By November 1918, the fighting at the Western Front had transformed much of Northern and Eastern France into a wasteland, and emptied the area of its population. The exodus had begun in autumn 1914, when over half a million French civilians, and many more Belgians, fled the German invasion. By September 1918, the number of refugees in France reached 1.85 million – almost 5% of the national population. The Armistice of 11 November 1918 opened up the prospect of resettlement and reconstruction. Yet the return home would be a fraught and difficult process for many, as refugees struggled to rebuild their lives on the former battlefields.
But in the years after 1918, just as the domestic refugee crisis precipitated by the First World War was being gradually resolved in northern France, the south saw the arrival of significant new groups of foreign refugees fleeing the civil, political and military crises that continued to shape Europe. Throughout the inter-war years, the French Mediterranean coast, and especially the major-port city of Marseille, served as one of the continent’s primary transit regions for refugees, and during the 1920s this was the gateway into Europe’s traditional land of refuge for Armenians fleeing genocide, Russians escaping the Civil War, Italian anti-fascists and, later, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and Spanish Republicans crossing the Pyrenees.
In the years after 1918, therefore, forced displacement constituted an important wartime legacy in France, as the country was faced both with resettling domestic refugees forced to flee during the conflict, and with welcoming new, foreign refugees uprooted by prolonged fighting. This paper explores how these distinct groups of refugees – domestic and foreign – negotiated the experiences of return and arrival in France. In both cases, French authorities may have wished that refugees remained passive objects around which they could build official policies. Yet refugees themselves were far from passive, and regularly petitioned the authorities to articulate grievances, demand rights, and attempt to shape the conditions of their displacement. The paper explores the languages used by both groups of refugees, considers whether they made similar or divergent demands, and argues that refugees themselves had a key role to play in the post-1918 population settlements.