Offences against combatants
(a) The Killing of the Wounded and of Prisoners
In dealing with the treatment of the wounded and of prisoners and the cases in which the former appear to have been killed when helpless, and the latter at, or after, the moment of capture, we are met by some peculiar difficulties, because such acts may not in all cases be deliberate and cold blooded violations of the usages of war. Soldiers who are advancing over a spot where the wounded have fallen may conceivably think that some of those lying prostrate are shamming dead, or, at any rate, are so slightly wounded as to be able to attack, or to fire from behind when the advancing force has passed, and thus they may be led into killing those whom they would otherwise have spared.
There will also be instances in which men, intoxicated with the frenzy of battle, slay even those whom, on reflection, they might have seen to be incapable of further harming them. The same kind of fury may vent itself on persons who are already surrendering; and even a soldier who is usually self-controlled or humane, may, in the heat of the moment, go on killing, especially in a general mêlée, those who were offering to surrender.
This is most likely to happen when such a soldier has been incensed by an act of treachery or is stirred to revenge by the death of a comrade to whom he is attached. Some cases of this kind appear in the evidence. Such things happen in all wars as isolated instances, and the circumstances may be pleaded in extenuation of acts otherwise shocking.
We have made due allowance for these considerations, and have rejected those cases in which there is a reasonable doubt as to whether those who killed the wounded knew that the latter were completely disabled. Nevertheless, after making all allowances, there remain certain instances in which it is clear that quarter was refused to persons desiring to surrender when it ought to have been given, or that persons already so wounded as to be incapable of fighting further were wantonly shot or bayoneted.
The cases to which references are given all present features generally similar, and in several of them men who had been left wounded in the trenches when a trench was carried by the enemy were found, when their comrades subsequently re-took the trench, to have been slaughtered, although evidently helpless, or else they would have escaped with the rest of the retreating force. For instance, a witness says:
„About September the 20th our regiment took part in an engagement with the Germans. After we had retired into our trenches a few minutes after we got back into them the Germans retired into their trenches. The distance between the trenches of the opposing forces was about 400 yards. I should say about 50 or 60 of our men had been left lying on the field from our trenches. After we got back to them I distinctly saw German soldiers come out of their trenches, go over the spots where our men were lying, and bayonet them. Some of our men were laying nearly half way between the trenches.” Another says: „The Germans advanced over the trenches of the headquarters trench where I had been on guard for three days. When the Germans reached our wounded I saw their officer using his sword to cut them down.” Another witness says: „Outside Ypres we were in trenches and were attacked, and had to retire until reinforced by other companies of the Royal Fusiliers. Then we took the trenches and found the “wounded, between 20 and 30, lying in the trenches with bayonet wounds, and some shot. Most of them, say three quarters, had their throats cut.”
In one case, given very circumstantially, a witness tells how a party of wounded British soldiers were left in a chalk pit, all very badly hurt, and quite unable to make resistance. One of them, an officer, held up his handkerchief as a white flag, and this:
„attracted the attention of a party of about eight Germans. The Germans came to the edge of the pit. It was getting dusk, but the light was still good, and everything clearly discernible. One of them, who appeared to be carrying no arms, and who, at any rate, had no rifle, came a few feet down the slope into the chalk pit, within eight or ten yards of some of the wounded men. He looked at the men, laughed, and said something in German to the Germans who were waiting on the edge of the pit. Immediately one of them fired at the officer, then three or four of these ten soldiers were shot, then another officer, and the witness, and the rest of them. After an interval of some time I sat up and found that I was the only man of the ten who were living when the Germans came into the pit remaining alive, and that all the rest were dead.”
Another witness describes a painful case in which five soldiers, two Belgians and three French, were tied to trees by German soldiers apparently drunk, who stuck knives in their faces, pricked them with their bayonets, and ultimately shot them.
We have no evidence to show whether and in what cases orders proceeded from the officer in command to give no quarter, but there are some instances in which persons obviously desiring to surrender were nevertheless killed.
(b) Firing on Hospitals or on the Red Cross Ambulances or Stretcher-bearers
This subject may conveniently be divided into three sub divisions, namely, firing on:
(1) Hospital buildings and other Red Cross establishments.
Under the first and second categories there is obvious difficulty in proving intention, especially under the conditions of modern long range artillery fire. A commanding officer’s duty is to give strict orders to respect hospitals, ambulances, &c., and also to place Red Cross units as far away as possible from any legitimate line of fire. But with all care some accidents must happen, and many reported cases will be ambiguous. At the same time when military observers have formed a distinct opinion that buildings and persons under the recognisable protection of the Red Cross were willfully fired upon, such opinions cannot be disregarded.
Between 30 and 40 of the depositions submitted related to this offence. This number does not in itself seem so great as to be inconsistent with the possibility of accident.
In one case a Red Cross Depot was shelled on most days throughout the week. This is hardly reconcilable with the enemy’s gunners having taken any care to avoid it.
There are other cases of conspicuous hospitals being shelled, in the witnesses’ opinion, purposely.
In one of these the witness, a sergeant-major, makes a suggestion which appears plausible, namely, that the German gunners use any conspicuous building as a mark to verify their ranges rather than for the purpose of destruction. It would be quite according to the modern system of what German writers call Kriegsraison to hold that the convenience of range-finding is a sufficient military necessity to justify disregarding any immunity conferred on a building by the Red Cross or otherwise. In any case, artillery fire on a hospital at such a moderate range as about 1,000 yards can hardly be thought accidental.
(2) As to firing on ambulances, the evidence is more explicit.
In one case the witness is quite clear that the ambulances were aimed at.
In another case of firing at an ambulance train the range was a quite short one.
In another a Belgian Red Cross party is stated to have been ambushed.
On the whole we do not find proof of a general or systematic firing on hospitals or ambulances; but it is not possible to believe that much care was taken to avoid this.
(3) As to firing on stretcher-bearers in the course of trench warfare, the testimony is abundant, and the facts do not seem explicable by accident. It may be that sometimes the bearers were suspected of seeing too much; and it is plain from the general military policy of the German armies that very slight suspicion would be acted on in case of doubt.
(c) Abuse of the Red Cross and of the White Flag
The Red Cross
Cases of the Red Cross being abused are much more definite.
There are several accounts of fire being opened, sometimes at very short range, by machine guns which had been disguised in a German Red Cross ambulance or car; this was aggravated in one case near Tirlemont by the German soldiers wearing Belgian uniform.
Witness speaks also of a stretcher party with the Red Cross being used to cover an attack, and of a German Red Cross man working a machine gun.
There is also a well-attested case of a Red Cross motor car being used to carry ammunition under command of officers.
Unless all these statements are willfully false, which the Committee sees no reason to believe, these acts must have been deliberate, and it does not seem possible that a Red Cross car could be equipped with a machine gun by soldiers acting without orders. There is also one case of firing from a cottage where the Red Cross flag was flying, and this could not be accidental.
On the whole, there is distinct evidence of the Red Cross having been deliberately misused for offensive purposes, and seemingly under orders, on some, though not many, occasions.
Abuse of the White Flag
Cases of this kind are numerous. It is possible that a small group of men may show a White Flag without authority from any proper officer, in which case their action is, of course, not binding on the rest of the platoon or other unit. But this will not apply to the case of a whole unit advancing as if to surrender, or letting the other side advance to receive the pretended surrender, and then opening fire. Under this head we find many depositions by British soldiers and several by officers. In some cases the firing was from a machine gun brought up under cover of the White Flag.
The depositions taken by Professor Morgan in France strongly corroborate the evidence collected in this country.
The case numbered h 70 may be noted as very clearly stated. The Germans, who had „put up a white flag on a lance and ceased fire,” and thereby induced a company to advance in order to take them prisoners, „dropped the white flag and opened fire at a distance of 100 yards.” This was near Nesle, on September the 6th, 1914. It seems clearly proved that in some divisions at least of the German army this practice is very common. The incidents as reported cannot be explained by unauthorised surrenders of small groups. There is, in our opinion, sufficient evidence that these offences have been frequent, deliberate, and in many cases committed by whole units under orders. All the acts mentioned in this part of the Report are in contravention of the Hague Convention, signed by the Great Powers, including France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, in 1907, as may be seen by a reference to Appendix D., in which the provisions of that Convention relating to the conduct of war on land are set forth.
From the foregoing pages it will be seen that the Committee have come to a definite conclusion upon each of the heads under which the evidence has been classified.
It is proved:
(i) That there were in many parts of Belgium deliberate and systematically organised massacres of the civil population, accompanied by many isolated murders and other outrages.
(ii) That in the conduct of the war generally innocent civilians, both men and women, were murdered in large numbers, women violated, and children murdered.
(iii) That looting, house burning, and the wanton destruction of property were ordered and countenanced by the officers of the German Army, that elaborate provisions had been made for systematic incendiarism at the very outbreak of the war, and that t he burnings and destruction were frequent where no military necessity could be alleged, being indeed part of a system of general terrorisation.
(iv) That the rules and usages of war were frequently broken, particularly by the using of civilians, including women and children, as a shield for advancing forces exposed to fire, to a less degree by killing the wounded and prisoners, and in the frequent abuse of the Red Cross and the White Flag.
Sensible as they are of the gravity of these conclusions, the Committee conceive that they would be doing less than their duty if they failed to record them as fully established by the evidence. Murder, lust, and pillage prevailed over many parts of Belgium on a scale unparalleled in any war between civilised nations during the last three centuries.
Our function is ended when we have stated what the evidence establishes, but we may be permitted to express our belief that these disclosures will not have been made in vain if they touch and rouse the conscience of mankind, and we venture to hope that as soon as the present war is over, the nations of the world in council will consider what means can be provided and sanctions devised to prevent the recurrence of such horrors as our generation is now witnessing.
We are, &c.,
Bryce, F. Pollock, Edward Clarke, Kenelm E.Digby
Alfred Hopkinson, H.A.L. Fisher , Harold Cox