Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Great Explosion of Lille

Click on Image to Enlarge

On 11 January 1916, at 3:30 a.m., Lille was rocked by a violent explosion that could be heard as far away as Holland. A bright yellow flash lit up the sky—the 18 Ponts munitions depot had just exploded. The German Army had been using an old fortified outwork, comprising 18 arches (the source of its French name), to store large quantities of explosives and munitions. Undoubtedly accidental, the explosion left a crater 150 metres wide and 30 metres deep on one side of boulevard de Belfort. Twenty-one factories and 738 houses were brought down in the Moulins district of the city. One hundred and four civilians died, 30 Germans and nearly 400 people were wounded, including 116 severely.

This catastrophe, commemorated by the  monument on rue de Maubeuge shown above, was one of the saddest episodes of the "terrible years" of the German occupation which ran from October 1914 to October 1918. Throughout those 210 long weeks martial law ruled the city of Lille, cutting it off from the rest of the country. Families could obtain no news of their fathers and sons who were engaged in the fighting or held as prisoners of war. Life was very hard; the occupiers pillaged the factories and confiscated anything of use that they could find in people's houses, such as bicycles, horses, metal, and even mattresses and pillows.

Damage on a Nearby Street in Lille

In addition to the material privations, 10,000 citizens of Lille, mostly young women, were "deported" from the city in April 1916 and sent to work in the farms of Aisne and Ardennes. In a city where only 35,000 inhabitants out of 150,000 could provide for themselves, food soon became an acute problem. Toward the end of the occupation civilian rations were down to 300 grams of coarse wholemeal bread and 60 grams of bacon a fortnight. During the terrible years 22,911 deaths were registered for only 8,594 births. But the people of Lille did not give in to the hostage-taking, imprisonments, and deportations—many heroes gave their lives to further the cause of the resistance.

Source: Remembrance Trails — Northern France


  1. Thank you for this timely post. We just drove thru Lille on our tour to Flanders/Ieper. I was unaware of this event. We spent the last two days honoring my grandfather in Meuse-Argonne. 1st Army, 18th Infantry, 2nd Battalion, Company E. Were able to track his route and possible areas where wounded. Thank you for your great work in promoting the story of WW1 Americans.

  2. Lille, Halifax - how many terrible accidents occurred in WWI, as nations struggled to store and use unprecedented stockpiles of munitions?

  3. Silvertown, Faversham, Chilwell - and that is just in the UK. (My step-great-grandmother was a nurse who helped in the aftermath of the Silvertown explosion, 19th January 1917)

  4. My father was in Company "M" of the 18th Infantry at this time. Jermiah M. Evarts was from Vermont and wrote a book about his experiences in WWI. He was in Company E of the 18th Infantry of the First Division. There is an excerpt from his book in Make the Kaiser Dance. Mike took us to the spots they were.