From 1916 onwards, an estimated 180,000 Belgians were forced to do hard labour for the Germans. The deportation of Belgian civilians to Germany especially provoked a wave of protest. The Belgian government in exile called the forced labour slavery, and speaking for the Catholic Church, Cardinal Mercier took the Germans to task for the deportations. The Germans came under heavy criticism from the Allies, too. Eventually, the international outcry bore fruit, and in May 1917, the deportees started returning from Germany. That is to say, those who had survived.
Their return was met with bemusement as well as enthusiasm. Mothers struggled to recognise their own sons, who were shadows of their former selves. A witness described the 'wretches' as 'living corpses, skeletons with cheeks the colour of death.' The men, who had often dug trenches and repaired roads on nothing but a bowl of watery soup, were marked by constant undernourishment, harsh punishments and degrading work. Healthy men had lost 40 per cent of their bodyweight in just a few months' time, and in combination with poor housing in unheated barracks and a lack of hygiene, this caused many to fall ill. Tuberculosis in particular wreaked havoc.
The censored postcards from the home front had kept the labourers going, but back home, the warm bed felt unfamiliar. Many never managed to return to their daily lives. On top of their mental difficulties, they also continued to struggle with physical problems; abuse and undernourishment had severely weakened their bodies, making them extra susceptible to illnesses. After the war, some of the men raked up their painful memories again at the Rechtbank van Oorlogsschade, a special tribunal that ruled on compensation payments for victims of war. From 1921, hard labourers received 50 francs for every month they had worked. They were also awarded the Belgium Bronze Cross. But no sum of money or decoration could erase the memory of past suffering.