Alost was the scene of fighting between the Belgian and German armies during the whole of the latter part of the month of September. In connection with the fighting numerous cruelties appear to have been perpetrated by the German troops.
On Saturday, the 11th September, a weaver was bayoneted in the street. Another civilian was shot dead at his door on the same night. On the following day the witness was taken prisoner together with 30 others. The money of the prisoners was confiscated, and they were subsequently used as a screen for the German troops who were at that moment engaged in a conflict with the Belgian army in the town itself. The Germans burnt a number of houses at this time. Corpses of 14 civilians were seen in the streets on this occasion.
A well-educated witness, who visited the Wetteren Hospital shortly after this date saw the dead bodies of a number of civilians belonging to Alost, and other civilians wounded. One of these stated that he took refuge in the house of his sister-in-law, that the Germans dragged the people out of the house which was on fire, seized him, threw him on the ground, and hit him on the head with the butt end of a rifle, and ran him through the thigh with a bayonet.
They then placed him with 17 or 18 others in front of the German troops, threatening them with revolvers. They said that they were going to make the people of Alost pay for the losses sustained by the Germans. At this hospital was an old woman of 80 completely transfixed by a bayonet.
Other crimes on non-combatants at Alost belong to the end of the month of September. Many witnesses speak to the murder of harmless civilians.
In Binnenstraat the Germans broke open the windows of the houses and threw fluid inside, and the houses burst into flames. Some of the inhabitants were burnt to death.
The civilians were utilised on Saturday, the 26th September, as a screen. During their retreat the Germans fired 12 houses in Rue des Trois Clefs, and three civilians, whose names are given, were shot dead in that street after the firing of the houses. On the following day a heap of nine dead civilians were lying in the Rue de l’Argent.
Similar outrages occurred at Erpe, a village a few miles from Alost, about the same date. The village was deliberately burnt. The houses were plundered and some civilians were murdered.
Civilians were apparently used as a screen at Erpe, but they were prisoners taken from Alost and not dwellers in that village.
This disregard for the lives of civilians is strikingly shown in extracts from German soldiers’ diaries, of which the following are representative examples.
Barthel, who was a sergeant and standard bearer of the 2nd Company of the 1st Guards Regiment on Foot, and who during the campaign received the Iron Cross, says, under date 10th August, 1914: „A transport of 300 Belgians came through Duisburg in the morning. Of these, 80 including the Oberburgomaster were shot according to martial law.”
Matbern, of the 4th Company of Jaegers, No. 11, from Marburg, states that at a village between Birnal and Dinant on Sunday, August 23rd, the Pioneers and Infantry Regiment 178 were fired upon by the inhabitants. He gives no particulars beyond this. He continues: „About 220 inhabitants were shot, and the village was burnt. Artillery is continuously shooting, the village lies in a large ravine. Just now, 6 o’clock in the afternoon, the crossing of the Meuse begins near Dinant. All villages, chateaux, and houses are burnt down during the night. It is a beautiful sight to see the fires all round us in the distance.”
Bombardier Wetzel, of the 2nd Mounted Battery, 1st Kurhessian Field Artillery Regiment, No. 11, records an incident which happened in French territory near Lille on the 11th October: „We had no fight, but we caught about 20 men and shot them.” By this time killing not in a fight would seem to have passed into a habit.
Diary No. 32 gives an accurate picture of what took place in Louvain: „What a sad scene, all the houses surrounding the railway station completely destroyed, only some foundation walls still standing. On the station square captured guns. At the end of a main street there is the Council Hall which has been completely preserved with all its beautiful turrets; a sharp contrast: 180 inhabitants are stated to have been shot after they had dug their own graves.”
The last and most important entry is that contained in Diary No. 19. This is a blue book interleaved with blotting paper, and contains no name and address; there is, however, one circumstance which makes it possible to speak with certainty as to the regiment of the writer. He gives the names of First Lieutenant von Oppen, Count Eulenburg, Captain von Roeder, First Lieutenant von Bock und Polach, Second Lieutenant Count Hardenberg, and Lieutenant Engelbrecht. A perusal of the Prussian Army List of June 1914, shows that all these officers, with the exception of Lieutenant Engelbrecht, belonged to the First Regiment of Foot Guards. On the 24th August 1914, the writer was in Ermeton. The exact translation of the extract, grim in its brevity, is as follows: ‘24.8.14. We took about 1,000 prisoners: at least 500 were shot. The village was burnt because inhabitants had also shot. Two civilians were shot at once.’
We may now sum up and endeavour to explain the character and significance of the wrongful acts done by the German army in Belgium.
If a line is drawn on a map from the Belgian frontier to Liege and continued to Charleroi, and a second line drawn from Liege to Malines, a sort of figure resembling an irregular Y will be formed. It is along this Y that most of the systematic (as opposed to isolated) outrages were committed.
If the period from August 4th to August 30th is taken it will be found to cover most of these organised outrages. Termonde and Alost extend, it is true beyond the Y lines, and they belong to the month of September. Murder, rape, arson, and pillage began from the moment when the German army crossed the frontier. For the first fortnight of the war the towns and villages near Liege were the chief sufferers.
From the 19th of August to the end of the month, outrages spread in the directions of Charleroi and Malines and reach their period of greatest intensity. There is a certain significance in the fact that the outrages round Liege coincide with the unexpected resistance of the Belgian army in that district, and that the slaughter which reigned from the 19th August to the end of the month is contemporaneous with the period when the German army’s need for a quick passage through Belgium at all costs was deemed imperative.
Here let a distinction be drawn between two classes of outrages.
Individual acts of brutality treatment of civilians, rape, plunder, and the like-were very widely committed. These are more numerous and more shocking than would be expected in warfare between civilised Powers, but they differ rather in extent than in kind from what has happened in previous though not recent wars.
In all wars many shocking and outrageous acts must be expected, for in every large army there must be a proportion of men of criminal instincts whose worst passions are unloosed by the immunity which the conditions of warfare afford.
Drunkenness, moreover, may turn even a soldier who has no criminal habits into a brute, who may commit outrages at which he would himself be shocked in his sober moments, and there is evidence that intoxication was extremely prevalent among the German army, both in Belgium and in France, for plenty of wine was to be found in the villages and country houses which were pillaged. Many of the worst outrages appear to have been perpetrated by men under the influence of drink. Unfortunately little seems to have been done to repress this source of danger.
In the present war, however - and this is the gravest charge against the German army - the evidence shows that the killing of non-combatants was carried out to an extent for which no previous war between nations claiming to be civilised (for such cases as the atrocities perpetrated by the Turks on the Bulgarian Christians in 1876, and on the Armenian Christians in 1895 and 1896, do not belong to that category) furnishes any precedent.
That this killing was done as part of a deliberate plan is clear from the facts herein before set forth regarding Louvain, Aerschot, Dinant, and other towns. The killing was done under orders in each place. It began at a certain fixed date, and stopped (with some few exceptions) at another fixed date. Some of the officers who carried out the work did it reluctantly, and said they were obeying directions from their chiefs. The same remarks apply to the destruction of property. House burning was part of the programme; and villages, even large parts of a city, were given to the flames as part of the terrorising policy.
Citizens of neutral states who visited Belgium in December and January report that the German authorities do not deny that non-combatants were systematically killed in large numbers during the first weeks of the invasion, and this, so far as we know, has never been officially denied. If it were denied, the flight and continued voluntary exile of thousands of Belgian refugees would go far to contradict a denial, for there is no historical parallel in modern times for the flight of a large part of a nation before an invader.
The German Government have, however, sought to justify their severities on the grounds of military necessity, and have excused them as retaliation for cases in which civilians fired on German troops. There may have been cases in which such firing occurred, but no proof has ever been given, or, to our knowledge, attempted to be given, of such cases, nor of the stories of shocking outrages perpetrated by Belgian men and women on German soldiers.
The inherent improbability of the German contention is shown by the fact that after the first few days of the invasion every possible precaution had been taken by the Belgian authorities, by way of placards and hand-bills, to warn the civilian population not to intervene in hostilities. Throughout Belgian steps had been taken to secure the handing over of all firearms in the possession of civilians before the German army arrived. These steps were sometimes taken by the police and sometimes by the military authorities.
The invaders appear to have proceeded upon the theory that any chance shot coming from an unexpected place was fired by civilians. One favourite form of this allegation was that priests had fired from the church tower. In many instances the soldiers of the allied armies used church towers and private houses as cover for their operations.
At Aerschot, where the Belgian soldiers were stationed in the church tower and fired upon the Germans as they advanced, it was at once alleged by the Germans when they entered the town, and with difficulty disproved, that the firing had come from civilians. Thus one elementary error creeps at once into the German argument, for they were likely to confound, and did in some instances certainly confound, legitimate military operations with the hostile intervention of civilians.
Troops belonging to the same army often fire by mistake upon each other. That the German army was no exception to this rule is proved not only by many Belgian witnesses but by the most irrefragable kind of evidence, the admission of German soldiers themselves recorded in their war diaries.
Thus Otto Clepp, 2nd Company of the Reserve, says, under date 2nd of August: „3 a.m. Two infantry regiments shot at each other– 9 dead and 50 wounded–fault not yet ascertained.” In this connection the diaries of Kurt Hoffmann, and a soldier of the 112th Regiment (diary No. 14) will repay study. In such cases the obvious interest of the soldier is to conceal his mistake, and a convenient method of doing so is to raise the cry of ‘francs-tireurs.’
Doubtless the German soldiers often believed that the civilian population, naturally hostile, had in fact attacked them. This attitude of mind may have been fostered by the German authorities themselves before the troops passed the frontier, and thereafter stories of alleged atrocities committed by Belgians upon Germans such as the myth referred to in one of the diaries relating to Liege, were circulated amongst the troops and aroused their anger.
The diary of Barthel when still in Germany on the 10th of August shows that he believed that the Oberburgomaster of Liege had murdered a surgeon-general. The fact is that no violence was inflicted on the inhabitants at Liege until the 19th, and no one who studies these pages can have any doubt that Liege would immediately have been given over to murder and destruction if any such incident had occurred.
Letters written to their homes which have been found on the bodies of dead Germans, bear witness, in a way that now sounds pathetic, to the kindness with which they were received by the civil population. Their evident surprise at this reception was due to the stories which had been dinned into their ears of soldiers with their eyes gouged out, treacherous murder, and poisoned food, stories which may have been encouraged by the higher military authorities in order to impress the mind of the troops as well as for the sake of justifying the measures which they tool to terrify the civil population.
If there is any truth in such stories, no attempt has been made to establish it. For instance, the Chancellor of the German Empire, in a communication made to the press on September 2 and printed in the ‘Nord Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung,’ of September 21, said as follows: “Belgian girls gouged out the eyes of the German wounded. Officials of Belgian cities have invited our officers to dinner and shot and killed them across the table.
Contrary to all international law, the whole civilian population of Belgium was called out, and after having at first shown friendliness, carried on in the rear of our troops terrible warfare with concealed weapons. Belgian women cut the throats of soldiers whom they had quartered in their homes while they were sleeping.”
No evidence whatever seems to have been adduced to prove these tales, and though there may be cases in which individual Belgians fired on the Germans, the statement that ‘the whole civilian population of Belgium was called out’ is utterly opposed to the fact.
An invading army may be entitled to shoot at sight a civilian caught red-handed, or anyone who though not caught red-handed is proved guilty on enquiry. But this was not the practice followed by the German troops. They do not seem to have made any enquiry. They seized the civilians of the village indiscriminately and killed them, or such as they selected from among them, without the least regard to guilt or innocence. The mere cry „Civilisten haben geschossen” was enough to hand over a whole village or district and even outlying places to ruthless slaughter.
We gladly record the instances where the evidence shows that humanity had not wholly disappeared from some members; of the German army, and that they realised that the responsible heads of that organisation were employing them, not in war but in butchery: „I am merely executing orders, and I should be shot if I did not execute them,” said an officer to a witness at Louvain. In Brussels another officer says: „I have not done one hundredth part of what we have been ordered to do by the High German military authorities.” As we have already observed, it would be unjust to charge upon the German army generally acts of cruelty which, whether due to drunkenness or not, were done by men of brutal instincts and unbridled passions. Such crimes were sometimes punished by the officers. They were in some cases offset by acts of humanity and kindliness. But when an army is directed or permitted to kill non-combatants on a large scale, the ferocity of the worst natures spring into fuller life, and both lust and the thirst of blood become more widespread and more formidable. Had less licence been allowed to the soldiers, and had they not been set to work to slaughter civilians, there would have been fewer of those painful cases in which a depraved and morbid cruelty appears.
Two classes of murders in particular require special mention, because one of them is almost new, and the other altogether unprecedented.
The former is the seizure of peaceful citizens as so-called hostage to be kept as a pledge for the conduct of the civil population, or as a means to secure some military advantage, or to compel the payment of a contribution, the hostages being shot if the condition imposed by the arbitrary will of the invader is not fulfilled.
Such hostage taking, with the penalty of death attached, has now and then happened, the most notable case being the shooting of the Archbishop of Paris and some of his clergy by the Communards of Paris in 1871, but it is opposed both to the rule of war and to every principle of justice and humanity.
The latter kind of murder is the killing of the innocent inhabitants of a village because shots have been fired, or are alleged to have been fired, on the troops by someone in the village.
For this practice no previous example and no justification have been or can be pleaded. Soldiers suppressing an insurrection may have sometimes slain civilians mingled with insurgents, and Napoleon’s forces in Spain are said to have now and then killed promiscuously when trying to clear guerrillas out of a village.
But in Belgium large bodies of men, sometimes including the burgomaster and the priest were seized, marched by officers to a spot chosen for the purpose, and there shot in cold blood, without any attempt at trial or even inquiry, under the pretence of inflicting punishment upon the village, though these unhappy victims were not even charged with having themselves committed any wrongful act, and though, in some cases at least, the village authorities had done all in their power to prevent any molestation of the invading force.
Such acts are no part of war, for innocence is entitled to respect even in war. They are mere murders, just as the drowning of the innocent passengers and crews on a merchant ship is murder and not an act of war. That these acts should have been perpetrated on the peaceful population of an unoffending country which was not at war with invaders but merely defending its own neutrality, guaranteed by the invading Power, may excite amazement and even incredulity. It was with amazement and almost with incredulity that the Committee first read the depositions relating to such acts. But when the evidence regarding Liege was followed by at regarding Aerschot, Louvain, Andenne, Dinant, and the other towns and villages, the cumulative effect of such a mass of concurrent testimony became irresistible, and we were driven to the conclusion that the things described had really happened. The question then arose how they could have happened. Not from mere military licence, for the discipline of the German army is proverbially stringent, and its obedience implicit. Not from any special ferocity of the troops, for whoever has travelled among the German peasantry knows that they are as kindly and good-natured as any people in Europe, and those who can recall the war of 1870 will remember that no charges resembling those proved by these depositions were then established. The excesses recently committed in Belgium were, moreover, too widespread and too uniform in their character to be mere sporadic outbursts of passion or rapacity. The explanation seems to be that these excesses were committed - in some cases ordered, in others allowed–on a system and in pursuance of a set purpose. That purpose was to strike terror into the civil population and dishearten the Belgian troops, so as to crush down resistance and extinguish the very spirit of self-defence. The pretext that civilians had fired upon the invading troops was used to justify not merely the shooting of individual francs-tireurs, but the murder of large numbers of innocent civilians, an act absolutely forbidden by the rules of civilised warfare. [As to this, see, in Appendix, the Rules of the Hague Convention of 1907 to which Germany was a signatory.]In the minds of Prussian officers War seems to have become a sort of sacred mission, one of the highest functions of the omnipotent State, which is itself as much an Army as a State. Ordinary morality and the ordinary sentiment of pity vanish in its presence, superseded by a new standard which justifies to the soldier every means that can conduce to success, however shocking to a natural sense of justice and humanity, however revolting to his own feelings. The Spirit of War is deified.
Obedience to the State and its War Lord leaves no room for any other duty or feeling. Cruelty becomes legitimate when it promises victory. Proclaimed by the heads of the army, this doctrine would seem to have permeated the officers and affected even the private soldiers, leading them to justify the killing of non-combatants as an act of war, and so accustoming them to slaughter that even women and children become at last the victims. It cannot be supposed to be a national doctrine for it neither springs from nor reflects the mind and feeling of the German people as they have heretofore been known to other nations. It is a specifically military doctrine, the outcome of theory held by a ruling caste who have brooded and thought written and talked and dreamed about War until they have fallen under its obsession and been hypnotised by its spirit.
The doctrine is plainly set forth in the German Official Monograph on the usages of War on land, issued under the direction of the German staff. This book is pervaded throughout by the view that whatever military needs suggest becomes thereby lawful, and upon this principle, as the diaries show, the German officers acted. [Kriegsbrauch im Landkriege, Berlin, 1902, in Vol. VI., in the series entitled Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften, published in 1905. A translation of this monograph, by Professor J. H. Morgan has recently been published.]
If this explanation be the true one, the mystery is solved, and that which seemed scarcely credible becomes more intelligible though not less pernicious. This is not the only case that history records in which a false theory, disguising itself as loyalty to a State or to a Church, has perverted the conception of Duty, and become a source of danger to the world.