from 'the War Illustrated', 9th January, 1919
'the Allied March to the Rhine'
by Edward Wright

How the Germans Received the Armies of Occupation

British troops entering Malmédy - the town, then still German territory, would become Belgian in 1919
and be the site of fierce fighting in the winter of 1944, a world war later


A Sabbath peace was on the green, lonely land. In the bright frosty air church bells were calling the peasants to Mass in the Ardennes and the Eifel, and the churches were filled, and the woods and fields empty on Sunday, December 1st, 1918, as British Hussars and Lancers crossed the German frontier. Ahead of the conquerors rose ridge after ridge of high, pine-crowned uplands, with roads running by the edge of green ravines and by pleasant timber-built farmhouses, standing blank and sullen, with, closed doors and blinds drawn.

It was a country in which a thousand determined men, with machine-guns, might have held back an army. Yet this wild borderland of the greatest of all military States was left without a single company of defenders. By strange historic irony, the dividing stream between the Belgian and German Ardennes was named Red Water. By the blood of millions of men, with that of many women and children, had the new invaders purchased the power to cross it.

Behind the British soldiers in the liberated towns of Belgium was a whirl of dancing joy. Soldiers and girls, staid matrons and stiff officers, swayed hand-in-hand down the streets, singing in an ecstasy of happiness, or playing kiss-in-the-ring. There were more solemn scenes of joy in the cities of Lorraine and Alsace while the Americans and French were preparing to cross the hostile frontier.

Sullen German Anger

Some of the British columns were able to carry the joy of liberation on to Prussian soil. For when they entered the lovely region of Malmédy, where the green fir trees stood out in Christmas-glory against crimson stretches of withered bracken, the troops were welcomed by Walloons, whose forefathers had been torn from the Belgian nation by the robber race of Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

For the rest however, Germany awaited her conquerors in a kind of recovered pride. The people had just seen their beaten soldiers wearily trailing by like an army of tramps. In many cases they had been robbed by their own troops, and the. pillaging had not been stopped until burgomasters formed armed town guards and received assistance from good regiments of first-line forces. Yet many of the best German troops marched back to the Rhine with carts and barrows piled with plunder, all of which did not come from France or Belgium. Some divisions demobilised themselves on the march by the simple process of deserting, and then breaking into shops and taking civilian suits. The soldiers that remained steady and disciplined were given young firs as Christmas-trees, and provided with garlands of the last autumnal flowers growing in the warm valleys. To keep them from disorder they were flattered profusely and told they were unbeaten, and it was partly through the influence of their own oratory that the Germans along the Rhine began to recover from the patent effects of their abject national surrender.

Few of them were frightened at the clattering hoofs and fluttering pennons of the British advance guards. A remarkable rumour had gone through the country that Germany would be in a position to resume the struggle and carry it to a victorious end within five years. Hard, averted faces, glowering eyes, or bitter looks met the British troops as they wound in unending columns over the wooded heights and along the valley meadows. Here and there a woman or a man broke into tears, but the German population generally at first held itself in sullen, silent anger, as though it were being deeply wronged. At Aix-la-Chapelle, in the cathedral where Charlemagne, the Belgian, lies, a service of penitence was held on the Sunday when the Allies crossed the border.


American artillery marching under the Roman gate at Trier


Force—Not its Symbol

But the penitence was not for the wrong done to the children, women, and non- combatants of Belgium, but for the national weakness that allowed the land to be occupied by enemies. The strange religious service was followed by some outbreaks of violence towards the Belgian troops, and it was found necessary in this section of the march of occupation to keep strong forces immediately following the two squadrons of cavalry that led the way. Sheer force alone was what the Germans recognised and obeyed; a mere symbol of force was insufficient, at least around Aix-la-Chapelle, to overawe the extraordinary Teuton. Because Belgium was a small nation with a small Army, he would not, even in the day of utter defeat, abate his savage arrogance. Only when the main force of the Belgian Army poured towards the Rhine, from Dusseldorf to the Dutch frontier, and strong French and American forces took over Aix, did the German change his attitude.

Towards the .marching power of the British Empire, however, with Canadians threading the old lava beds of the Eifel towards Bonn, and Englishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen, and South Africans climbing through the Ardennes towards Cologne, the amazing German gradually became friendly. It was because he hated the Briton most that he respected him most, his hatred having been evoked by fear. The marching British divisions were superb in condition and appearance. Their horses shone with health and good feeding; their arms glittered as brightly as polish could make them; their uniforms were smart and their bearing magnificent.

An Awe-inspiring Display

Critical Teutons could discern no starvation effect from any submarine blockade in the swinging, ringing movement of the men who had broken through all the Hindenburg lines and then marched over the Meuse and into Prussia. Joined with the movement of the other forces of the Grand Alliance, the British invasion swelled in a lew days into an awe-inspiring display of multitudinous force. There then occurred, especially in regard to the British Army, a popular act of submission that may be compared with the surrender of the German High Sea Fleet to Admiral Beatty's squadrons. The German people generally turned completely about. Instead of meeting their victors in silent, sullen, proud anger, they implored them to hasten their advance, in disregard of the rate of progress fixed by the terms of the armistice.

The British soldier became, by the most remarkable of transformations, the saviour of the Germans. Rioting broke out at Duren, Cologne, and other places in the interval between the retirement of the German forces and the arrival of the conquering army. Cavalry, horse-artillery, and machine-gun brigades had to be sent eastward in haste to save the Germans from their own men. Then it was that the Rhineland flowered into welcome. Highlanders, striding along to the skirl of their bagpipes, found themselves accompanied by crowds of laughing, cheering children, while German girls and women smiled at the picturesquely kilted soldiers who had broken and killed a hundred thousand German men in battle. Shops and hotels produced abundant luxuries in food, in a land that had clamorously professed to be starving. Finally, a new political party arose agitating for annexation by the British Empire. In the French sector of occupation there was another party desirous of joining the country to France. Probably, if the Americans had entertained the idea, there would have been a third German group anxious to enter the United States. The more moderate men aimed at a complete break with Prussia, and the erection of a Westphalian-Rhine-land republic.

Thus the Germans cringed in spirit, if not in body, eager for any arrangement likely to save them from paying their large share of costs in the lost war. When the British entered Cologne on December 6th, Germans were still rioting in the old French city of- Metz, but in the capital of the Rhineland waving crowds greeted the conquerors.

General Plumer in Cologne

It was the same in the city of Bonn. As soon as the Teutons were overawed in their own country by a great gathering of force, they became curiously submissive. Germans were seen kicking each other because the wants of the British were not instantly attended to—in the city in which captured and badly-wounded British soldiers, faint with thirst and pain, were once tortured by the offer of glasses of water by German Red Cross nurses, who jeeringly emptied the drink on the ground before it could be taken by the weak, outstretched hands. Also—in streets along which returning British and French prisoners had lately trudged, dying of hunger, yet uncared for during the German Revolution when the Germans were themselves shrieking for humanitarian treatment—one could at times catch the sound of the "Marseillaise" and other airs of the Allies, played in well-supplied restaurants to promote trade and please the invading forces.

And when, on December 12th, 1918, standing beneath the mud-plastered statue of the Kaiser, on the towered Hohenzollern Bridge at Cologne, General Plumer took the salute of his cavalry as they rode over the Rhine to occupy Solingen and other bridge-head towns, the Teutons crowded to the spectacle as though it were a Kaiser review. Perhaps some cafe bands played "Rule, Britannia," or "Tipperary" that night, for these were among the airs to which the British horse crossed the last line of defence of the shattered Empire that Bismarck had built of blood and iron. The iron had rusted out with the blood spilt upon it.


the German garrison at Cologne leaving the city


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