Historians in lockdown: The Covid Diary of Dr James Connolly

Dr James Connolly is Lecturer in Modern French History at UCL.

Preoccupied during lockdown, part 1

As I write this, the UK has been in official lockdown for just over three weeks, and I have effectively been self-isolating for at least four weeks.  I say ‘at least’ because time has lost its meaning somewhat recently – and even that ‘recently’ could meaning anything from ‘a few seconds ago’ to ‘three weeks ago.’  This strange experience has unsurprisingly sparked people’s historical imaginations and curiosity regarding precursors, potential ‘lessons from the past’ etc.  Indeed, as historians and journalists have already noted, historical metaphors abound these days as world leaders refer to the ‘fight,’ ‘battle’ or ‘war’ against coronavirus/Covid-19/SARS-Cov-2.

A slight aside regarding the correct name for the virus: a Twitter user whose name I cannot remember correctly noted that future historians will be frustrated by the lack of a consistent name in this context, especially when it comes to compiling indexes. As a historian specialising in what is known, variously, as ‘the First World War,’ ‘World War One,’ ‘World War I,’ ‘WWI’ and ‘the Great War’ (and that’s just in English), I agree wholeheartedly. In the current case, I believe ‘coronavirus’ is the wider category of viruses of which this is a new strain – hence ‘novel coronavirus,’ even though most of us wish it were more of a novella – whilst SARS-Cov-2 is the specific virus, and Covid-19 is the disease it causes.

Anyway, among politicians and commentators there is a clear inspiration from and invocation of the rhetoric and memory of the Second World War in Britain, and the First World War in France.  There is more to say on this, but today’s post is about how the current situation has impacted my understanding of my own research of one of these events. 

My PhD research and my first book considered the German occupation of the département of the Nord during the First World War, notably the ways in which local inhabitants reacted to being occupied by Germany and Germans, how they behaved and judged each other during a period of national crisis.  (As a shameless plug, you can download my book for free here

A German patrol walking down a deserted road in Lille, 1916. Archives Municipales de Lille.

Although direct comparisons with the past are rarely useful without considerable qualification, I have nevertheless found myself thinking more and more in recent weeks about the subjects of my research.  This is not because I feel like there are particular lessons to learn here, but more a case of me feeling more connected to these people from another age whose lives and words remain as echoes in my mind.  Feeling is the key verb here, I think: I can now, to some extent, both sympathise and empathise more with some of their experiences and sentiments; I can relate to them more.  Below is a rough, almost stream-of-consciousness outline of why and how.  Excuse the lack of footnotes, as some of the reference material is located in my work office…

In a future blog post, I would like to highlight how the current crisis has given me a better insight into the role of food/provisions, and profiteering in a time of solidarity, that occurred in the occupied Nord in 1914-18. 

However, here the first theme is isolation.  The occupied zone in 1914-18 ran through ten départements and had a population of 2.5 million.  These individuals were cut off from the outside world, with the trenches on one side and a barbed-wire fence running along the Belgian border, guarded by German sentries.  On the Belgian side, the Dutch border had an electric fence running along it, also with armed patrols.  This is one reason why future American president Herbert Hoover described occupied France and Belgium as a ‘giant concentration camp.’ 

Inhabitants faced strict controls on their movement: life was restricted to a communal level, especially since locals needed a laissez-passer to leave the commune; there were curfews restricting or entirely banning circulation at night, policed by German troops who would issue fines (or worse) for any infractions.  In many areas, large groupings of civilians were forbidden in the streets.  The local press was likewise banned, and contact with the outside world was extremely difficult: carrier pigeons had to be killed, the rare telephones and radios that existed were requisitioned by the occupiers, letters between communes could only be written by certain fonctionnaires, and inhabitants could only write to their loved ones in unoccupied France or prison camps via a Red Cross postcard containing existing sentences that they crossed out.  The latter still took months to arrive, and no response was possible.  The same was true of the illegal letter-smuggling networks, which were extremely risky because those crossing the borders could be shot on sight, or arrested as spies then later executed.  There was no possibility at all of writing to loved ones at the front.

A German poster outlining rules about laissez-passer required to circulate in a specific part of Lille, March 1915. Archives Municipales de Lille.

As such, many occupés experienced acute feelings of isolation and recorded this in their diaries (which were themselves forbidden by the occupier) or later memoirs.  For me, the phrasing and attendant sentiments are where the historical and the present-day become intertwined.  For example, Jules Hélot was President of the Chambre de Commerce of Cambrai, and he was also appointed as sous-préfet de Cambrai by the Germans in December 1914.  This meant that he had more freedom of movement and correspondence than most members of the occupied population, albeit with specific restrictions still in place.  Yet even relatively privileged Hélot recorded his isolation in the 1919 published version of his diary.  On 1 June 1915, he wrote of ‘le pénible isolement auquel on nous force, puisqu’il reste interdit aux habitants de villages voisins d’aller les uns chez les autres.’ – ‘the difficult isolation we are subjected to, since it is still forbidden for people of neighbouring villages to visit each other.’

Jules Hélot’s occupation diary, published in 1919

Precisely two months earlier, on 1 April 1915, he noted:

Ma fille va retrouver l’occasion de se rendre utile. Malgré le temps très beau, à l’approche des jours qui sont ordinairement de fêtes en famille, on se sent le cœur serré ; chacun s’isole au lieu de rechercher les amis des bons jours. C’est un drôle de sentiment qui n’est pas en faveur de la bête humaine. Le dimanche de Pâques je serai seul chez moi, et ma fille seule à l’ambulance.’ 

‘My daughter looks forward to being useful again. Despite the lovely weather, and the days ahead which are usually celebrated with family, our hearts are tight; we all isolate ourselves rather than seek old friends from happier times. It is a peculiar feeling which does not suit the human beast. On Easter Sunday I will be alone at my home, and my daughter alone in the ambulance.’

These sentences could have been written last weekend, erasing a gap of one-hundred years through experiences and feelings that are more understandable, maybe more relevant, now than they were just a few months ago.  To make a rather well-trodden and obvious point, this reminds us that historians bring their own social, cultural, political, economic (and other) baggage to the table when reading a source before we even start to do something with it, to write our histories.  I wonder how many histories of isolation, confinement, of plagues and viruses, we will see in the next few years; I myself may turn some of thoughts here into an article!  Naturally, the platitude regarding one’s situation is also true of secondary sources, so future readers of our work (yes, both of them…) will inevitably understand it through the lens of their own experience, finding new meaning – and new criticisms.  For me, though, the current crisis is causing me to reflect on, and revisit, both my own work and sources I know very well, an exercise that may be worth continuing or repeating in the future – if the constraints of the REF allow for such self-indulgence.

To return to the historical heart of this post: of course, there were differences between the occupied zone in 1914-18 and our current situation.  Without WhatsApp, mobile phones, the internet, or any real means of communication, these occupés were considerably more cut off than we are today.  In this sense, their isolation was more complete, and not just related to physical distancing; it was also about a lack of information, of news both about the wider world and loved ones.  We can see this in a November 1915 extract from Hélot’s diary: ‘Mais ce qui reste plus pénible que tout cela, c’est l’isolement dans lequel nous vivons, sans renseignements sur les nôtres et sur ce qui se passe. A cela on ne s’habitue pas, il n’y a pas d’entraînement possible.’ ‘But what is more difficult than all of this is the isolation in which we find ourselves, without news of our loved ones or of what is happening. We cannot get used to this, no training for it exists.’ This is a recurrent theme throughout the diary, clearly an important part of Hélot’s experience of the war and the occupation, and the word ‘pénible’ is almost always attached to the feeling of isolation.

Another difference is that this population was isolated for much longer than we are (hopefully) likely to be, which had understandable effects on morale.  Hélot noted on 22 July 1915:

Le moral s’épuise et il devient difficile de le relever. Vivre de tristesses, de privations, et rester absolument isolés de tout le reste du monde, c’est affreux ! et cela s’aggrave par la ruine que nous avons en perspective. Ils sont en arrêt sur nos récoltes, les visitent chaque jour, en attendant que nous ayons fourni le travail indispensable, avant qu’ils puissent les prendre.’ 

‘Morale is low, and it is hard to raise our spirits. To live off sadness, off deprivations, and to stay absolutely isolated from the rest of the world, it is terrible! And this gets worse as we think of the ruins which lie ahead. They [the occupiers] stop before our crops, visit them every day, waiting for us to do the indispensable work before they can take them away.’

The latter sentence indicates the fears for the future that existed given the economic ruin caused by an occupation during which the Germans requisitioned goods, money, industrial equipment, food, and more.  Occupés worried that nothing would ever be the same again after this unprecedented event, and that the future, even once the dreaded enemy had been pushed back, promised nothing but continued suffering.  It can perhaps give us some hope that even after a catastrophic war and occupation economic and social life in northern France did eventually – albeit slowly – return to some kind of normality.  That is probably the subject of another blog post, but the comparison with the phenomenon of ‘sorties de guerre’ has also been covered by others, not least the Great War historian Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau.

I will end by returning to the idea of the amorphous, ambiguous and confusing nature of time in our current crisis.  This confusion was also present just over 100 years ago, when the distinct isolation of the occupied Nord meant that inhabitants could not quite predict when the end of their suffering, their anxiety, would come.  On 10 October 1918, Lillois diarist Eugène Martin-Mamy wrote the following entry:

INCERTITUDES.  Plus de journaux, plus de communiqués.  Aucune nouvelle.  Isolement complet.  A travers le store de la fenêtre, je guette les mouvements de la rue dans l’attente de « l’événement » qui peut arriver dans une heure, un jour, une semaine ou un mois, mais qu’on devine certain.’ 

‘UNCERTAINTY. No more newspapers, no more communiqués. No news. Total isolation. Through the window shutters, I look out for any movement in the street, waiting for “the event” which could start in one hour, one day, one week or one month, but which will certainly happen.’

For the inhabitants of Lille, this event – their liberation from over four years of occupation – came just nine days later.  Yet even in their uncertainty, in their isolation, locals remained certain that victory would come.  If there are any lessons to be taken from this specific part of history, I hope it is that we too can remain confident (without being complacent, whilst doing our bit and praising those whose contribution is even greater than ours) that our ‘liberation’ will arrive – despite our isolation, despite our overall uncertainty.  And perhaps one day a future historian will create a VR holoblog about all this.


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