German Atrocities In Belgium

THE atrocities committed by the German armies have roused the indignation of both hemispheres. They have placed Germany outside the pale of civilization. They have covered the German armies with eternal infamy. In the full light of the twentieth century the German terror has outdone the deeds and wiped out the memory of the Spanish terror. We make ample allowances for wild rumours bred of panic, although in the present instance the panic caused by the mere approach of the German soldiery is in itself a most significant symptom. If the German armies had observed the laws of civilized warfare which protect the defenceless inhabitants, there would have been no need for the population to fly for their lives, and there would not be at present a million homeless exiles wandering over the high roads of Holland. We also make ample allowances for the hallucinations produced by the war fever and for the consequent difficulty in sifting the facts. But the evidence which has been forthcoming does not depend on hearsay or on the utterances of uneducated people. We have the concurrent and circumstantial evidence of thousands of reliable and educated witnesses. Such evidence cannot be controverted, and that evidence proves that the Germans violated every clause of the Hague Convention.

By Article XXIII it was especially forbidden ” to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion.”

Again and again the German soldiery have killed enemies that surrendered.

By the same Article it was forbidden ” to destroy or seize the enemy’s property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.”

Again and again the German armies have destroyed villages and towns and seized property and looted banks and public offices.

Article XXV stipulates : ” The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings which are undefended, is prohibited.”

Again and again the German armies have bombarded undefended cities like Malines and Alost.

Article XXVI stipulates : ” The officer in command of an attacking force must, before commencing a bombardment, except in cases of assault, do all in his power to warn the authority.”

The German armies have bombarded Antwerp in the dead of night without any previous warning.

Article XXVII of the Hague Convention stipulates : ” In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare as far as possible buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes. It is the duty of the besieged to indicate the presence of such buildings or places by distinctive and visible signs which shall be notified to the enemy beforehand.”

The German soldiers, apostles of German culture, have systematically destroyed at Louvain, Malines, and Antwerp monuments sacred to art and religion, and which had become the common inheritance of humanity.

As atrocities innumerable were committed from the very beginning of hostilities, the Belgian Government, realizing the need of an immediate judicial investigation before military events might make it impossible to ascertain the truth, appointed a Commission with the object of collecting and sifting evidence wherever possible from ocular witnesses, and wherever possible on the spot. Some of the evidence collected by that Commission has already been published. Its conclusions were so appalling, so staggering, that the Belgian Government took steps at once to try to stop the wholesale slaughter of a defenceless population by appealing to the public opinion of the neutral States, and especially to that of the United States of America. A special Commission composed of the Belgian Minister of Justice and of three Secretaries of State was sent to Washington to put the whole case before the American Government and the American people.

II

It was apparent from the outset that the campaign was going to be conducted by the Germans regardless of the laws of civilized warfare.

As we pointed out in a previous chapter, a few inhabitants of Visé, familiar with the use of weapons and unfamiliar with the usages of warfare, fired on the German troops, infuriated either by the German invasion or by the excesses of the German soldiery. Generalizing from a few such isolated cases, the Germans have de-scribed the whole district of Liége as a region of ” francs-tireurs.” They have spread the myth that the Belgians made it a regular practice to fire from the tops of houses and from behind hedges, and to shoot down German troops. And from the outset the Germans made the whole population responsible for the actions of every civilian.

It is certain that there have been isolated cases of hostile acts committed by civilians, but when a burglar enters your house in the dead of night you instinctively try to defend yourself. You do not wait until you have called in the police. To the unsophisticated Walloon peasant the brutal aggression of the Teuton without cause or provocation appeared as an act of burglary. But whatever may be the explanation or justification of isolated acts committed by the peasants or artisans, it is obvious that such acts can only have occurred at the beginning of the war, and that the Belgians must have learnt their lesson very soon. It is inconceivable that Belgian civilians, knowing that any hostile act on their part would be met by instant retaliation, should have brought down upon themselves and the people the implacable vengeance of the conqueror. In establishing the responsibility for German atrocities, it may therefore be safely left to the reader whether we ought to accept the evidence of the murderers or that of their victims.

III

IT might be desirable, though it would be difficult, to distinguish between the atrocities perpetrated by individual soldiers acting under the influence of hunger or drink, of lust or greed, and atrocities perpetrated with the connivance or complicity of the authorities.

The barbarities perpetrated are innumerable, and their enumeration would be sickening reading. We must content ourselves with giving in the Appendix a few typical extracts from the Belgian Government Report. The German soldiers got out of hand. They raided and looted indiscriminately. They committed every crime which it is possible for human brutality to commit. They mutilated and tortured soldiers. They ill – treated children. They violated women. They used peasants as a human shield to protect them against the fire of the Belgian troops. Every war correspondent will be able to supply cases from his personal observation,*

IV

I HAVE called those deeds perpetrated by drunken soldiers individual acts, but it is really impossible to draw the line. My contention is that it is not the famished or drunken German

`The British Papers have published the evidence of Mr. Powell, war correspondent of the New York World, a careful and impartial observer, who accompanied me in my car to the battlefield of Malines. It was whilst with Mr. Powell that I saw the mutilated bodies of the farmers of Sempst referred to on p. 145 wretches who are ultimately responsible, it is the authorities themselves. The German army is the most disciplined army in the world ; and if the authorities had chosen to give the word of command, the excesses would have been stopped. Once the authorities permitted looting, once they adopted them-selves the practices of predatory warfare, they must be held responsible for all the con-sequences that must necessarily ensue. Once they permitted looting, they became responsible for every excess which must needs result from looting. Once the officers were allowed to help themselves to the champagne cellars of the Belgian nobility, they could not prevent the common soldier from getting drunk on gin or Burgundy. Once the authorities allowed a private to rob a woman of her jewels, they must be held responsible if the soldier also robbed her of her honour.

V

BUT in truth it is mere waste of time to discuss evidence or to allot responsibilities. The German military authorities have made no secret of their policy. There has been the most deliberate method in their madness. They admit themselves that they had acted systematically. They have practised ruthless severity as a means of terrorizing the people, of compelling sub-mission, and of finishing the war to their ad-vantage. They have followed the advice of Bismarck, of leaving their enemies nothing but their eyes to weep with. But even if we did not have their own admission, their evil deeds would still speak for themselves. Namur, Dinant, Malines, and Louvain, Visé, Termonde, Alost, and Bilsen, were not destroyed by individuals, but by superior authority of the Kaiser. The crimes of that superior authority cry aloud for vengeance and retribution.

Nor is it any palliation of their deeds to say that there are several Belgian towns where the German armies committed no excesses. In the first place, it is not true to say that they did not commit any excesses. Everywhere, even in Liége and Brussels, their conduct was abominable. They despoiled the inhabitants. They famished the population. They revived the barbarous usage of taking hostages. They robbed private banks. If they have committed fewer crimes in the great centres of population, it is partly because in those towns they were to some extent standing on their good behaviour. They could not do in Brussels what they did in Louvain, they could not have provoked a large population when they themselves only disposed of a few thousands which at any moment might be weakened or recalled. If the Germans had treated the 700,000 inhabitants of Brussels as they treated the 5000 townsmen of Visé or the S000 inhabitants of Aerschot, retribution would not have been slow to follow. These modern representatives of culture and chivalry may not have been afraid to exterminate the defenceless inhabitants of villages. But they had no desire to wage a war of extermination in large centres. They knew only too well that in case of a general rising it would not be the conquered but the conquerors who would be exterminated.