Violent explosion at the 18 Ponts munitions depot Lille.
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, thirty Germans and nearly 400 people were wounded, including 116 severely.
This catastrophe, commemorated by a monument on rue de Maubeuge, 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.
The great explosion of Lille in the ‘terrible years’
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. Towards 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.