In 1914, France was still a largely peasant and rural country. The four years of conflict of WWI created unprecedented human losses. Did the “Grande guerre” mark a rupture in the evolution of the French agricultural and rural world?
From the 1880s, the market value of land did not stop dropping. During this period, the average price to purchase a hectare of land dropped by a third. The regions the most impacted were Languedoc and the Mediterranean, as well as Aube and Champagne, while Brittany did alright. Taken together, this represented a complete rout for landowners, who saw their lands bought up by farmers and peasants in the lead up to the war when the value plummeted.
This vast movement of land purchasing by farmers is confirmed by the end of the war starting in 1919. The war is the reason behind a sudden increase in land transactions: thousands of farms now found themselves without owners after they died in the war.
The important changes observed before the war persisted and did not lead to a very dynamic economy in the countryside. Even if farmers and peasants were now more willingly depositing money in the newly created Crédit Agricole, created in 1920, (a Bank created to address the farmersfarmer’s needs) it was more out of a desire to save money to buy more land than to innovate or modernize their farms. The rural exodus, rendered more acute by the war, emptied villages in the countryside, with a very large number now having less than 100 residents.
While it created negative aspects, farmers, most of whom fought in the war, remember the “fraternity of arms” that existed in the trenches, where everyone was equal. One of the consequences of this was that numerous farmers demanded to stop being treated as inferior, as they sometimes were sometimes before the war, and started to shake up the old social hierarchies.
France had approximately 5,400,000 farmers on the eve of the conflict, with about half of them needed for the war effort. When the front was set, nearly 2,500,000 hectares of agricultural land was lost. These were primarily the fields of the north and northeast, which had crop yields well above the national average and thus represented a major agricultural loss for France.
On the rest of French territory, feed crops surfaces were reduced, wheat production plummeted by nearly 40%, as well as barley and oats. Only potatoes remained at their pre-war levels. It thus became necessary to import massive amounts of food to feed the entire population. In the first six months of the war, the French livestock herds were decimated.
At the end of the war, nearly two million hectares of French agricultural lands were either devastated or abandoned. But the most tragic of the losses were human. Just within the world of agriculture, between 500,000 and 700,000 farmers died, in addition to half a million injured, representing about 20% of the farmers who fought in the war and who made up the bulk of the infantry.
During the war, the female active population in agriculture increased by 20%, and not without reason: the war started in the middle of harvest season.
This was how René Viviani, French Prime Minister during the outbreak of the war, called French women and youth to help in the war effort by ensuring that agricultural work got taken care of while the men were off fighting on the front lines. During the four years of combat, 850,000 wives of farmers managed their farms on their own, an important step in the emancipation of women in France.
“Rise up, women of France, young children, sons and daughters of the fatherland! Replace on the fields of work those who are on the fields of battle.”