World War I Belgium: German Attrocities

German atrocities in Belgium
Figure 1.--The British in their World War I propaganda exagerated German attrocities in Belgium, but it is a matter of historical record that there were numerous all to real atrocities committed after the German Army invaded neutral Belgium. And they included shooting civilian hostages. This drawing by Évariste Carpentier depicts the German execution of civilians in Blégny. This is a town in eastern Belgium near Liège. The 16th RI of the Imperial German Army only 2 days after launching the invasion reached Blégny (April 6). They shot 19 civilians and destroyed 40 houses, the first widely reported German atrocity--the beginning of what became known as the 'Rape of Belgium'. This was a well documented action because the Germans did it in front of a church while the people of the town watched. Even worse, however, was the German Army seized the civilan food supply. Had America not mounted a massive relief operation, the Belgians would have starved.

The German invasion of neutral Belgium was a clear violation of international law. This was tragically not the only outrage committed by the Germans. The Getmans in their drive through Belgium commited serious attrocities against Belgian civilians. After the War, the British were charged with exagerating German attrocities as a way of drawing America into the War. This was true, but it does not change the fact that the Germans committed very serious attrocities. Nothing like the behavior of the race obsessed NAZIs, but attrocities that should not be lost to history. This included the shooting of civilian hostages and the destruction of cultural treasures. This included Leuven University and its priceless library. It also included the destruction of so churches and cathedrals at Visé, Diksmuide (Dixmude), Louvain, the Cathedral at Ypres, the Cathedral at Malines, and others. [Denry] Perhaps even worse than the actual attrocities, as bad as they were, is the fact that they were part of a German policy of terror adopted by the German Army's High Command. These attrocities were not the inevitable reults of civilians and cultural trasures caught in the crossfore of war, unintened casualties. They were the result of am intentional policy decesion of the German Genetal Staff. An important historian of the War writes, "The turn of events in Belgium was a product of the German theory of terror. Clausewitz has prescribed terror as the proper method to shorten war, his whole theory of war was being based on the necessity of marking it short , sharp and decisive. He said the civil population must not be exempted from war's effects but must be made to feel its pressure and be forced by the severest measures to compel their leaders to make peace. As the object of war was to disarm the enemy, he argued reasonably, 'we must place him in a situation in which continuing the war is more oppressive than surrender'. This seemingly sound proposition fitted into the scientific theory of war which throughout the nineteenth century it has been the best intellectual endeavor of the German General Staff to construct. It has already been put in practice in 1870 when French resistance sprang up at Sedan. A noted historian writes, "The ferocity of German reprisal at that time in the form of executions of prisoners and civilians on charges of franc-tireur warfare startled a world agape with admiration at Prussia’s marvelous six-week victory. Suddenly it became aware of the beast beneath the German skin. Although 1870 proved the corollary of the theory and practice of terror, that it deepens antagonism, stimulates resistance, and ends by lengthening war, the Germans remained wedded to it. As Shaw said, they were a people with a contempt for common sense." [Tuchman, p. 306.]

Invasion (August 4, 1914)

The German Schlieffen Plan called for defeating France before Russia could fully mobilize. The Germans gambled that they could defeat the French quickly as they did in the Franco-Prussian War. They disregarded the Belgian Army and calculated that they could defeat the French army before the British intervene and deploy a substantial force in France. British defense policy was based on the Royal Navy. They had a relatively small, but highly professional army. The German Army marched into Luxembourg (August 2). After the Belgian refusal to give unhindered passage, the German Army crossed into neutral Belgium (morning of August 4). The German press would attempt to confuse the issue, but the historical record is very clear. Germany invaded Belgium and at the time the Allies (British and French) had not crossed the Belgian frontier. Seven German Field Armies were deployed in the West. They executed a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan. The German Army was commanded by Generals Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bülow. They attacked the small, poorly equipped Belgian Army that awaited them (August 4). The Germans were sure that they would face no serious opposition and they would be able to quickly outflank the French Army. They were also sure the British would be unable to effectively intervene in time to support the French. The Germans were right about the power and effectiveness of their Army. They were wrong about the resistance they would face. The German invasion of neutral Belgium while gaining significant military advantage was a clear violation violation of international law. Their actions in the first few months of the War became known as the 'Rape of Belgium'.

Attrocities

The German invaion of Belgium was tragically not the only outrage committed by the Germans. The Getmans in their drive through Belgium from a very early point commited serious attrocities against Belgian civilians. After the War, the British were charged with exagerating Ferman attrocities as a way of drawing America into the War. This was true, but it does not change the fact that the Germans committed very serious attrocities. Nothing like the behavior of the race obsessed NAZIs, but atricities that should not be lost to history and blackened the name of the German nation two decades before Hitler launched his bloody killing campaign. This included the shooting of civilian hostages and the destruction of cultural treasures. This included Leuven University and its priceless library. It also included the destruction of churches and cathedrals at Visé, Diksmuide (Dixmude), Louvain, the Cathedral at Ypres, the Cathedral at Malines, and others. [Denry]

The Rape of Belgium (August-November 1914)

Germans soldiers invading Belgium committed numberous atrocities against the Belgian civilian population along their advance south through Belgium. [De Schaepdrijver] Often this was minor crimes such stealing food and property, even rape. These were the depredations of individual soldiers and not German policy. we do not know, however, to what extent Army commanders tried to maintain order and if any soldiers were arrested and pricedcuted for such acts. There were, however, also killings, massacres of Belgian civilians. This mostly occurred in towns where the Germans accued the local population of fighting as Francs-Tireurs (guerillas) and attacking German soldiers. [Kramer, pp. 1-27.] The Germans summarily executed mostly men taken as hostages. This was done on the orders of ranking German officers and was part of a policy approved by commanders. They also and several towns deliberately destroyed in a series of punitive actions. The actions of the German army during their offensive through Belgium and the months immediately following it has vecome known to gistory as 'The Rape of Belgium' (August-Novmber 1914). The extent of these actions hasbeen highly debated, but there is no doubt that the Germans committed what we would call war crimes. There is substantial evidence that the Germans killed some 6,500 civilians. One of the most serious actions occurred in Leuven. The Germans burbed the historic library of the town's university. It was no accidental incident, but an action ordered by German commanders. News of the atrocities wre widely reported in the international press, inclding america. Adding to the fact that the Germans invade Belgium, the Rape of Belgium serious affected the public perceotion of the German nation and its Army. These actions were widely exaggerated by the British press as war time propaganda, but the Germansave the British plenty of material to work with. German soldiurs in Brabant ordered nuns to strip naked using the pretext that they were spies. Many reports from Aarschot describe women being repeatedly victimised. Numerous accounts suggest that looting, murder, and rape were widespread. [Lipkes] It was nothing like the horrendous war crimes committed by the NAZIs in World war II, in fact individual German soldiers in World war II appear to have been better disciplined, albeit more murderous. While less deadly than the German actiins in World war II, they were undeniably serious. The press reports and other German actions generated tremendous sympathy for the Belgians. [Zuckerman, pp. 140–41.] The German managed to provide grist for British propaganda throughout the war and these reports would play an important role in bringing America into the War. As bad as the Rape of Belgium was, in paled ibto significance compared to the consequences of the Germany army seizing the civilian food suply. Without American food relief, several million Belgians would have starved.

Specific War Crimes


Shooting hostages

One of the most serious attrocities committed by the Germans was the shooting of civilian hostages. This was repeated by the German Army in World War II on a mich larger scale. The World War I shootings did not have the racial component adopted by the Whermacht in World war II. One historian writes, "The burning of Andennes and the massacre---which Belgium figures put at 211---took place on August 20 and 21 1914 during the battle of Charleroi. Hewing to their time-table, harassed by the Belgians blowing up of bridges and railroads, Bullow's commanders dealt out reprisals ruthlessly in the villages they entered. At Seilles, across the river from Andenne, fifty civilians were shot and the houses given over to looting and burning. At Tamines, captured on August 21, the sack of the town began that evening after the battle and continued all night and next day. The usual orgy of permitted looting accompanied by drinking released inhibitions and brought the soldiers to the desired state of raw excitement which was designed to add to the fearful effect. On the second day at Tamines some 400 citizens were herded together under guard in front of the church in the main square and a firing squad began systematically shooting into the group. Those not dead when the firing ended were bayoneted. In the cemetery at Tamines there are 384 gravestones inscribed, 1914, Fusillé par les Allemands. There were kept in the main square till evening, then lined up, women on one side, men opposite in two rows, one kneeling in front of the other. Two firing squads marched to the center of the square, faced either way and fired till no more of the target stood upright. Six hundred and twelve bodies were identified and buried, including Felix Fivet, aged three weeks." [Tuchman, pp. 306-10.]

Pillage and looting

German actions as they moved through Belgian cities and towns were not uncommomly accompanied not only by the shooting of civilian hostages, but extensive pillage and looting. A historian writes, "Visé, scene of the first fighting on the way to Liège on the first day of the invasion, was destroyed not by troops fresh from the heat of battle but by occupation troops long after the battle had moved on. In response to a report of sniping, a German regimen was sent to Visé from Liège on August 23. That night, the sound of shooting could be heard at Eysden just over the border in Holland five miles away. Next day Eysden was overwhelmed by a flood of 4,000 refugees, the entire population of Visé except for those who had been shot, and for 700 men and boys who had been deported for harvest labor to Germany. The deportations which were to have such moral effect, especially upon the United States, began in August. Afterwards, when Brand Whitlock, the American Minister, visited what had been Visé he saw only empty blackened houses open to the sky, "a vista of ruins that might have been Pompeii". Every inhabitant was gone. There was not a living thing, not a roof. At Dinant on the Meuse on August 23 the Saxons of General Von Hausen's army were fighting the French in a final engagement of the Battle of Charleroi. Von Hausen personally witnessed the "perfidious" activity of Belgian civilians in hampering reconstruction of bridges "so contrary to International Law". His troops began rounding up "several hundreds' of hostages, men women and children. Fifty were taken from Church, it being Sunday. The General saw them "tightly crowded, standing, sitting, lying, in a group under guard of the Grenadiers, their faces displaying fear, nameless anguish, concentrated rage and desire for revenge provoked by all the calamities they had suffered". Van Hausen felt an "indomitable hostility" emanating from them. He was the general who had been so unhappy in the house of the Belgium gentleman who clenched his fists in his pockets and refused to speak to Van Hausen at dinner. In the group at Dinant, he saw a wounded French soldier with blood streaming from his head, who lay dying, mute and apathetic, refusing all medical help. Van Hausen ends his description there, too sensitive to tell the fate of Dinant's citizens." [Tuchman, pp. 306-10.]

Deportation of workers

The War, especially, as it dragged on created a severe labor shortage in Germany. Both industrial workers and agricultural labor were concripted by the military in the meat grinder the war became. This adversely affected production, especially agricultural harvests. The German occupation authorities as the War dragged on began conscripting Belgians for forced labor (October 1916). The German occupation authorities noticed that a lot of Belgian workers were not working as a result of the war. The Germans estimated that there were some 0.5 million Belgians who were not working. This was possible because of American relief food reaching occupied Belgium. German military commanders began calling the Belgians as 'arbeitsscheu' (afraid of working). Yhey hit upon the idea of making them useful to the German war effort. The calculation was that every German worker in the factory or farms that could be replaced by a Belgian was an additional German soldier for the front. Most of the conscripts were deported to Germany. Some went to northern France. Beligums living close to the frontline in western Flanders were not intened in labor camps, but were forced to work for the Germans near their homes, helping to build the German trenches and other works. We are not sure if they were included in the numbers of Belgians conscripted. One historian reports that 120,000 Belgian workers were conscripted. [Cook, pp. 102–07.] The number may well have been larger. This would be a template on how the Germans would deal with its World War II labor shortage, albeit on a much larger scale and with more murderous intent. This is not a well-studied subject. Conditions in the came were rough. One journalist reporter into the subject tells us, "The number of Belgians that was ordered to work for the German regime that was installed during the First World War, has been heavily underestimated so far." He references the work being done by researchefr Donald Buyze from the Wervik region (West Flanders). Buyze reports that the number of people that died as a result, is much higher than has been reported in the literature. Buyze got interested in the subject because of his grandfather--Victor Perneel. His was conscripted by the Germans during the German 'Verordnung' (October 1916). He was put on a train with hundreds of others Belgian workers. They were deported to Northern France. Once in German labor camps, they no longer received American relief supplies. "Hunger, hunger, hunger. These are the words he repeated most of the time to me". His grandfather had a weight of 35 kilos when the war ended. His normal weight as a young man in his 20s was 70 kilos. [Torfs]

Destruction of cultural trasures

The Gemans also engaged in the destruction of cultural trasures without any realtion to the War or fighting. This included Leuven University and its priceless library. It also included the destruction of so churches and cathedrals at Visé, Diksmuide (Dixmude), Louvain, the Cathedral at Ypres, the Cathedral at Malines, and others. [Denry] We see no reason for these actions except the desire to generate terror among Belgian civilians.

German General Staff: Terror Policy

Perhaps even worse than the actual attrocities, as bad as they were, is the fact that they were part of a German policy of terror adopted by the German Army's High Command. These attrocities were not the inevitable reults of civilians and cultural trasures caught in the crossfore of war, unintened casualties. They were the result of am intentional policy decesion of the German Genetal Staff. An important historian of the War writes, "The turn of events in Belgium was a product of the German theory of terror. Clausewitz has prescribed terror as the proper method to shorten war, his whole theory of war was being based on the necessity of marking it short , sharp and decisive. He said the civil population must not be exempted from war's effects but must be made to feel its pressure and be forced by the severest measures to compel their leaders to make peace. As the object of war was to disarm the enemy, he argued reasonably, 'we must place him in a situation in which continuing the war is more oppressive than surrender'. This seemingly sound proposition fitted into the scientific theory of war which throughout the nineteenth century it has been the best intellectual endeavor of the German General Staff to construct. It has already been put in practice in 1870 when French resistance sprang up at Sedan. A noted historian writes, "The ferocity of German reprisal at that time in the form of executions of prisoners and civilians on charges of franc-tireur warfare startled a world agape with admiration at Prussia’s marvelous six-week victory. Suddenly it became aware of the beast beneath the German skin. Although 1870 proved the corollary of the theory and practice of terror, that it deepens antagonism, stimulates resistance, and ends by lengthening war, the Germans remained wedded to it. As Shaw said, they were a people with a contempt for common sense." [Tuchman, pp. 306-10.] The level of these attrocities and the support from the German Army High Commnd were unlike the conduct of the Prussian Army during the mid-19th and late-19th century, inclusing the Danish War (1864), the Austro Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). It is unclear what had changes with in the Germany Army. It is worth noteing, that the attrocuties in Belgium did not occur in the later stages of the War with a battered and desperate Germany Army, but at the very onset of the War when the Germans were flush with victory.

Occupation

After the Battle of the Marne, the Western Front rapidly became a huge system of fortified positions and trenches stretching from Switzerland to the Channel. Although the Germans were stopped, they had overrun most of Belgium which remained in German hands for most of the War. German authorities governed with repressive measures. The Germans confiscating houses and other property for the occupying troops. German troops killed civilians who resisted. While the German actions were nothing like those perused by the NAZIs in World War II, they were bad enough and shocking at the time. They were effectively used by British to sway public opinion in America. The Germans also used civilians for forced labor. These laborers were poorly fed. The Germans also seized food supplies with little or no concern about the impact on the civilian population. The British naval blockade in the North Sea caused shortages in the occupied areas which eventually spread to Germany itself. Belgium like Germany was not self sufficient in food production. And if that was not bad enough, the Germans conscripted Belgian workers, reducing the farm labor force, adversely affecting Belgian harvests. The German action created the greatest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Thirty Years War. Had neutral America not launched a massive relief operation, the belgians would have starved. German occupation authorities attempted to take advantage of the Flemish-Walloon division. They supported Flemish Activists--a radical nationalist group that agreed to work with the Germans hoping to gain independence for Flanders. Flanders during the German occupation seceded from Belgium (November 1917). At the time, it looked like the Germans might finally win the War. The great majority of the Flemish remained loyal to King Albert and Belgium. There was little support for the German-supported Council of Flanders. Nor was the German decision to change the University of Ghent from a French-language to a Flemish-language institution well received. (The Belgian government made the State University of Ghent partially Flemish and then in 1930 fully Flemish.) After the failure of the German Spring Offensive, Allied Armies significantly strengthened by the large and growing American Expeditionary Force broke the German Western Front wide opened and liberated large areas of Belgium (August-November 1918). After the Germans asked for an armistice, the Flemish government collapsed (November 1918). As part of the Armistice the Germans had to withdraw from the remaining areas of Belgium they still occupied. After the War, the Flemish leaders cooperating with the Germans were tried for treason. Some were hung.

Refugees

Large numbers of Belgian civilians fled the advancing German armies. Fear of an invading army was part of the reason for flow of refugees. But as word of the behavior of German troops and terrible attrocities spread, fear of the Germans spread and more Belgians began abandoning their villages and towns. Although Belgians along the border had little opportunity to flee, the effective resistance of the small Belgian Army and the quick reaction of the BEF bought Nelgians to the west time to flee the advancing Germans. Some fled north to the Netherlands. Other fled south to France. About 1 million Belgians sought refuge in the Netherlands. Most of the civilians in the Netherlands gradually returned to Belgium even though it was occupied by the Germans. About 100,000 Belgians remained in The Netherlands throughout the War. Some had the resources to support themselves. The Dutch Government opened refuge camps for those who could not support themselves, but food was a major concern. Only in France could American relief supplies be easily gotten to the refugees.

British War Propaganda

British propaganda proved more effective than German propaganda. The German war propaganda lacked subtlety and was seen as strident by most Americans. The British, however, had important advatages. British propaganda was to play an important part in the Allied victory. The British had no propaganda office when the War began, but quickly created one. The War Propaganda Bureau was placed in the hands of Charles Masterman (September 1914). The British had two concens with one broke out. First, The British from the onset needed to influence domestic public opinion. This was more important in Britain than any other because Britain entered the War with only a small all-volunteer army. Thus Britons until 1916 had to be persuaded to volunteer. And the British public as the War progressed will apauling casualties had to be persuaded to continue the War. Second, the British needed to influence world opinion and here it was the United States that most concerned the British. This became increasingly important as the War progressed and neither the Allies or the Central Powers could break the deadlock on the Western Front. By 1917 with the virtual collaose of the French Army and the disolution of the Russian Army that Allied success would depend on America. Here the Germans had given the British a substantial advantage. However the Germans tried to explin it, the fact remained that the War began wjen they invaded Belgium--a neutral nation. And the brutal German occupation regime in Belgium gave the British material for their progand mill. Certainly the British blew iy up out of all proportions, but the Germans provided plenty of material for the British to work with. Had not America rushed food shipments to Belgium, there would have been mass starvation. The British had another important advantage, they controlled the Trans-Atlantic cabels, which meant they controlled the War news America received. Thus from a very early stage in the War, American sympathies were with the Allies. The German introduction of sunmarine warfare and poison gas only confirmed American attitudes toward the Germans and British propaganda made full use of both in their propaganda.

Historical Scholarship

The British recognizing the explosive implications of German conduct in Belgium quickly mde this a cornerstone of their War-time Propannda. They began to refer to the Germans as 'the Hun'. The Britain Government sponsored the Committee on Alleged German Outrages which issued what became known as the Bryce Report (May 1915). The Report provided detailed accounts of the behavior of the German Army in Belgium and northern France. It included many first-hand accounts, including excerpts from diaries and letters found on captured German soldiers. As best we can determine these were real documents and not anti-German forgeries. The Report playd a major role in affecting public opinion in neutral countries. This was of marginal importance because the neutral countries like Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were not going to change the outcome of the War. One country which continued o be sympsthetic to the Germans was the Netherlands. The one exception as to the importance of the neutra countris was the United States. Her the Germans were largely dismissive of America's potential importance. The British on the other hand from the bginning of the War saw America as the one country which cold detemkine the outcomne. The British shipped 41,000 copies to the United States and the contents were widely circulated by the media. The outraged Germans responded with a report of their own detailing alleged atrocities by Belgian civilians on German soldiers. [Quinn, p. 39.] This was a public relations disater of its own, rather like wife batters blaming it al on their wives. The Bryce Report while signidicantly affecting public opinion during the War, was criticized after the war in the 1920s and 30s. It became regarded as exaggerated British war propaganda. And there were priblems. The Committee relied heavily on unproven allegations of refugees and often distorted interpretations of diaries of German soldiers. In particular, criticism of the reported fitted the needs of American pcifists and isolationists determined to prevent american involvement in another European War. There is no way of checking many ofc the first hand ccounts rferred to in the report. While they should not be dismissed, first hand accounts are often affected by the individual's terms of reference and unique circumstances. Modern historians addressing the conduct of the German Arny have used additional sources, including the official German records. There is now substantial verification that the German rmy (and not just individual soldiers) committed large-scale deliberate atrocities in Belgium. [Horne and Kramer, Zuckerman, and Lipkes]

Impact

Terror can be an effective if horific tactic. And had the French not succeeded in making a stand on the Marne (Septe,mber 1914, it masy have worked for the Germans. But the French did stand at the Marne and the Belgian rmy and the BEF managed to hold on o a small corner of Belgium. The German tactics in Belgium brough military advantages, but in the nd turned American public opinion against the Germans. Without this President Wilson could have never brought Ameica intoi the War. Pacifist and isolationist sentiment was very strong in America. The Germans did not think that the Americans without an Army of any size could affect the outcome of the war. And the German Navy assured the Kaiser that the U-boats could prevent the Americans from even transporting an army to France. It would, however, be the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) that would decide the outcome of the War.

Sources

Cook, Bernard A. Belgium: A History (2002).

(De) Schaepdrijver, Sophie. "Violence and Legitimacy: Occupied Belgium, 1914–1918," The Low Countries: Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands Vol 22 (2014), pp. 46–56.

Fabien Denry. E-mail message (July 15, 2014)

Horne, John and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (Yale University Press, 2002).

Kramer, Alan Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Lipkes, Jeff. Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914 (Leuven University Press, 2007).

Quinn, Patrick J. The Conning of America: The Great War and American Popular Literature (Rodopi, 2001).

Torfs, Michael. "Forced labour during First World War 'underestimated'," Flanders News.BE (November 17, 2014).

Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. The subject of attrocities is a difficult one. The British picked up every report and fed it to both their public and even more importantly, the American public. This was important in affecting American public opinion. The Germans played doen the reports, denying many, and attributing it all to Allied war propaganda. Tuchmans's work is important in wadeing theough the contending charges and claims becuse she is a respected Noble Prize winnining historian. Chapter 17 'The flames of Louvain' deal with this subkject in detail.

Zuckerman, Larry. The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I (NYU Press, 2004).








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