mme Marie-José Delage, Libourne, France
Donna's Gallery, October 2023
Mme Pierrette Couillandeau and Mme Marie-José Delage were still young children and friends in Libourne when France capitulated to Aldolf Hitler’s German Army in June 1940. Like most French families, they were uneasy about the armistice France signed in 1919, ending the First World War. But while Mme Delage’s father had been wounded during World War I and experienced what we would today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and therefore wasn't required to serve, Mme Couillandeau’s father had a different experience.

Believing another war was inevitable, France built the Maginot Line, a series of concrete fortifications and weapons installations along their border with Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Italy during the 1930s to counteract an attack by the Germans. But the German Army made a surprise attack north of Saarbrücken in rugged forested terrain where no one expected, allowing them to break through French defenses, storming the country west and southward.

German Army Shows Japanese Officials Maginot Line
Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Mme Couillandeau’s father was one of the French troops stationed in a village along the Maginot Line. He shouldn’t have been there. For one thing, he was too old at age thirty-six and had two children with mouths to feed. Moreover, he was a baker, and bakers were protected from military service by a law dating back to 1798 during the French Revolution, which said that the authorities could “commandeer bakeries and …. keep the masses in bread.” But Mme Couillandeau’s father had not declared his status and suffered the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Boulangerie Spécialité Pan Gascon, Since the Reign of Louis XV in 1765
Donna’s Gallery, October 2023

Boulangerie Spécialité Pan Gascon, Baking Bread Since Louis XV in 1765
Donna’s Gallery, October 2023
As the story goes, the men in Mme Couillandeau’s father’s unit took turns watching for German soldiers from the top of a church. One day, her father and one of his buddies were on the lookout but unaware that their unit had pulled out. They were left behind to be caught by the Germans and made prisoners of war. Her father was returned to his family in 1943 at a time when they were liberating the older prisoners and sending the younger ones to work in the Compulsory Work Service (Service du travail obligatoire or STO) for the German government.

STO required the forced enlistment and deportation of French men to Germany to work for the German war effort. Created under the regulations of Vichy France—the puppet government under Marshal Philippe Pétain, Hitler’s Vichy President—between 600,000 and 650,000 men from June 1942 to July 1944 were sent to work camps to compensate for the loss of German manpower as more and more soldiers were needed at the Eastern Front. The German government promised that one French prisoner of war would be released for every three men sent to Germany under the compulsory system. 

In Paris, French men and women being chosen for work in GermanyDeparture of STO workers from the Paris-Nord station in 1943
In the beginning, before STO became compulsory, Pierre Lave, Prime Minister of the Vichy government, sold the enactment of relève as a volunteer work program to help secure the release of French prisoners of war. One French prisoner of war would be released for every three volunteer workers from France. It’s probable the “suggestion” came from Fritz Sauckel in, also known as the “slavemaster of Europe,” who was appointed by the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment and charged  in March 1942 with finding labor in Europe. Eighty thousand prisoners of war were exchanged for 24,000 French workers during the Relève program.

But Sauckel’s demands became increasingly demanding, probably because Germany needed labor for their war machine. By April 23, 1943, Sauckel instituted the Compulsory Work Service, requisitioning 120,000 workers in May, 100,000 in June, and another 500,000 in August. However, the numbers were never achieved because the French began evading German compulsory demands by joining the French Resistance. At least 200,000 of them went into hiding.

Members of French Resistance March in Liberation Celebration in Libourne, France
Libourne City Archives
Mme Couillandeau’s father was one of the prisoners of war who was fortunate to come home because of the STO exchange program, though perhaps he could have evaded it altogether if he had declared his status as a baker from the start. Unfortunately, he did not, leaving two bakers at home, an eighteen-year-old young man who had just finished his training and a fifteen-year-old apprentice. Mme Couillandeau’s mother also delivered the bread using a cart she pushed around the community.

Upon Mme Couillandeau’s father’s return, he wanted to take back his old occupation and play cards with friends in a bar on the square in Libourne. But they told him they had made substantial money in the market, and he realized he had been a prisoner of war all the while they had made a lot of money. It was a bitter pill to swallow. He sold his shop and went to Bordeaux.

As I contemplated this real-life story, I was once more struck with the irony of how the war affected Mme Couillandeau's family every bit as much as Mme Delage's. In different ways, both men had become casualties of war, Mme Delage's father to experiencing PTSD during the First World War, and Mme Couillandeau's father to Adolf Hitler's war machine. In both cases, neither theirs nor their families' lives would ever be the same. It's something for all of us to ponder as we consider our contemporary world and those who would use war as a means to conquer and destroy other nations.

Donna worked as a communications professional before turning to full-time writing. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various inspirational publications. She also has two indie-published Christian contemporary suspense novels in her Waldensian Series, Light Out of Darkness and Undaunted Valor. She is working on a World War Two historical slip-time project.

Weaving history and faith into stories of intrigue and redemption grew out of her love of history and English literature as a young adult while attending the United World College of the Atlantic--an international college in Wales, U.K. She loves to
explore peoples and cultures of the world and enjoys developing plots that show how God's love abounds even in the profoundly difficult circumstances of our lives. Her stories reflect the hunger in all of us for love, forgiveness, and redemption in a world that often withholds second chances. You can find out more about Donna Wichelman or sign up for her newsletter at

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today, and Happy New Year to you and your family.