Although the neutrality of Belgium had been guaranteed by a treaty signed in 1839 to which France, Prussia, and Great Britain were parties, and although, apart altogether from any duties imposed by treaty, no belligerent nation has any right to claim a passage for its army across the territory of a neutral state, the position which Belgium held between the German Empire and France had obliged her to consider the possibility that in the event of a war between these two Powers her neutrality might not be respected.
In 1911 the Belgian Minister at Berlin had requested an assurance from Germany that she would observe the Treaty of 1839; and the Chancellor of the Empire had declared that Germany had no intention of violating Belgian neutrality. Again in 1913 the German Secretary of State at a meeting of a Budget Committee of the Reichstag had declared that ‘Belgian neutrality is provided for by international conventions and Germany is determined to respect those conventions.’
Finally, on July 31, 1914, when the danger of war between Germany and France seemed imminent, Herr von Below, the German Minister in Brussels, being interrogated by the Belgian Foreign Department, replied that he knew of the assurances given by the German Chancellor in 1911, and that he „was certain that the sentiments expressed at that time had not changed.” Nevertheless on August 2 the same Minister presented a note to the Belgian Government demanding a passage through Belgium for the German army on pain of an instant declaration of war.
Startled as they were by the suddenness with which this terrific war cloud had risen on the eastern horizon, the leaders of the nation rallied round the King in his resolution to refuse the demand and to prepare for resistance. They were aware of the danger which would confront the civilian population of the country if it were tempted to take part in the work of national defence. Orders were accordingly issued by the civil governors of provinces, and by the burgomasters of towns, that the civilian inhabitants were to take no part in hostilities and to offer no provocation to the invaders.
That no excuse might be furnished for severities, the populations of many important towns were instructed to surrender all firearms into the hands of the local officials. [Copies of typical proclamations have been printed in L’Allemagne et la Belgique, Documents Annexées, xxxvi.]
This happened on August 2. On the evening of August 3 the German troops crossed the frontier. The storm burst so suddenly that neither party had time to adjust its mind to the situation. The Germans seem to have expected an easy passage. The Belgian population, never dreaming of an attack, were startled and stupefied.
On August 4th the roads converging upon Liege from northeast, east, and south were covered with German Death’s Head Hussars and Uhlans pressing forward to seize the passage over the Meuse, From the very beginning of the operations the civilian population of the villages lying upon the line of the German advance were made to experience the extreme horrors of war.
„On the 4th of August,” says one witness, „at Herve” (a village not far from the frontier), „I saw at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, near the station, five Uhlans; these were the first German troops I had seen. They were followed by a German officer and some soldiers in a motor car. The men in the car called out to a couple of young fellows who were standing about 30 yards away. The young men, being afraid, ran off and then the Germans fired and killed one of them named D …”
The murder of this innocent fugitive civilian was a prelude to the burning and pillage of Herve and of other villages in the neighbourhood, to the indiscriminate shooting of civilians of both sexes, and to the organised military execution of batches of selected males. Thus at Herve some 50 men escaping from the burning houses were seized, taken outside the town and shot.
At Melen, a hamlet west of Herve, 40 men were shot. In one household alone the father and mother (names given) were shot, the daughter died after being repeatedly outraged, and the son was wounded. Nor were children exempt. „About August 4,” says one witness, „near Vottern, we were pursuing some Uhlans. I saw a man, woman, and a girl about nine, who had been killed. They were on the threshold of a house, one on the top of the other, as if they had been shot down, one after the other, as they tried to escape.”
The burning of the villages in this neighbourhood and the wholesale slaughter of civilians, such as occurred at Herve, Micheroux, and Soumagne, appear to be connected with the exasperation caused by the resistance of Fort Fleron, whose guns barred the main road from Aix la Chapelle to Liege. Enraged by the losses which they had sustained, suspicious of the temper of the civilian population, and probably thinking that by exceptional severities at the outset they could cow the spirit of the Belgian nation, the German officers and men speedily accustomed themselves to the slaughter of civilians.
How rapidly the process was effected is illustrated by an entry in the diary of Kurt, a one year’s man in the 1st Jaegers, who on August 5th was in front of Fort Fleron. He illustrates his story by a sketch map. „The position,” he says, „was dangerous. As suspicious civilians were hanging about - houses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, were cleared, the owners arrested (and shot the following day). Suddenly village A was fired at. Out of it bursts our baggage train, and the 4th Company of the 27th Regiment who had lost their way and been shelled by our own artillery. From the point D.P. (shown in diary) I shoot a civilian with rifle at 400 metres slap through the head, as we afterward s ascertained.”
Within a few hours Hoffman, whilst in house 3, was himself under fire from his own comrades and narrowly escaped being killed. A German, ignorant that house 3 had been occupied, reported, as was the fact, that he had been fired upon from that house. He had been challenged by the field patrol, and failed to give the countersign. Hoffman continues: „Ten minutes later, people approach who are talking excitedly” - apparently Germans. I call out “Halt, who’s there?”
Suddenly rapid fire is opened upon us, which I can only escape by quickly jumping on one side– with bullets and fragments of wall and pieces of glass flying round me. I call out “Halt, here Field Patrol.” Then it stops, and there appears Lieutenant Ramer with three platoons. A man has reported that he had been shot at out of our house; “no wonder, if he does not give the countersign.”
The entry, though dated August the 5th was evidently written on the 6th or later, because the writer refers to the suspicious civilians as having been shot on that day. Hoffman does not indicate of what offence these civilians were guilty, and there is no positive evidence to connect their slaughter with the report made by the German who had been fired on by his comrades. They were ‘suspicious’ and that was enough.
The systematic execution of civilians, which in some cases, as the diary just cited shows, was founded on a genuine mistake, was given a wide extension through the province of Liege. In Soumagne and Micheroux very many civilians were summarily shot. In a field belonging to a man named E … . 56 or 57 were put to death.
A German officer said: „You have shot at us.” One of the villagers asked to be allowed to speak, and said: „If you think these people fired, kill me, but let them go.” The answer was three volleys. The survivors were bayoneted. Their corpses were seen in the field that night by another witness. One at least had been mutilated. These were not the only victims in Soumagne, The eye-witness of the massacre saw, on his way home, 20 bodies, one that of a young girl of 13. Another witness saw 19 corpses in a meadow.
At Blegny Trembleur, on the 6th, some civilians were captured by German soldiers, who took steps to put them to death forthwith, but were restrained by the arrival of an officer. The prisoners subsequently were taken off to Battice and five were shot in a field. No reason was assigned for their murder.
In the meantime house burners were at work. On the 6th Battice was destroyed in part. From the 8th to the 10th over 300 houses were burnt at Herve, while mounted men shot into doors and windows to prevent the escape of the inhabitants.
At Heure le Romain on or about the 15th of August all the male inhabitants, including some bedridden old men were imprisoned in the church. The burgomaster’s brother and the priest were bayoneted.
On or about the 14th and 15th the village of Vise was completely destroyed. Officers directed the incendiaries, who worked methodically with benzine. Antiques and china were removed from the houses, before their destruction, by officers, who guarded the plunder revolver in hand. The house of a witness, which contained valuables of this kind, was protected for a time by a notice posted on the door by officers. This notice has been produced to the Committee. After the removal of the valuables this house also was burnt.
German soldiers had arrived on the 15th at Blegny Trembleur and seized a quantity of wine. On the 16th prisoners were taken; four, including the priest and the burgomaster, were shot. On the same day 200 (so-called) hostages were seized at Flemalle and marched off. There they were told that unless Fort Flemalle surrendered by noon they would be shot. It did surrender and they were released.
Entries in a German diary show that on the 19th the German soldiers gave themselves up to debauchery in the streets of Liege, and on the night of the 20th (Thursday) a massacre took place in the streets, beginning near the Cafe Carpentier, at which there is said to have been a dinner attended by Russian and other students.
A proclamation issued by General Kolewe on the following day gave the German version of the affair, which was that his troops had been fired on by Russian students. The diary states that in the night the inhabitants of Liege became mutinous and that 50 persons were shot. The Belgian witnesses vehemently deny that there had been any provocation given, some stating that many German soldiers were drunk, others giving evidence which indicates that the affair was planned beforehand. It is stated that at 5 o’clock in the evening, long before the shooting, a citizen was warned by a friendly German soldier not to go out that night.
Though the cause of the massacre is in dispute, the results are known with certainty. The Rue des Pitteurs and houses in the Place de l’Université and the Quai des Pecheurs were systematically fired with benzine, and many inhabitants were burnt alive in their houses, their efforts to escape being prevented by rifle fire. Twenty people were shot, while trying to escape, before the eyes of one of the witnesses.
The Liege Fire Brigade turned out but was not allowed to extinguish the fire. Its carts, however, were usefully employed in removing heaps of civilian corpses to the Town Hall. The fire burnt on through the night and the murders continued on the following day, the 21st. Thirty-two civilians were killed on that day in the Place de l’Universite alone, and a witness states that this was followed by the rape in open day of 15 or 20 women on tables in the square itself.
No depositions are before us which deal with events in the city of Liege after this date. Outrages, however, continued in various places in the province.
For example, on or about the 21st of August, at Pepinster, two witnesses were seized as hostages and were threatened, together with five others, that unless they could discover a civilian who was alleged to have shot a soldier in the leg, they would be shot themselves. They escaped their fate because one of the hostages convinced the officer that the alleged shooting, if it took place at all, took place in the Commune of Cornesse and not that of Pepinster, whereupon the Burgomaster of Cornesse, who was old and very deaf, was shot forthwith.
The outrages on the civilian population were not confined to the villages mentioned above, but appear to have been general throughout this district from the very outbreak of the war.
An entry in one of the diaries says: „We crossed the Belgian frontier on 15th August 1914 at 11.50 in the forenoon, and then we went steadily along the main road till we got into Belgium. Hardly were we there when we had a horrible sight. Houses were burnt down, the inhabitants chased away and some of them shot. Not one of the hundreds of houses were spared. Everything was plundered and burnt. Hardly had we passed through this large village before the next village was burnt, and so it went on continuously.
On the 16th August 1914 the large village of Barchon was burnt down. On the same day we crossed the bridge over the Meuse at 11.50 in the morning. We then arrived at the town of Wandre. Here the houses were spared, but everything was examined. At last we were out of the town and everything went in ruins. In one house a whole collection of weapons was found. The inhabitants without exception were brought out and shot.
This shooting was heart-breaking as they all knelt down and prayed, but that was no ground for mercy. A few shots rang out and they fell back into the green grass and slept forever.” [„Die Einwohner wurden samt und sonders herausgeholt Imd erschossen: aber diese Erschiessen war direkt herzzerreisend wie sie alle knieben und beteten, aber dies half kein Erbarmen. Ein paar Schafsse krackten lmd die fielen racklings in das grufne Gras und verschliefen frummer.”]
While the First Army, under the command of General Alexander von Kluck, was mastering the passages of the Meuse between Vise and Namur, and carrying out the scheme of devastation which has already been described, detachments of the Second German Army, under General von Bulow, were proceeding up the Meuse valley towards Namur. On Wednesday, August the 12th, the town of Huy, which stands halfway between Namur and Liege, was seized. On August 20 German guns opened fire on Namur itself.
Three days later the city was evacuated by its defenders, and the Germans proceeded along the valley of the Sambre through Tamines and Charleroi to Mons. Meanwhile a force under General von Hausen had advanced upon Dinant, by Laroche, Marche, and Achene, and on August 15th made an unsuccessful assault upon that town. A few days later the attack was renewed and with success, and, Dinant captured, Von Hausen’s army streamed into France by Bouvines and Rethel, firing and looting the villages and shooting the inhabitants as they passed through.
The evidence with regard to the Province of Namur is less voluminous than that relating to the north of Belgium. This is largely due to the fact that the testimony of soldiers is seldom available, as the towns and villages once occupied by the Germans were seldom reoccupied by the opposing troops, and the number of refugees who have reached England from the Namur district is comparatively small.