(Bryce Report into German Atrocities in Belgium, part 1, 12 May 1915)
The Bryce report
The British government, headed by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, concerned by persistent reports of German brutality towards the civilian population in invaded Belgium in 1914, consequently requested James Bryce to prepare an independent report based upon his and an appointed committee’s findings.
The committee might reasonably have been expected to present decidedly biased findings given its entirely British composition. However Bryce was a widely respected former Ambassador to the United States and his report was viewed as credible in Washington, thus seriously damaging Germany in the eyes of U.S. public and political opinion.
In the event Bryce’s report (produced in 30 languages in May 1915) present an extreme view of German acts of brutality in occupied Belgium. That such acts took place was not in doubt. However the committee’s tendency to dwell upon the more lurid eye-witness reports led to the report being discredited (chiefly in the immediate post-war years).
The Bryce Report
Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages
Appointed by His Britannic Majesty’s Government and Presided Over by the Right Hon. Viscount Bryce, O.M.&c., &c.
Formerly British Ambassador at Washington
Table of Contents
Breaches of Rules and Usages of War and Acts of Inhumanity in Invaded Territories
1. Treatment of the Civil Population
(a) Killing of Non-Combatants
(b) Treatment of Women and Children
(c) The Use of Civilians as Screens
(d) The Looting, Burning and Destroying of Property
2. Offences Against Combatants
(a) Killing the Wounded or Prisoners
(b) Firing on Hospitals
(c) Abuse of Red Cross and White Flag
I hereby appoint:
The Right Hon. Viscount Bryce, O.M.;
The Right Hon. Sir Frederick Pollock, Bt., K.C.;
Sir Alfred Hopkinson, K.C;
Mr. H. A. L. Fisher, Vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield;
and Mr. Harold Cox;
to be a Committee to consider and advise on the evidence collected on behalf of His Majesty’s Government as to outrages alleged to have been committed by German troops during the present War, cases of alleged maltreatment of civilians in the invaded territories, and breaches of the laws and established usages of war; and to prepare a report for His Majesty’s Government allowing the conclusion at which they arrive on the evidence now available.
And I appoint Viscount Bryce to be Chairman, and Mr. E. Grimwood Mears and Mr. W.J.H. Brodrick, barristers-at-law, to be Joint Secretaries to the Committee.
(Signed) H. H. Asquith
15th December 1914.
Sir Kenelm E. Digby, K.C., G.C.B., was appointed an additional member of the Committee on 22nd January 1915.
To the Right Honourable H. H. Asquith, &c., &c., First Lord of H.M. Treasury.
The Committee have the honour to present and transmit to you a report upon the evidence which has been submitted to them regarding outrages alleged to have been committed by the German troops in the present war.
By the terms of their appointment the Committee were directed ‘to consider and advise on the evidence collected on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, as to outrages alleged to have been committed by German troops during the present war, cases of allege d maltreatment of civilians in the invaded territories, and breaches of the laws and established usages of war; and to prepare a report for His Majesty’s Government showing the conclusion at which they arrive on the evidence now available.’
It may be convenient that before proceeding to state how we have dealt with the materials, and what are the conclusions we have reached, we should set out the manner in which the evidence came into being, and its nature.
In the month of September 1914 a Minute was, at the instance of the Prime Minister, drawn up and signed by the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General. It stated the need that had arisen for investigating the accusations of inhumanity and outrage that had been brought against the German soldiers, and indicated the precautions to be taken in collecting evidence that would be needed to ensure its accuracy. Pursuant to this Minute steps were taken under the direction of the Home Office to collect evidence, and a great many persons who could give it were seen and examined.
For some three or four months before the appointment of the Committee, the Home Office had been collecting a large body of evidence. [Taken from Belgian witnesses, some soldiers, but most of them civilians from those towns and villages through which the German Army passed, and from British officers and soldiers.] More than 1,200 depositions made by these witnesses have been submitted to and considered by the Committee. Nearly all of these were obtained under the supervision of Sir Charles Mathews, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and of Mr. E. Grimwood Mears, barrister of the Inner Temple, whilst in addition Professor J. H. Morgan has collected a number of statements mainly from British soldiers, which have also been submitted to the Committee.
The labour involved in securing, in a comparatively short time, so large a number of statements from witnesses scattered all over the United Kingdom, made it necessary to employ a good many examiners. The depositions were in all cases taken down in this country by gentlemen of legal knowledge and experience, though, of course, they had no authority to administer an oath. They were instructed not to ‘lead’ the witnesses, or make any suggestions to them, and also to impress upon them the necessity for care and precision in giving their evidence.
They were also directed to that the evidence critically, and as far as possible satisfy themselves, by putting questions which arose out of the evidence, that the witnesses were speaking the truth. They were, in fact, to examine them, so far as the testimony given provided materials for cross-examination.
We have seen and conversed with many of these gentlemen, and have been greatly impressed by their ability and by what we have gathered as to the fairness of spirit which they brought to their task. We feel certain that the instructions given have been scrupulously observed.
In many cases those who took the evidence have added their comments upon the intelligence and demeanour of the witnesses, stating the impression which each witness made, and indicating any cases in which the story told appeared to them open to doubt or suspicion. In coming to a conclusion upon the evidence the Committee have been greatly assisted by these expressions of opinion, and have uniformly rejected every deposition on which an opinion adverse to the witness has been recorded.
This seems to be a fitting place at which to put on record the invaluable help which we have received from our Secretaries, Mr. E. Grimwood Mears and Mr. W. J. E. Brodrick, whose careful diligence and minute knowledge of the evidence have been of the utmost service. Without their skill, judgement, and untiring industry the labour of examining and appraising each part of so large a mass of testimony would have occupied us for six months instead of three.
The marginal references in this Report indicate the particular deposition or depositions on which the statements made in the text are based.
The depositions printed in the Appendix themselves show that the stories were tested in detail, and in none of these have we been able to detect the trace of any desire to ‘make a case’ against the German army. Care was taken to impress upon the witness that the giving of evidence was a grave and serious matter, and every deposition submitted to us was signed by the witness in the presence of the examiner.
A noteworthy feature of many of the depositions is that though taken at different places and on different dates, and by different lawyers from different witnesses, they often corroborate each other in a striking manner.
The evidence is all couched in the very words which the witnesses used, and where they spoke, as the Belgian witnesses did, in Flemish or French, pains were taken to have competent translators, and to make certain that the translation was exact.
Seldom did these Belgian witnesses show a desire to describe what they had seen or suffered. The lawyers who took the depositions were surprised to find how little vindictiveness, or indeed passion, they showed, and how generally free from emotional excitement their narratives were. Many hesitated to speak lest what they said, if it should ever be published, might involve their friends or relatives at home in danger, and it was found necessary to give an absolute promise that names should not be disclosed.
For this reason names have been omitted.
A large number of depositions, and extracts from depositions, will be found in Appendix A., and to these your attention is directed.
In all cases these are given as nearly as possible (for abbreviation was sometimes inevitable) in the exact words of the witness, and wherever a statement has been made by a witness tending to exculpate the German troops, it has been given in full. Excisions have been made only where it has been felt necessary to conceal the identity of the deponent, or to omit what are merely hearsay statements, or are palpably irrelevant.
In every case the name and description of the witnesses are given in the original depositions and in copies which have been furnished to us by H.M. Government. The originals remain in the custody of the Home Department, where they will be available, in case of need, for reference after the conclusion of the War.
The Committee have also had before them a number of diaries taken from the German dead.
It appears to be the custom in the German army for soldiers to be encouraged to keep diaries and record in them the chief events of each day. A good many of these diaries were collected on the field when British troops were advancing over ground which had been held by the enemy, were sent to Head Quarters in France, and despatched thence to the War Office in England. They passed into the possession of the Prisoners of War Information Bureau, and were handed by it to our secretaries.
They have been translated with great care. We have inspected them and are absolutely satisfied of their authenticity. They have thrown important light upon the methods followed in the conduct of the war. In one respect indeed, they are the most weighty part of the evidence, because they proceed from a hostile source and are not open to any such criticism on the ground of bias as might be applied to Belgian testimony.
From time to time references to these diaries will be found in the text of the Report. In Appendix B. they are set out at greater length both in the German original and in an English translation, together with a few photographs of the more important entries.
In Appendix C. are set out a number of German proclamations. Most of these are included in the Belgian Report No. VI. which has been furnished to us. Actual specimens of original proclamations, issued by or at the bidding of the German military authorities, and posted in the Belgian and French towns mentioned, have been produced to us, and copies thereof are to be found in this Appendix.
Appendix D. contains the rules of the Hague Convention dealing with the conduct of War On Land as adopted in 1907, Germany being one of the signatory powers. In Appendix E. will be found a selection of statements collected in France by Professor Morgan.
These five appendices are contained in a separate volume.
In dealing with the evidence we have recognised the importance of testing it severely, and so far as the conditions permit we have followed the principles which are recognised in the Courts of England, the British Overseas Dominions, and the United States.
We have also as already noted set aside the testimony of any witnesses who did not favourably impress the lawyers who took their depositions, and have rejected hearsay evidence except in cases where hearsay furnished an undersigned confirmation of facts with regard to which we already possessed direct testimony from some other source, or explained in a natural way facts imperfectly narrated or otherwise perplexing.
[For instance, the dead body of a man is found lying on the doorstep, or a woman is seen who has the appearance of having been outraged. So far the fact are proved by the direct evidence of the person by whom they have been seen. Information is sought for by him as to the circumstances under which the death or outrage took place. The bystanders who saw the circumstance, but who are not now accessible, relate what they saw, and this is reported by the witness to the examiner and is placed on record in the depositions. We have had no hesitation in taking such evidence into consideration.]
It is natural to ask whether much of the evidence given, especially by the Belgian witnesses, may not be due to excitement and overstrained emotions, and whether, apart from deliberate falsehood persons who mean to speak the truth may not in a more or less hysterical condition have been imagining themselves to have seen the things which they say that they saw. Both the lawyers who took the depositions, and we when we came to examine them, full recognised this possibility.
The lawyers, as already observed, took pains to test each witness and either rejected, or appended a note of distrust to, the testimony of those who failed to impress them favourably. We have carried the sifting still further by also omitting from the depositions those in which we found something that seemed too exceptional to be accepted on the faith of one witness only, or too little supported by other evidence pointing to like facts. Many depositions have thus been omitted on which, although they are probably true, we think it safer not to place reliance.
Notwithstanding these precautions, we began the inquiry with doubts whether a positive result would be attained. But the further we went and the more evidence we examined so much the more was our scepticism reduced. There might be some exaggeration in one witness, possible delusion in another, inaccuracies in a third. When, however, we found that things which had at first seemed improbable were testified to by many witnesses coming from different places, having had no communication with one another, and knowing nothing of one another’s statements the points in which they all agreed became more and more evidently true.
And when this concurrence of testimony, this convergence up on what were substantially the same broad facts, showed itself in hundreds of depositions, the truth of those broad facts stood out beyond question. The force of the evidence is cumulative. Its worth can be estimated only by perusing the testimony as a whole. If any further confirmation had been needed, we found it in the diaries in which German officers and private soldiers have recorded incidents just such as those to which the Belgian witnesses depose.
The experienced lawyers who took the depositions tell us that they passed from the same stage of doubt into the same stage of conviction. They also began their work in a sceptical spirit, expecting to find much of the evidence coloured by passion, or prompted by an excited fancy. But they were impressed by the general moderation and matter of fact level-headedness of the witnesses.
We interrogated them, particularly regarding some of the most startling and shocking incidents which appear in the evidence laid before us, and where they expressed a doubt we have excluded the evidence, admitting it as regards the cases in which they stated that the witnesses seemed to them to be speaking the truth, and that they themselves believed the incidents referred to have happened. It is for this reason that we have inserted among the depositions printed in the Appendix several cases which we might otherwise have deemed scarcely credible.
The Committee has conducted its investigations and come to its conclusions independently of the reports issued by the French and Belgian Commissions, but it has no reason to doubt that those conclusions are in substantial accord with the conclusions that have been reached by these two Commissions.
Arrangement of the Report
As respects the framework and arrangement of the Report, it has been deemed desirable to present first of all what may be called a general historical account of the events which happened, and the conditions which prevailed in the parts of Belgium which lay along the line of the German march, and thereafter to set forth the evidence which bears upon particular classes of offences against the usages of civilised warfare, evidence which shows to what extent the provisions of the Hague Convention have been disregarded.
This method, no doubt, involves a certain amount of overlapping, for some of the offence belonging to the later part of the Report will have been already referred to in the earlier part which deals with the invasion of Belgium. But the importance of presenting a connected narrative of events seems to outweigh the disadvantage of occasional repetition.
The Report will therefore be found to consist of two parts, viz.:
(1) An analysis and summary of the evidence regarding the conduct of the German troops in Belgium towards the civilian population of that country during the first few weeks of the invasion.
(2) An examination of the evidence relating to breaches of the rules and usages of war and acts of inhumanity, committed by German soldiers or groups of soldiers, during the first four months of the war whether in Belgium or in France.
This second part has again been sub-divided into two sections;
a. Offences committed against non-combatant civilians during the conduct of the war generally.
b. Offences omitted against combatants, whether in Belgium or in France.