from the book : ‘Among the Ruins’
'German Prisoners'
by Spanish Journalist Gomez Carillo, 1915

In the Hands of the French

captured German soldiers


December 29. 1914

"You wanted to see some German prisoners?" said General Sarrail, showing us a group of soldiers advancing on the path some 500 feet away. Here are some."

We all took our field-glasses.

Some fair-haired soldiers were marching stiffly along under the escort of a French patrol.

"Are these the first to-day?" asked the general.

"Yes, General," replied a captain.

Every day, it seems, the French outposts capture hostile pickets who have ventured too far from their trenches.

"At the beginning of the war," said the captain, "they fought like lions and preferred death to capture, because they believed we should shoot them. The chiefs told them so that they might not be tempted to desert. But now they know that there is no danger of this, and as soon as they see our soldiers they throw down their rifles and hold up their hands. The Poles more especially seem on the look-out for an opportunity of falling into our hands. Yesterday some Reservists from Posen began to sing the 'Marseillaise' when they got to our trenches, and laid down their arms, full of joy. Look at these, and you will see that they don't look frightened."

The group halted near us; a French sergeant came forward and saluted the general.

"We surprised them in the fields getting wood," he said.

"Did they defend themselves?"

"The man with the beard took his gun, but seeing that the rest did not follow his example, he let it fall on the ground again. They are Reservists."

The bearded man was a German, with an energetic face and red hair; he was handsome and serious. The stripe on the collar of his grey overcoat showed that he was a non-commissioned officer. His companions looked at him with respect. When the general questioned him, he answered:

"Sous-officier ... sergent ... Saxon."

This is all the French he knows and he brings it out with quiet pride.

The others were private soldiers, pale, thin, and exhausted. Their uniforms were covered with mud, torn, and faded, showing that they had been long in the field. Not one of them trembled. With lips compressed and hands on the seams of their trousers they remained motionless, waiting for their fate to be decided. One of our company, the editor of the Journal de Genève, spoke to them in German, without getting the slightest reply. The only one who spoke was the man with the beard, who remained the leader and superior even in disaster. "My men," he exclaimed. Then he added that they had been told off to go and fetch wood from the forest, and that they were aware of the risk they were running, having seen the French patrols near here.

Absolute calm reigned on every face. The sergeant in particular behaved in the presence of his enemies just as he must have behaved the day before in that of his superiors.

This tranquillity, confidence, I might almost say joy, made me think of the first convoy of prisoners I had seen four months ago at Orleans. The plains of Louvain were then illuminating what is called the theatre of war, and details of the atrocities committed were passing from mouth to mouth throughout the world. All the talk was of mutilations, tortures, shootings, and cruelties. As a retort to those who spoke of the martyrs of Liege, the Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg accused the Belgians and their Allies of gouging out the eyes of wounded Germans. A veil of blood hung over the great tragedy, hiding the heroic deeds and leaving only the savage scenes in evidence. The Germans, misled by their officers, believed that the French shot all their prisoners mercilessly.

Those I saw were shut up in one of the waiting-rooms of Les Aubrais station. When the army doctor who was accompanying me opened the door they all got up, and in the strong summer light we saw their livid faces, their drawn lips and anxious eyes. It was a terrible and pitiable sight. In one corner a fair-haired boy was holding a cup filled with coffee in his hand, and his arm trembled so that the coffee was falling drop by drop at his feet quite unnoticed by him. Another youth, very thin and ragged, seemed to be muttering something like a prayer, and every moment he pressed his hand to his heart with a kind of automatic gesture. But the group, sustained in the midst of its great moral wretchedness by its sense of military dignity, showed admirable strength of mind. Even the youngest, beardless boys, hardly more than children, made a superhuman effort to brace themselves against the illusory danger that threatened them and to control their instinctive terror.

"Where do you come from?" asked the French doctor in German.

A sergeant stepped forward, saluted and answered:

"From Guise."

"Have you all you want?"

The sergeant made a gesture of indifference, as if to say that to men in their desperate case the small comforts of life had no importance. The others, overawed by the four gold stripes of my companion, did not dare to speak. One of them, however, made signs that he wanted to say something.

"I should like to write to my mother before I die."

To die! That was the fixed idea. When the French soldiers came in bringing soup, coffee, and water for them, the first thing they asked was always:

"Kaput? "

Kaput in the mouth of a German soldier is the most ferocious of threats, the saddest of obsessions.

"Kaput! " they cry when they enter a village and want to terrorize the inhabitants.

"Kaput?" they ask anxiously when they are made prisoners.

The doctor began to laugh, and addressing them all in a loud voice, he explained that the French never kill their prisoners, but that on the contrary, they nurse them if they are wounded and feed and lodge them well if they are able-bodied.

"Have you anything to complain of so far?"

"No—not so far—but ..."

It was impossible to satisfy them altogether. Their officers had assured them that the French shot all their prisoners, and they could not doubt the word of their superiors.

"And in Germany," said the doctor, out of patience at last at this humiliating stubbornness,. "do you shoot all prisoners?"

"No ... not there ... it's different there ..."

A flash of pride gleamed in the green eyes of the sergeant, revealing something of the monstrous arrogance of the race. Undoubtedly to this man, as to the professors at Berlin, the Germans are a chosen people, a people of superior culture.

"They are all the same," concluded the doctor, an Alsatian who had studied in Strasburg.

Taking a card from his pocket he wrote these words in a fine Gothic character:

"You have nothing to fear; you will be treated with humanity; your life is sacred to the French nation."

When the sergeant read this his face lighted up. The letter-card was passed from hand to hand and wrought the same miracle of resurrection in every soul.

"Not kaput ... not kaput ..." the more ingenuous among them kept on repeating.

To-day, happily, no German soldier who falls into the hands of the enemy fears the ten bullets of the dreaded picket. The letters the Geneva Red Cross Society undertakes to transmit to German homes carry reassuring news. "We are well, we are well treated and well fed," they declare. The question of food is the first thought of these naturally gluttonous men. The French smile at the voracious appetite with which even the most aristocratic-looking officers attack succulent soups and generous portions of boiled beef. "The only quarrels we heard of in the camps," writes a certain Captain de Cholet, "arose from thefts of dainties." With this exception, no complaints are made as a rule against these poor soldiers, who, when once they are disarmed, become as gentle and submissive as lambs. "Save that they are no longer at liberty," adds the captain, "the German prisoners lead a life similar to that they lead in their own garrisons in peace times. They are commanded by their own sergeants, who maintain discipline and apportion the work to be done. Very often I see them seated on the ground peeling potatoes and carrots for the pot-au-feu, and the only thing about them that strikes me disagreeably is the entire absence of those jokes with which our French troopers season their monotonous tasks. They are slow and silent, and seem like great children, a little irresponsible even. They get the same rations as our soldiers: soup and stew with bread and water, copious but coarse nourishment, which they seem to find most appetizing. Those who are weak get some wine, and it is amusing to see the envious eyes of the rest, and the stratagems they devise in order to share this great favour."

But if the soldier is a somewhat irresponsible child, the officer, on the contrary, is a terrestrial demi-god, terribly conscious of his superiority, or rather of his super humanity. We have all noticed at the railway stations, when trains have come in with prisoners, the icy, ferocious arrogance that obtains in the first-class carriages. From the humblest lieutenant just turned out of the Military School to the general whose hair shows white beneath his helmet, one and all are faithful to their pose of supreme ironic disdain. Even the wounded, in the midst of pain and fever, retain enough energy to repulse indignantly any civilities which French courtesy would show them.

In Caesar's Commentaries there is a famous portrait of the German warrior as he was in his primitive barbarism. "Ariovistus," said the conqueror of the Gauls, "exercised his military power harshly, demanding the children of the great nobles as hostages, and submitting them to all sorts of torture when the vanquished did not prove sufficiently docile. He was a violent, arrogant, and cruel man." Even after his defeat, indeed, the terrible warrior had nothing but insults and sarcasms for Caesar and for Rome. And as was this first foe of Latin culture, this barbarian who would not recognize the superiority of his conquerors, or believe in his irreparable overthrow, so also is his descendant in the twentieth century. The skins with which he covered his body have disappeared. He uses cannon instead of arrows. To give himself an air of refinement he wears a single eye-glass. But at bottom he is still the same, full of insolent pride and incurable savagery. For him his soldiers are a troop of slaves. More than once in the early days of the war, when the camps were not yet properly organized, it was necessary to shut men and officers up together. To the French officers, who fraternize with their troopers, this did not seem a very serious matter.

The German officers went so far as to threaten to commit suicide if they were not separated from the common soldiers. In a hospital at Toulouse a short time ago a severely wounded officer of the Prussian Guard noticed that a corporal of his company lay dying in the adjoining bed. "Take that fellow away from here," he exclaimed. The Red Cross nurse in charge of the ward protested energetically, invoking the principles of equality and humanity. "Very well," replied the captain, "if he is not to go, I will." And he tore off the bandages from his wounded head, hoping thus to kill himself. "We had to put him into a strait-waistcoat to nurse him," said the doctor, who was present at the scene. There is, in fact, a kind of mania, a mania at once detestable and admirable, in the pride of the German officer. The Reservists in the ranks who have been made prisoners lately, confess that the army has already lost its pristine glamour for them, but the officers of every grade continue to swear that they are confident of final victory.

One of them declared in October that his regiment was in Paris, and it was useless to read him the Berlin telegrams admitting the defeat on the Marne; he was not to be convinced of his error. One day an English colonel gave him his word of honour that he was not being deceived, and that the German troops had retreated to the Belgian frontier. "The English have no honour," was his reply. Anti-British feeling is an article of national faith with them. They allow that the French possess courage, loyalty, nobility, and above all, a martial spirit. In the presence of a French officer a German officer thinks himself before an equal, almost a "Kamerad." The memory of the age-long struggles in which he has crossed swords with his eternal foe forces him to give him the respect due to his caste. But the subjects of King George with their mercenary troops fill him with scorn. The English army is, as the Kaiser declared, "contemptible." And it is quite useless to argue with those who think thus. The prophetic General von Bernhardi and the humblest German sergeant are at one on this point to-day as they were yesterday: "There are only two real armies in Europe to-day: the German army and the French army." And of course they add: "The German army is superior both in strength and perfection."

This cast of mind, with its mixture of greatness and pettiness, is more manifest in the captive officers than in those who are still fighting. Disaster and humiliation, instead of producing disillusionment, inspirit them. It would be childish to attempt to surprise the secret of the German soul through them. Taking refuge as a rule in haughty silence, they hope or fear without betraying their inmost thoughts. The men in the ranks, more especially the Reservists, are simpler, franker, and more natural. Those we now had before us talked readily enough. The first thing we noticed in them was their surprise or rather their surprises. Turning over the leaves of the note-book written by the sergeant, by no means an uneducated man, we saw how he had been obsessed by the great illusion which had made them believe themselves invincible in the early days. The editor of the Journal de Genève read aloud, translating from the German:

"A French motor-car has come into Germany carrying a billion francs for Russia and our chiefs know where it will be stopped. The news from Paris is good; the Socialists have taken the President of the Republic prisoner and have burnt all the churches and barracks. The population is looking for our advent to save them from the horrors of the Commune.

"The English will support the Germans on the sea if the port of Antwerp is ceded to them.

"I was present on August 22, 23, and 24 at the Battle of Longwy-Longuyon and Saint- Laurent, where the 5th and 6th Corps were opposed to our troops under Prince Eitel- Friedrich. Our batteries are composed of six guns and they fire in salvoes of three. The 75 mm. guns are the devil.

"We have nothing to drink but very bad water, and provisions are scarce. Our comrades who got into France through Belgium with the help of the Belgian troops, are better off, for they are now at the gates of Paris, and have wine and food in abundance. Yesterday we burnt a village and I found a brass box with a few coins in it at a farm.

"We cannot find out whether our troops are in Paris, or whether, as the peasants here tell us, our armies had to retreat after the Battle of the Marne. We have had no news for a fortnight, that is from September 14, and our chiefs tell us nothing. The only thing that is certain is that we are not advancing, and that we are surrounded by forest on every hand. The food is bad and is always badly cooked, because the cooks of the company care for nobody but the officers. The thing that had been hidden from us was that the English were against us. Whose fault is all this? I don't know, perhaps everybody's. If not? ... Ueberhaupt Niemand.

"We have been sleeping in the open for five nights, and the weather is cold and rainy. It is wretched! We make no progress, and it is said that the Russians have taken Budapest, and that things are going very badly in the North. The chiefs look angry and the men are weary, and have neither strength, material, nor moral. We are told that it is the English who won't make peace; our Emperor and the President of the Republic wish for it to avert greater disasters. The trenches are full of water. Yesterday I sent home a little metal box and other ornaments I took from a house we burned, and the uniform of a dead French officer. My family will be pleased. I wrote that we were at Verdun, because we had been told so, but it seems that we are still a long way off. The Bavarians are more disagreeable than ever now they see that things are going badly, and they gird at us as Prussians. We cannot say anything because our colonel is a Bavarian. To-day we took the priest and the mayor of a village prisoners, to see if the inhabitants would give up the cattle they have concealed from us rather than run the risk of being shot. On the whole things are going badly, and on the whole also the news we get makes us fear that we shall not get back to Germany safe and sound. I haven't a single coin left of those I took out of the money-box. All this is bad, bad."

Such was the last page of the diary, which was dated November 30. General Sarrail smiled as he listened and murmured softly:

"This man doesn't know that his ingenuous confession of the theft of the money-box would entitle us to send him to a court-martial for trial. But they are all the same. They seem to think there is no harm in looting."

Then turning to the prisoners, he exclaimed: "Very well, now you can say that you are in the fortress of Verdun and it will be quite true!" The sergeant saluted, stiff and serious, unconscious of the irony. His companions continued to stare with frightened blue eyes at our group.

What seemed even more extraordinary to them than their own situation, no doubt, was to see a general smiling and talking familiarly with the soldiers of the escort. What a strange people they must think these French, whose guns are "the devil" and whose warriors are not heartless automata.


captured German soldiers


Back to Index