from ‘1914 Illustrated - The Book of the Year’
'German Atrocities'

A Record of Notable Achievements and Events

as portrayed in the French press - Germans using civilians as human shields


German Atrocities

Ever since the commencement of the war there had appeared in the Press almost daily, numerous accounts of alleged atrocities committed by the German soldiery. By most people these stories were accepted with some reserve. On August 26th, however, came news—true beyond all doubt—which at once stamped the German army as little better than a host of barbarians. Louvain, the Belgian Oxford, with its ancient Cathedral of St. Pierre, its world-famous University, its priceless literary and scientific treasures, had been ruthlessly burned to the ground. Not only that, but such outrages had been committed on innocent civilians in the town that probability was at once lent to the tales which had previously been told. The Germans claimed, in their defence, that Belgian civilians had taken part in the fighting, and that therefore the "most drastic measures" were necessary to "frighten the bloodthirsty population." The following, taken from the report of the Official Belgian inquiry, throws a different light upon the matter:—

"At nightfall on August 26th the German troops, repulsed by our soldiers, entered Louvain panic struck. Several witnesses affirm that the German garrison which occupied Louvain was erroneously informed that the enemy were entering the town. Men of the garrison immediately marched to the station, shooting haphazard the while, and there met the German troops who had been repulsed by the Belgians, the latter having just ceased the pursuit.

"Everything tends to prove that the German regiments fired on one another. At once the Germans began bombarding the town, pretending that civilians had fired on the troops, a suggestion which is contradicted by all the witnesses, and could scarcely have been possible, because the inhabitants of Louvain had had to give up their arms to the municipal authorities several days before.

"The bombardment lasted till about ten o'clock at night. The Germans then set fire to the town. Wherever the fire had not spread the German soldiers entered the houses with their fire grenades, with which some of them seem to be provided.

"The corpses of many civilians encumbered the streets and squares. On the road from Tirlemont to Louvain alone a witness counted more than 500."

The Kaiser, anxious to gain favour in the United States, offered an apology for his troops. "My heart bleeds," ran his message, "when I think that such measures should have become inevitable, and at the thought of the many innocent people who have lost their homes and property in consequence of the barbarous behaviour of these criminals." The real criminals were, of course, his own soldiers, though he inferred otherwise. Moreover, such an excuse would not condone the massacres of non- combatants and children, the assaults upon women, the consistent practice of using peasants and prisoners as living shields, the torture of old men, the disregard of the Red Cross, the abuse of the white flag, the looting, the general terrorisation of the whole countryside.

And not at Louvain alone were the Germans guilty of brutal Philistinism. Many a Belgian or French town, rich in storied walls and towers, has been wholly or partially destroyed: Dinant, Malines, Termonde, Senlis, have all been crushed beneath the iron heel. Yet even these things did not fully prepare the world for the news which came on the 21st of September—that Rheims Cathedral was being bombarded. " Without being able to plead even military exigencies, and solely for the pleasure of destruction, the German troops have subjected Rheims Cathedral to a systematic and furious bombardment." So read the French communiqué, and it added in just anger, "The Government of the Republic finds it necessary to denounce to universal indignation this revolting act of vandalism, which, by handing over to the flames a sanctuary of our history, has robbed humanity of an incomparable portion of its artistic patrimony." The crime was the greater in that from the Cathedral tower flew the Red Cross flag, and beneath, in the nave, wounded German soldiers were lying. The French doctors in these circumstances showed a noble spirit in rescuing at great personal risk these German wounded, many of whom were saved before the roof fell in. Happily, it was discovered after the bombardment that the damage was not so extensive as was at first feared. The glorious front is still practically intact; both inside and outside, however, much priceless statuary has been ruined, and the neighbouring Archbishop's House totally razed to the ground.

Further confirmation of the deeds of the Huns will be found in the diary of a German officer, printed on pages 144-152.


Testimony of an American Citizen

Mr. John M. Chretien a lawyer from San Francisco, California, in the course of a trip from Paris to St. Die, on the German frontier in Lorraine, obtained proof of many German atrocities. He visited the Chateau Gauley, which was used as a hospital and from which Red Cross banners flew. One of these had been shot away, and four others were in shreds. A shell bursting in the dining-room, where seventy-five wounded French soldiers were lying, killed every one of them, and completely severed in two the body of the Curé of the Commune, the Abbé Jean Pierre, who was ministering to the wounded. Of three hundred wounded in the Chateau only thirty-five were removed to safety. The village itself, which was abandoned by the inhabitants, was burned to the ground, not by bursting shells, but by the saturating of the interior of the houses with petroleum and then applying the torch. The villagers had not fired one shot at the Germans. In the same village a grey-haired, bed-ridden widow of fifty became the victim of a party of German soldiers, and a young girl was also subjected to the grossest ill-treatment in the presence of her mother. At Le Voire the aged cure was ruthlessly shot because he failed to answer a question, not understanding German.

Many years ago, Heine uttered a half-insolent, half-mocking prediction of a revival of the "brutal German joy of battle." "Thor," he said, "with his giant's hammer will at last spring up and shatter to bits the Gothic Cathedrals." What a fulfilment we find of this to-day, and of the "senseless Berserker fury"! And, as the Westminster Gazette well said on the morrow of the great crime of Rheims, "We fight to end the 'senseless Berserker fury' that we now see at work, and the whole deadly system from which it springs. That is the supreme object which covers and embraces all the other objects, and it will not be accomplished by any quick and easy road, or by any means short of a supreme effort of all the Allies. The reward to which we look forward in the end, and the only reward which will repay the sacrifice of blood and treasure, is a Europe so constituted that we can banish the idea of war as a necessary element in the life of its nations, and establish civilization on a basis in which a passion for destruction will not be regarded as the highest expression of strength and vitality."



Confessions of a Hun

The following extracts from a diary found on a German officer on a recent battlefield were issued by the British Press Bureau on October 17th. The diary is interesting as giving an account of the early stages of the war by a German, and also as confirming the evidence printed on pages 139 and 140 of the wanton vandalism of the German army.

August 9.—Near Gouvy (Belgium, N.E. of Houffalize), 7.30 a.m. We are still without orders to move. . . . Our orders must have been lost on the road. ... I hear that our losses in the assault on Liege were something like 1,800 men.

August 12.—The brigade was warned of the advance of a strong force of the enemy, and was ordered to oppose it. . . . The 2nd batt. billeted in Baplain. A filthy billet, far worse than a bivouac.

August 14.—The Grossenhain Hussars (King Albert's Own) arrived and brought us the news announced in Dresden papers that the 64th Brigade (the writer's own brigade) had been badly cut up. And we haven't had a sight of the enemy.

August 15.—The enemy is apparently entrenched on the Meuse. I went into the village to requisition a dictionary, but I couldn't get one. ... I was astonished to find so much still left to requisition, especially butter, considering that the 177th Regt. had gone through in front of us.

August 17. —Damnably wet. We are staying an extra day here to prevent our men getting soaked through.

In the afternoon I had a look at the little chateau belonging to one of the King's secretaries (not at home). Our men had behave like regular vandals. They had looted the cellar first, and then had turned their attention to the bedrooms, and thrown things about all over the place. They had even made fruitless efforts to smash the safe open. Everything was topsy-turvy. Magnificent furniture, silk, and even china. Things that happen when the men are allowed to requisition for themselves. I am sure they must have taken away a heap of useless stuff simply for the pleasure of looting.

August 18.—We had several cripples in the 6th Company. Late in the evening the train arrived (about fifty vehicles). They had come from Gouvy after doing 60 kilometres, probably the result of a mistake in reading an order.

August 20.—The men are not accustomed to long marches yet, and they are not as active as one could wish. I shouldn't like to take them under fire even after 20 kilometres (12 miles). At Achene we met the Jagers who took Dinant, but had to retire in the face of superior numbers of infantry. They told us the enemy's shooting was poor (too high), as in 1870.

August 22.—Early in the morning the Staff sent us the news that Namur had fallen. Some of the enemy's aeroplanes passed over, but so high that the infantry and artillery did no good by shooting at them. The best plan would be to send our aeroplanes after them. We haven't yet got any good anti-aircraft guns.

August 23.—Night alarm. A house was on fire, probably to disclose our position to the enemy. A spy was caught and shot.

Our men came back and said that at the point where the valley joined the Meuse we could not get on any further, as the villagers were shooting at us from every house. We shot the whole lot, sixteen of them. They were drawn up in three ranks; the same shot did for three at a time. Two 6-inch howitzers succeeded in getting into position, and in twenty shots reduced the village of Bouvines to ruins.

The inhabitants might have escaped the penalty by handing over the guilty and paying 15,000 francs. The losses in our regiment (thirty killed and many wounded) were caused chiefly by villagers who shot at us from the houses. The men were absolutely mad at this sneaking way of fighting. They wanted to burn everything, and they succeeded, too, in setting light to several houses. In the afternoon our artillery fairly sprinkled the principal buildings in the place the whole length of the village with incendiary shells. It was a marvellous sight, the high ground from Dinant to Leppe overlooking the Meuse all in flames.

The division crossed the Meuse; you never saw such disorder.

August 26.—After passing Merlemont we came to Villers-en-Fagne. The inhabitants had warned the French of the arrival of our troops by a signal from the church tower. In the evening we set fire to the village; the priest and some of the inhabitants were shot. We passed through Pettigny and Couvin. Couvin had been partially looted. We reached Bruly and crossed the Belgian frontier.

The villages all round were burning. We billeted at Gued'Ossus, the first French village that was set on fire.

The inhabitants fired on our men again. The division took drastic steps to stop the villages being burnt and the inhabitants shot. The pretty little village of Gue d'Ossus was apparently set on fire without cause.

At Leppe apparently 200 men were shot. There must have been some innocent men amongst them. In future we shall have to hold an inquiry as to their guilt instead of shooting them.

August 28.—We heard that a squadron of Hussars had been almost annihilated by the enemy's infantry in the wood in front of the village.

August 29.—Off at 3 a.m., almost in total darkness. The other side of Dommery we came on a wood where a hellish fire stopped us. The whole edge of the wood was one line of fire. There was a panic; everybody gave orders and nobody thought of telling us to lie down. There was a shocking mess, shots in every direction. I wouldn't live through those moments again for worlds. At last the captain managed to get a few men together to form a firing line.

We were being shot at by friend and foe. It was a grave error on the part of the Staff to start the regiment on a night march after three tiring days. . . . Suddenly firing began again. There was nothing to be seen but bushes, behind which the Turcos were very cunningly hidden. The enemy has been remarkably well trained in making use of the ground.

It was an awful fight; we had the sun in our eyes. We had to cross ground that had been systematically prepared for defence, with wire entanglements, etc. . . . We got on to some high ground about 1,000 metres from Launois, when our own artillery opened fire on us. It wasn't a bit nice. . . . Our machine gun company suffered heavily from our own shells, unfortunately. Several officers were wounded.

The enemy makes almost too good use of the ground, with the result that he shoots too high. Bullets were always whistling round us without our being able to see the enemy, even with an excellent pair of glasses. Behind the hillocks the Turcos were absolutely invisible. We took some prisoners, in particular an officer on whom we found a nice prize of maps of the whole of Belgium and the line of the Rhine. . . .

The regiment's special job is to escort our heavy guns, and their job is to knock out the enemy's heavy guns, which are very difficult to locate, as they dig themselves in very cleverly. . . . The most disagreeable part of the fighting was undoubtedly the enemy's artillery salvos. We marched to Villers le Tourneur. All the villages in the neighbourhood were blazing, as our artillery had set them on fire to protect us against attacks.

August 30.—. . . We had to be very much on our guard against the enemy's cavalry that was trying to get round the left flank of our artillery. We soon found that the enemy had more guns than we had. . . . We seized Auboncourt. We are in a terribly tight place, as we have pushed far much too quickly.

Sept. 3.—Still at Rethel, on guard over prisoners. . . The houses are charming inside. The middle class in France has magnificent furniture. We found stylish pieces everywhere, and beautiful silk, but in what a state! . . . Good God! . . . Every bit of furniture broken, mirrors smashed.

The Vandals themselves could not have done more damage. This place is a disgrace to our army.

The inhabitants who fled could not have expected, of course, that all their goods would have been left in full after so many troops had passed. But the column commanders are responsible for the greater part of the damage, as they could have prevented the looting and destruction. The damage amounts to millions of marks; even the safes have been attacked.

In a solicitor's house, in which, as luck would have it, everything was in excellent taste, including a collection of old lace and Eastern works of art, everything was smashed to bits.

I couldn't resist taking a little memento myself here and there. . . . One house was particularly elegant, everything in the best taste. The hall was of light oak; near the staircase I found a splendid aqitasculum and a camera for Felix.

Sept. 5.—I never want to make such marches again; simply a test of endurance. We crossed the Marne Canal on Sept. 6. . . . We were in a wood, which the enemy searched with shell fire. Left and right it simply rained bullets, but the one I am fated to stop was not among them. We cannot advance any further; the enemy is too strong for us. Infernal shell fire. We had a dreadful thirst. A glass of Pilsener would have been a godsend. We could not hang on any longer, so we retired. We made several attempts to reach the village of Lenharres, but the enemy's artillery swept the whole wood so that we could make no headway. And we never got a sight.

We soon had the answer to the riddle, as the whole of the enemy's shooting was so wonderfully accurate. We were actually on the enemy's practice range. . . . The Guard Corps was on a ground which the enemy knew like the back of his hand, and so was in an extremely critical position. Our artillery could do nothing, as there was nothing to be seen. . . . Absolutely exhausted, we waited for the night.

Sept. 8.—We went forward again to the attack against an enemy perfectly entrenched, in spite of his artillery fire, which nothing could silence. A perfectly insane fire opened on us, infantry and shell fire with redoubled intensity.

A magnificent spectacle lay before us; in the far background Lenharres was in flames, and we saw the enemy retreating, beaten at last. The enemy shelled us furiously and scattered us with his machine guns. We got to the village at last, but were driven out of it again, with heavy loss. Our losses were enormous. The 178th Regiment alone had 1,700 men wounded, besides those killed. It was hell itself. There were practically no officers left.

One more word about this artillery range; there were telephone wires everywhere. It is thought that French officers hidden in trees were telephoning our exact situation in the woods.

Sept. 9.—. . . Where was our intelligence branch? Our artillery arrived half an hour too late, unfortunately. The French are indefatigable in digging trenches.

I am terribly depressed; everybody thinks the situation is critical. The uncertainty is worst of all. I think we advanced too quickly, and were worn out by marching too rapidly and fighting incessantly.

Sept. 15.—. . . After marching till we were all absolutely done, and our feet knocked to bits, we were sent into the fight again. And they call us reserve troops!

Sept. 22.—Troops of the XVIII. Corps passed all day. Their infantry has lost as heavily as ours. God knows what the idea of this reinforcement is.

I am convinced that this country will give us all a grave. The 105th Regiment has had a furious fight with the English. A shell has just burst in a house and killed ten men.

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