(Bryce Report into German Atrocities in Belgium, 12 May 1915, part 2 )
Part II of the Bryce Report
Having thus narrated the offences committed in Belgium, which it has been proper to consider as a whole, we now turn to another branch of the subject, the breaches of the usages of war which appear in the conduct of the German army generally.
This branch has been considered under the following heads:
First. The treatment of non-combatants, whether in Belgium or in France, including:
(a) the killing of non-combatants in France;
(b) the treatment of women and children;
(c) the using of innocent non-combatants as a screen or shield in the conduct of military operations;
(d) looting, burning, and the wanton destruction of property.
Secondly. Offences, committed in the course of ordinary military operations, which violate the usages of war and the provisions of the Hague Convention.
This division includes:
(a) killing the wounded or prisoners;
(b) firing on hospitals or on the Red Cross ambulances and stretcher bearers;
(c) abuse of the Red Cross or of the White Flag.
Treatment of the Civilian Population
(a) Killing of Non-Combatants
The killing of civilians in Belgium has been already described sufficiently. Outrage on the civilian population of the invaded districts, the burning of villages, the shooting of innocent inhabitants and the taking of hostages, pillage and destruction continued as the German armies passed into France. The diary of the Saxon officer above referred to describes acts of this kind committed by the German soldiers in advancing to the Aisne at the end of August and after they had passed the French frontier, as well as when they were in Belgian territory.
A proclamation (a specimen of which was produced to the Committee) issued at Reims, and placarded over the town, affords a clear illustration of the methods adopted by the German Higher Command. The population of Reims is warned that on the slightest disturbance part or the whole of the city will be burnt to the ground and all the hostages taken from the city (a long list of whom is given in the proclamation) immediately shot.
The evidence, however, submitted to the Committee with regard to the conduct of the German army in France is not nearly so full as that with regard to Belgium. There is no body of civilian refugees in England, and the French witnesses have generally laid their evidence before their own Government.
The evidence forwarded to us consists principally of the statements of British officers and soldiers who took part in the retreat after the battle of Mons and in the subsequent advance, following the Germans from the Marne. The area covered is relatively small, and it is from French reports that any complete account of what occurred in the invaded districts in France as a whole must be obtained.
Naturally soldiers in a foreign country, with which they were unacquainted, cannot be expected always to give accurately the names of villages through which they passed on their marches, but this does not prevent their evidence from being definite as to what they actually saw in the farms and houses where the German troops had recently been. Many shocking outrages are recorded.
Three examples here may suffice, others are given in the Appendix. A sergeant who had been through the retreat from Mons, and then taken part in the advance from the Marne, and who had been engaged in driving out some German troops from a village, states that his troop halted outside a bakery just inside the village.
„It was a private house where baking was done, ‘not like our bakeries here.’ Two or three women were standing at the door. The women motioned them to come into the house, as did also three civilian Frenchmen who were there. They took them into a garden at the back of the house. At the end of the garden was the bakery.
They saw two old men - between 60 and 70 years of age - and one old woman lying close to each other in the garden. All three had the scalps cut right through and the brains were hanging out. They were still bleeding. Apparently they had only just been killed. The three French civilians belonged to this same house. One of them spoke a few words of English. He gave them to understand that these three had been killed by the Germans because they had refused to bake bread for them.
Another witness states that two German soldiers took hold of a young civilian named D. and bound his hands behind his back, and struck him in the face with their fists. They then tied his hands in front and fastened the cord to the tail of the horse. The horse dragged him for about 60 yards and then the Germans loosened his hands and left him.
The whole of his face was cut and torn and his arms and legs were bruised. On the following day one of his sisters, whose husband was a soldier, came to their house with her four children. His brother, who was also married and who lived in a village near Valenciennes, went to fetch the bread for his sister. On the way back to their house he met a patrol of Uhlans, who took him to the market place at Valenciennes and then shot him.
About 12 other civilians were also shot in the market place. The Uhlans then burned 19 houses in the village, and afterwards burned the corpses of the civilians, including that of his brother. His father and his uncle afterwards went to see the dead body of his brother, but the German soldiers refused to allow them to pass.
A lance-corporal in the Rifles, who was on patrol duty with five privates during the retirement of the Germans after the Marne, states that they entered a house in a small village and took ten Uhlans prisoners and then searched the house and found two women and two children. One was dead, but the body not yet cold. The left arm had been cut off just below the elbow. The floor was covered with blood.
The woman’s clothing was disarranged. The other woman was alive but unconscious. Her right leg had been cut off above the knee. There were two little children, a boy about 4 or and a girl of about 6 or 7. The boy’s left hand was cut of at the wrist and the girl’s right hand at the same place. They were both quite dead. The same witness states that he saw several women and children lying dead in various other places, but says he could not say whether this might not have been accidentally caused in legitimate fighting.
The evidence before us proves that, in the parts of France referred to, murder of unoffending civilians and other acts of cruelty, including aggravated cases of rape, carried out under threat of death, and sometimes actually followed by murder of the victim, were committed by some of the German troops.
(b) The Treatment of Women and Children
The evidence shows that the German authorities, when carrying out a policy of systematic arson and plunder in selected districts, usually drew some distinction between the adult male population on the one hand and the women and children on the other. It was a frequent practice to set apart the adult males of the condemned district with a view to the execution of a suitable number - preferably of the younger and more vigorous - and to reserve the women and children for milder treatment.
The depositions, however, present many instances of calculated cruelty, often going the length of murder, towards the women and children of the condemned area. We have already referred to the case of Aerschot, where the women and children were herded in a church which had recently been used as a stable, detained for 48 hours with no food other than coarse bread, and denied the common decencies of life.
At Dinant 60 women and children were confined in the cellar of a convent from Sunday morning till the following Friday (August 28th), sleeping on the ground, for there were no beds, with nothing to drink during the whole period, and given no food until the Wednesday, ‘when somebody threw into the cellar two sticks of macaroni and a carrot for each prisoner.”
In other cases the women and children were marched for long distances along roads (e.g., march of women from Louvain to Tirlemont, 28th August), the laggards pricked on by the attendant Uhlans. A lady complains of having been brutally kicked by privates.
There were struck with the butt end of rifles. At Louvain, at Liege, at Aerschot, at Malines, at Montigny, at Andenne, and elsewhere, there is evidence that the troops were not restrained from drunkenness, and drunken soldiers cannot be trusted to observe the rules or decencies of war, least of all when they are called upon to execute a pre-ordained plan of arson and pillage. From the very first women were not safe.
At Liege women and children were chased about the streets by soldiers. A witness gives a story, very circumstantial in its details, of how women were publicly raped in the market-place of the city, five young German officers assisting. At Aerschot men and women were deliberately shot when coming out of burning houses.
At Liege, Louvain, Sempst, and Malines women were burned to death, either because they were surprised and stupefied by the fumes of the conflagration, or because they were prevented from escaping by German soldiers. Witnesses recount how a great crowd of men, women, and children from Aerschot were marched to Louvain, and then suddenly exposed to a fire from a mitrailleuse and rifles.
„We were all placed,” recounts a sufferer, „in Station Street, Louvain, and the German soldiers fired on us. I saw the corpses of some women in the street. I fell down, and a woman who had been shot fell on top of me.” Women and children suddenly turned out into the streets, and compelled to witness the destruction by fire of their homes, provided a sad spectacle to such as were sober enough to see.
A humane German officer, witnessing the ruin of Aerschot, exclaims in disgust: „I am a father myself, and I cannot bear this. It is not war, but butchery.” Officers, as well as men, succumbed to the temptation of drink, with results which may be illustrated by an incident which occurred at Campenhout.
In this village there was a certain well-to-do merchant (name given), who had a good cellar of champagne. On the afternoon of the 14th or 15th August, three German cavalry officers entered the house and demanded champagne. Having drunk ten bottles, and invited five or six officers and three or four private soldiers to join them, they continued their carouse, and then called for the master and mistress of the house:
„Immediately my mistress came in, ‘says the valet de chambre’, one of the officers who was sitting on the floor got up, and, putting a revolver to my mistress’ temple, shot her dead. The officer was obviously drunk. The other officers continued to drink and sing, and they did not pay great attention to the killing of my mistress. The officer who shot my mistress then told my master to dig a grave and bury my mistress. My master and the officer went into the garden, the officer threatening my master with a pistol. My master was then forced to dig the grave, and to bury the body of my mistress in it. I cannot say for what reason they killed my mistress. The officer who did it was singing all the time.”
In the evidence before us there are cases tending to show that aggravated crimes against women were sometimes severely punished. One witness reports that a young girl , who was being pursued by a drunken soldier at Louvain appealed to a German officer, and that the offender was then and there shot; another describes how an officer of the 32nd Regiment of the Line was led out to execution for the violation of two young girls, but reprieved at the request or with the consent of the girls’ mother.
These instances are sufficient to show that the maltreatment of women was no part of the military scheme of the invaders, however much it may appear to have been the inevitable result of the system of terror deliberately adopted in certain regions. Indeed, so much is avowed: „I asked the commander why we had been spared,” says a lady in Louvain, who deposes to having suffered much brutal treatment during the sack. He said, „We will not hurt you anymore. Stay in Louvain. All is finished.” It was Saturday, August 29th, and the reign of terror was over.
Apart from the crimes committed in special areas; and belonging to a scheme of systematic reprisal for the alleged shooting by civilians, there is evidence of offences committed against women and children by individual soldiers, or by small groups of soldiers, both in the advance through Belgium and France as in the retreat from the Marne. Indeed, the discipline appears to have been loose during the retreat, and there is evidence as to the burning of villages, and the murder and violation of their female inhabitants during this episode of the war.
In this tale of horrors hideous forms of mutilation occur with some frequency in the depositions, two of which may be connected in some instances with a perverted form of sexual instinct.
A third form of mutilation, the cutting of one or both hands, is frequently said to have taken place. In some cases where this form of mutilation is alleged to have occurred it may be the consequence of a cavalry charge up a village street, hacking and slashing at everything in the way; in others the victim may possibly have held a weapon, in others the motive may have been the theft of rings.
We find many well-established cases of the slaughter (often accompanied by mutilation) of whole families, including not infrequently that of quite small children. In two cases it seems to be clear that preparations were made to burn a family alive. These crimes were committed over a period of many weeks and simultaneously in many places, and the authorities must have known or ought to have known that cruelties of this character were being perpetrated, nor can anyone doubt that they could have been stopped by swift and decisive action on the part of the heads of the German army.
The use of women and even children as a screen for the protection of the German troops is referred to in a later part of this Report. From the number of troops concerned, it must have been commanded or acquiesced in by officers, and in some cases the presence and connivance of officers is proved.
The cases of violation, sometimes under threat of death, are numerous and clearly-proved. We referred here to comparatively few out of the many that have been placed in the Appendix, because the circumstances are in most instances much the same. They were often accompanied with cruelty, and the slaughter of women after violation is more than once credibly attested.
It is quite possible that in some cases where the body of a Belgian or a French woman is reported as lying in the roadside pierced with bayonet wounds or hanging naked from a tree, or else as lying gashed and mutilated in a cottage kitchen or bedroom, the woman in question gave some provocation. She may by act or word have irritated her assailant, and in certain instances evidence has been supplied both as to the provocation offered and as to the retribution inflicted:
(1) „Just before we got to Melen,” says a witness, who had fallen into the hands of the Germans on August 5th, „I saw a woman with a child in her arms standing on the side of the road on our left-hand side watching the soldiers go by. Her name was G…, aged about sixty-three, and a neighbour of mine. The officer asked the woman for some water in good French.
She went inside her son’s cottage to get some and brought it immediately he had stopped. The officer went into the cottage garden and drank the water. The woman then said, when she saw the prisoners, “Instead of giving you water you deserve to be shot.” The officer shouted to us, ”March.” We went on, and immediately I saw the officer draw his revolver and shoot the woman and child. One shot killed both.”
(2) Two old men and one old woman refused to bake bread for the Germans. They are butchered. (See above).
(3) „23rd August. I went with two friends (names given) to see what we could see. About three hours out of Malines we were taken prisoners by a German patrol, an officer and six men, and marched off into a little wood of saplings, where there was a house. The officer spoke Flemish. He knocked at the door, the peasant did not come. The officer ordered the soldiers to break down the door, which two of them did. The peasant came and asked what they were doing. The officer said he did not come quickly enough, and that they had „trained up” plenty of others.
His hands were tied behind his back, and he was shot at once without a moment’s delay. The wife came out with a little sucking child. She put the child down and sprang at the Germans like a lioness. She clawed their faces. One of the Germans took a rifle and struck her a tremendous blow with the butt on the head. Another took his bayonet and fixed it and thrust it through the child. He then put his rifle on his shoulder with the child up it, its little arms stretched out once or twice.
The officers ordered the houses to be set on fire, and straw was obtained, and it was done. The man and his wife and the child were thrown on the top of the straw. There were about 40 other peasant prisoners there also, and the officer said: „I am doing this as a lesson and example to you. When a German tells you to do something next time you must move more quickly.” The regiment of Germans as a regiment of Hussars, with cross-bones and a death’s head on the cap.
Can anyone think that such acts as these, committed by women in the circumstances created by the invasion of Belgium, were deserving of the extreme form of vengeance attested by these and other depositions?
In considering the question of provocation it is pertinent to take into account the numerous cases in which old women and very small children have been shot, bayoneted, and even mutilated. Whatever excuse may be offered by the Germans for the killing of grown-up women, there can be no possible defence for the murder of children, and if it can be shown that infants and small children were not infrequently bayoneted and shot it is a fair inference that many of the offences against women require no explanation more recondite than the unbridled violence of brutal or drunken criminals.
It is clearly shown that many offences were committed against infants and quite young children. On one occasion children were even roped together and used as a military screen against the enemy, on another three soldiers went into action carrying small children to protect themselves from flank fire. A shocking case of the murder of a baby by a drunken soldier at Malines is thus recorded by one eye-witness and confirmed by another:
„One day when the Germans were not actually bombarding the town I left my house to go to my mother’s house in High Street. My husband was with me. I saw eight German soldiers, and they were drunk. They were singing and making a lot of noise and dancing about. As the German soldiers came along the street I saw a small child, whether boy or girl I could not see, come out of a house. The child was about two years of age. The child came into the middle of the street so as to be in the way of the soldiers. The soldiers were walking in twos. The first line of two passed the child; one of the second line, the man on the left, stepped aside and drove his bayonet with both hands into the child’s stomach lifting the child into the air on his bayonet and carrying it away on his bayonet, he and his comrades still singing. The child screamed when the soldier struck it with his bayonet, but not afterwards.”
These, no doubt, were for the most part the acts of drunken soldiers, but an incident has been recorded which discloses the fact that even sober and highly-placed officers were not always disposed to place a high value on child life. Thus the General, wishing to be conducted to the Town Hall at Lebbeke, remarked in French to his guide, who was accompanied by a small boy:
„If you do not show me the right way I will shoot you and your boy.”
There was no need to carry the threat into execution, but that the threat should have been made is significant.
We cannot tell whether these acts of cruelty to children were part of the scheme for inducing submission by inspiring terror. In Louvain, where the system of terrorising was carried to the furthest limit, outrages on children were uncommon. The same, however, cannot be said of some of the smaller villages which were subjected to the system.
In Hofstade and Sempst, in Haecht, Rotselaer and Wespelaer, many children were murdered. Nor can it be said of the village of Tamines where three small children (whose names are given by an eye-witness of the crime) were slaughtered on the green for no apparent motives. It is difficult to imagine the motives which may have prompted such acts. Whether or not Belgian civilians fired on German soldiers, young children at any rate did not fire. The number and character of the murders constitute the most distressing feature connected with the conduct of the war so far as it is revealed in the depositions submitted to the Committee.
(c) The Use of Civilians as Screens
We have before us a considerable body of evidence with reference to the practice of the Germans of using civilians and sometimes military prisoners as screens from behind which they could fire upon the Belgian troops in the hope that the Belgians would not return the fire for fear of killing or wounding their own fellow countrymen.
In some cases this evidence refers to places where fighting was actually going on in the streets of a town or village, and to these cases we attach little importance. It might well happen when terrified civilians were rushing about to seek safety, that groups of them might be used as a screen by either side of the combatants without any intention of inhumanity or of any breach of the rules of civilised warfare. But setting aside these doubtful cases, there remains evidence which satisfies us that on so many occasions as to justify its being described as a practice, the German soldiers, under the eyes and by the direction of their officers, were guilty of this act.
Thus, for instance, outside Fort Fleron, near Liege, men and children were marched in front of the Germans to prevent the Belgian soldiers from firing.
The progress of the Germans through Mons was marked by many incidents of this character. Thus, on the 22nd August, half a dozen Belgian colliers returning from work were marching in front of some German troops who were pursuing the English, and in the opinion of the witnesses they must have been placed there intentionally. An English officer describes how he caused a barricade to be erected in a main thoroughfare leading out of Mons, when the Germans in order to reach a cross road in the rear, fetched civilians out of the houses on each side of the main road and compelled them to hold up white flags and act as cover.
Another British officer who saw this incident is convinced that the Germans were acting deliberately for the purpose of protecting themselves from the fire of the British troops. Apart from this protection, the Germans could not have advanced, as the street was straight and commanded by the British rifle fire at a range of 700 or 800 yards. Several British soldiers also speak to this incident, and their story is confirmed by a Flemish witness in a side street.
On the 24th August, men, women, and children were actually pushed into the front of the German position outside Mons. The witness speaks of 13 to 20 women, about a dozen children, and half a dozen men being there.
Seven or eight women and five or six very young children were utilised in this way by some Uhlans between Landreecies and Guise.
A Belgian soldier saw an incident of this character during the retreat from Namur.
At the battle of Malines, 60 or 80 Belgian civilians, amongst whom were some women, were driven before the German troops. Another witness saw a similar incident near Malines, but a much larger number of civilians was involved, and a priest was in front with a white flag.
In another instance, related by a Belgian soldier, the civilians were tied by the wrists in groups.
At Eppeghem, where the Germans were driven back by the Belgian sortie from Antwerp, civilians were used as cover for the German retreat.
Near Malines, early in September, about 10 children, roped together, were driven in front of a German force.
At Londerzeel 30 or 40 civilians, men, women and children, were placed at the head of a German column.
One witness from Termonde was made to stand in front of the Germans, together with others, all with their hands above their heads. Those who allowed their hands to drop were at once prodded with the bayonet. Again at Termonde, about September the 10th, a number of civilians were shot by the Belgian soldiers who were compelled to fire at the Germans, taking the risk of killing their own countrymen.
At Tournai, 400 Belgian civilians, men, women and children, were placed in front of the Germans who then engaged the French.
The operations outside Antwerp were not free from incidents of this character. Near Willebroeck some civilians, including a number of children, a woman and one old man, were driven in front of the German troops. German officers were present, and one woman who refused to advance was stabbed twice with the bayonet, and a little child who ran up to her as she fell had half its head blown away by a shot from a rifle.
Other incidents of the same kind are reported from Nazareth and Ypres. The British troops were compelled to fire, in some cases at the risk of killing civilians.
At Ypres the Germans drove women in front of them by pricking them with bayonets. The wounds were afterwards seen by the witness.
(d) Looting, Burning and Destruction of Property
There is an overwhelming mass of evidence of the deliberate destruction of private property by the German soldiers. The destruction in most cases was effected by fire, and the German troops, as will be seen from earlier passages in the Report, had been provided beforehand with appliances for rapidly setting fire to houses. Among the appliances enumerated by witnesses are syringes for squirting petrol, guns for throwing small inflammable bombs, and small pellets made of inflammable material. Specimens of the last-mentioned have been shown to members of the Committee.
Besides burning houses the Germans frequently smashed furniture and pictures; they also broke in doors and windows. Frequently, too, they defiled houses by relieving the wants of nature upon the floor. They also appear to have perpetrated the same vileness upon piled up heaps of provisions so as to destroy what they could not themselves consume. They also on numerous occasions threw corpses into wells, or left in them the bodies of persons murdered by drowning.
In addition to these acts of destruction, the German troops both in Belgium and France are proved to have been guilty of persistent looting. In the majority of cases the looting took place from houses, but there is also evidence that German soldiers and even officers robbed their prisoners, both civil and military, of sums of money and other portable possessions.
It was apparently well known throughout the German army that towns and villages would be burned whenever it appeared that any civilians had fired upon the German troops, and there is reason to suspect that this known intention of the German military authorities in some cases explains the sequence of events which led up to the burning and sacking of a town or village.
The soldiers, knowing that they would have an opportunity of plunder if the place was condemned, had a motive for arranging some incident which would provide the necessary excuse for condemnation. More than one witness alleges that shots coming from the window of a house were fired by German soldiers who had forced their way into the house for the purpose of thus creating an alarm. It is also alleged that German soldiers on some occasions merely fired their rifles in the air in a side street and then reported to their officers that they had been fired at.
On the report that firing had taken place orders were given for wholesale destruction, and houses were destroyed in streets and districts where there was no allegation that firing had taken place, as well as in those where the charge arose. That the destruction could have been limited is proved by the care taken to preserve particular houses whose occupants had made themselves in one way or another agreeable to the conquerors. These houses were marked in chalk ordering them to be spared, and spared they were.
The above statements have reference to the burning of towns and villages. In addition, the German troops in numerous instances have set fire to farmhouses and farm buildings. Here, however, the plea of military necessity can more safely be alleged. A farmhouse may afford convenient shelter to an enemy, and where such use is probable, it may be urged that the destruction of the buildings is justifiable.
It is clearly however, the duty of the soldiers who destroy the buildings to give reasonable warning to the occupants so that they may escape. Doubtless this was in many cases done by the German commanders, but there is testimony that in some cases the burning of the farmhouse was accompanied by the murder of the inhabitants.
The same fact stands out clearly in the more extensive burning of houses in towns and villages. In some cases, indeed, as a prelude to the burning, inhabitants were cleared out of their houses and driven along the streets, often with much accompanying brutality, some to a place of execution, others to prolonged detention in a church or other public buildings. In other cases witnesses assert that they saw German soldiers forcing back into the flames men, women, and children, who were trying to escape from the burning houses. There is also evidence that soldiers deliberately shot down civilians as they fled from the fire.
The general conclusion is that the burning and destruction of property which took place was only in a very small minority of cases justified by military necessity, and that even then the destruction was seldom accompanied by that care for the lives of noncombatants which has hitherto been expected from a military commander belonging to a civilised nation. On the contrary, it is plain that in many cases German officers and soldiers deliberately added to the sufferings of the unfortunate people whose property they were destroying.
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