Atrocities Portrayed in the British Press


When the war broke, out stories of German brutality toward the civilian population of Belgium and France spread quickly, repeated by word of mouth and by the newsmedia. There are many cases of German atrocities amply documented and attested to both during and after the war. In the early days of the war details and corroboration were however difficult to come by and news editors, in the patriotic spirit of the times, decided that if accurate information was not to be had then a bit of creative reporting would certainly not be amiss.

At times, the purported atrocity stories were somewhat exagerrated to say the least, if not outright lies. The blowing to bits by cannon of the Burgomaster of Liege is such an example, the report being a complete fabrication. At other times the atrocity story would be based on fact with a bit extra thrown in for good measure. Then again some were quite accurate and can be corrobarated by independant witnesses (the story of the hospital at Lierre being such an example * see 'A Surgeon in Belgium'). Generaly speaking when names and locations are given the stories are more prone to be truthful than when generic descriptions are given.

On the whole though most such stories were highly suspect as to accuracy and veracity. The cheaper working-class periodicals were the worst offenders, commissioning lurid and sensational drawings of women being threatened and insulted, civilians being executed, outrages being perpetuated against Allied soldiers. The intention was of course to stir up public opinion against the Germans and encourage enlistment. Justifiable perhaps when viewed in the light of military necessity, but otherwise not so wise a course when viewed in the long run.

A backlash of sorts came after the war and during the next war, when the public, believing that once again the propaganda mills of Fleet Street were working overtime did not credit the Germans with the awful deeds they were charged with.


What follows is a small gallery of several typical examples of illustrated atrocity stories that appeared in British newsmagazines such as 'The Penny War Weekly' and 'The War Illustrated'. It is interesting to note the comic book likeness of the illustrations. Indeed, from Great War illustrations to '20s and '30s pulp magazine covers and on to post-World War II comic books : the artistic lineage and style is direct and unbroken.

Such atrocity stories as shown here are typical of the first year of the war. Later on, the British magazines preferred to illustrate stories of exceptional bravery of the own troops.


Two Illustrations from 'The War Illustrated'

'There were many proved instances of Germans using women and children as battle-screens.'
'A German Invention - The Red Cross Machine-Gun'