Forced Labour and Prisoners of War

During the First World War, a great number of prisoners of war were transferred to camps in the BIE-region. Most of them were llied soldiers who had been captured by the Germans and set to work behind or on the front line. But it wasn’t just enemy combatants who were forced into labour by the Germans; a large number of civilians from the BIE-region received the same treatment.

The prisoners of war were accommodated in barrack-style camps, such as the large POW camp for Russian prisoners on the corner of the Diksmuidsesteenweg and the Oude Rozebekestraat in Hooglede. The detained Russian soldiers were deployed to perform construction work and repairs on the German military infrastructure. The Russian prisoners were treated poorly, and starvation was not uncommon among them. The Hooglede-camp was fenced off with barbed wire and was calculated to hold over 500 prisoners, as well as a number of Belgian civilians who had been accused of refusal of work or smuggling. 

In Izegem, the castle of Wallemote was converted into a POW camp for Italian prisoners; the Italianenlaan in the area of the VTI still serves as a reminder of the soldiers who were put to work there. Other labour camps were located in the area of Moorslede and Staden. In the second half of September 1917, another POW camp for Russian prisoners was installed in Ingelmunster, where captives were forced to work in pioneer campsites and ammunition depots, or to execute repairs on local railroads. In all camps, it was strictly forbidden to address, greet or call out to the prisoners, or to hand them food or other provisions. 

Like the prisoners of war, claimed Belgian civilians were sometimes set to work on the front line, where they risked getting caught in shootings and bombings. Those who refused to work were either fined, detained in local labour camps or shipped off to prison camps in Germany, such as the ones in Munster and Soltau. Because the German prison camps were open to inspection by the international authorities, living conditions in those camps were bearable compared to the barrack-style camps in Belgium. Nevertheless, the standard of housing, nutrition and hygiene remained spartan. 

Many civilians from towns and villages in the BIE-region were asked to work for the German occupier at some point or other. Initially, civilians typically entered the German work force voluntarily and were paid for services rendered. Later on, the voluntary labour became mandatory, as civilians were claimed to perform roadworks and carpentry tasks. A number of citizens in Hooglede were claimed by the Germans to set up their lines of defence. From April 1915 on, all resilient men in the town of Izegem were expected to present themselves on a monthly basis on the main square. In Izegem, all male inhabitants between the ages of 16 and 45 were obliged to report for duty on a fixed number of days, on penalty of a fine or a 6-week prison sentence. The same applied to women between the ages of 16 and 40. Similar impositions were heavily protested against in Lichtervelde and Beveren. On November 9th, 1916, 26 men who had failed to report to the German authorities in Lichtervelde were violently abducted from their homes and incarcerated. Throughout the winter, the men were removed from their cells every day and put on display in the cold market square. 

The fact that a considerable portion of the BIE-region's population had joined the German ranks did not sit well with the Allied troops. On June 8th 1915, a British aeroplane dropped a note on each of the towns and villages, condemning the “cowardly patriots, who betrayed the most sacred of all causes for blood money” and issuing the following warning to "all collaborators great and small": “You are the most unworthy of people, and revenge will be upon you.”