Primary Documents - U.S. Report on German Atrocities in Belgium, 12 September 1917
Reproduced below is the condensed text of the official report sent by the U.S. Minister to Belgium, Brand Whitlock, to the U.S. Secretary of State concerning alleged German atrocities committed in Belgium in August 1914, the first month of the war (such as at Louvain).
Dated 12 September 1917 - that is, five months after the U.S. had entered the war against Germany - the ambassador's report was damning in its indictment of supposed German atrocities in Belgium.
In reality while such atrocities did occur they were inevitably over-stated and used for propaganda purposes by the Allies during wartime, perhaps most effectively by Britain for readership in the U.S.
Official Report by U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Brand Whitlock, to the U.S. Secretary of State, 12 September 1917
Over all this area, that is in the country lying about Vise, Liege, Dinant, Namur, Louvain, Vilverde, Malines, and Aerschot, a rich agricultural region dotted with innumerable towns, villages and hamlets, a land of contented peace and plenty, during all that month of August there were inflicted on the civilian population by the hordes that overran it deeds of such ruthless cruelty and unspeakable outrage that one must search history in vain for others like them committed on such a prodigious scale.
Towns were sacked and burned, homes were pillaged; in many places portions of the population, men, women, and children, were massed in public squares and mowed down by mitrailleuses, and there were countless individual instances of an amazing and shameless brutality.
The stories of these deeds gradually filtered into Brussels in ever increasing numbers as the days went by, brought by the refugees, who, in crowds, fled the stricken region in terror. It was difficult at first to believe them; but the stories persisted, and were told with such detail and on such authority that one could no longer doubt their essential truth. They became a matter of common knowledge and public notoriety; and they saturated the general mind with their horror.
Take, for example, the following cases: Battice, in the province of Liege, is about five kilometres from Bligny. It was pillaged and burned on the 6th of August by Germans who had been repulsed before the forts of Liege. Thirty-six persons, including three women, were massacred, the village methodically burned, and the church destroyed.
The Germans entered Aerschot on August 19th. The greater part of the inhabitants who had remained in the town were shut up in the church for several days, receiving hardly any nourishment. On August 28th they were marched to Louvain. Upon their arrival there they were let loose and were fired upon by German soldiers. The following day they were marched back to Aerschot, the men being again shut up in the church and the women were put in a building belonging to a Mr. Fontaine. Many women and young girls, it is said, were raped by the German soldiers. Upon one occasion seventy-eight men were taken outside the town and were made to pass before German gendarmes who struck them with the butts of their revolvers. Of these seventy-eight men only three escaped death.
At another time a number of men were put in rows of three, the Germans shooting the third man in each row. The Germans killed over one hundred and fifty of the inhabitants of Aerschot, and among this number were eight women and several children. The pillage and firing of houses continued for several days, and a great quantity of furniture and objects of art were sent to Germany. On the 6th of September, three hundred of the inhabitants were carted off in wagons to Germany.
In the seven small villages surrounding Aerschot, forty-two persons were killed, four hundred and sixty-two were sent to Germany, one hundred and fifteen houses were burned and eight hundred and twenty-three were pillaged.
One of the most sorely tried communities was that of the little village of Tamines, down in what is known as the Borinage, the coal fields near Charleroi. Tamines is a mining village in the Sambre; it is a collection of small cottages sheltering about 5,000 inhabitants, mostly all poor labourers.
The little graveyard in which the church stands bears its mute testimony to the horror of the event. There are hundreds of new-made graves, each with its small wooden cross and its bit of flowers; the crosses are so closely huddled that there is scarcely room to walk between them. The crosses are alike and all bear the same date, the sinister date of August 22, 1914.
Whether their hands were cut off or not, whether they were impaled on bayonets or not, children were shot down, by military order, in cold blood. In the awful crime of the Rock of Bayard, there overlooking the Meuse below Dinant, infants in their mothers' arms were shot down without mercy. The deed, never surpassed in cruelty by any band of savages, is described by the Bishop of Namur himself.
This scene surpasses in horror all others; the fusillade of the Rock Bayard near Dinant. It appears to have been ordered by Colonel Meister. This fusillade made many victims among the nearby parishes, especially those of des Rivages and Neffe. It caused the death of nearly 90 persons, without distinction of age or sex. Among the victims were babies in arms, boys and girls, fathers and mothers of families, even old men.
It was there that 12 children under the age of 6 perished from the fire of the executioners, 6 of them as they lay in their mothers' arms: the child Fievet, 3 weeks old; Maurice Betemps, 11 months old; Nelly Pollet, 11 months old; Gilda Genon, 18 months old; Gilda Marchot, 2 years old; Clara Struvay, 2 years and 6 months.
The pile of bodies comprised also many children from 6 to 14 years. Eight large families have entirely disappeared. Four have but one survivor. Those men that escaped death -and many of whom were riddled with bullets - were obliged to bury in a summary and hasty fashion their fathers, mothers, brothers, or sisters; then after having been relieved of their money and being placed in chains they were sent to Cassel [Prussia].
Monceau-sur-Sambre (Charleroi) was pillaged and sacked on the 22nd of August. Twelve inhabitants were shot by firing squads and twenty-eight as they emerged from their burning houses. Thirty of all ages and both sexes were wounded under similar conditions. Sixty-two houses were looted and two hundred and fifty burned. French soldiers were holding a bridge on the Sambre with machine guns and rifles and had received the Germans with a short but spirited fusillade.
Gougnies, in the province of Hainaut, was sacked on the 23rd of August. No fighting had taken place there and the first troops had passed through quietly. On Sunday, the 23rd, claiming that civilians had fired on their troops, the Germans set fire to various parts of the village. Seventeen houses were burned, and among those one in which Mr. Piret, provincial councillor for the Hainaut, had established a hospital. Ten wounded French soldiers therein were burned alive. Mr. Piret in spite of his great age was taken out and shot the next day at Le Roux. Two other inhabitants of Gougnies, Messrs. Thiry, aged 83, and Gregoire, 56, were also shot.
It is interesting to note that near Louvain at Heverle is the chateau of the Due d'Arenberg, a German; many of the houses in the village belonged to him; on these houses there were posted little cards, one of which I attach to this report; they read:
This house must be protected. It is strictly forbidden to enter the houses or to burn them without the consent of the Kommandantur.
Certain houses were marked, in chalk: "Nicht phindern." [Do not pillage.]
During the whole of that terrible month of August , and during a part of September, eastern Belgium was the scene of such happenings, from the deliberate and systematic organized massacres of civil populations, with isolated murders and outrages, violations of women, and those nameless deeds one cannot bring oneself to mention and yet somehow hears; down to the sack of wine cellars by drunken soldiers...
There is little doubt that the German soldiers often fired because of the fear of francs-tireurs, but there is no convincing evidence that they were actually fired upon; indeed, no serious effort seems to have been made judicially to establish the fact.
As to have a town given over to fire and sword, it sufficed simply for a German soldier to cry: "Man hat geschossen" [Some one fired a shot], so it seems now to suffice, when justification is attempted, to say: "The Belgians fired on us."...
The Bishop of Namur writes to the Governor-General in Belgium, subjecting the [German] "White Book" to an examination that is without mercy in its logic. After having gone over the different charges of the Germans concerning the firing by civilians, he points out to the Governor-General that, in the "White Book," there is not a word concerning the tragedy at Tamines, not a word about Surice, not a word about Spontin, not a word about Namur, not a word about Fehe, not a word about Gommeries, not a word about Latour, not a word, in short, about sixty-five other places where there was pillage and massacre and incendiarism.
The Bishop shows, in the appendix devoted to Dinant, that almost three hundred times the [German] "White Book" contented itself with repeating the unsupported allegation, "They have fired on us"; and he adds, with perfect comprehension of the German psychology, when this is denied, when the Germans are challenged to produce proofproof, they reply, simply: "You cannot deny this; a German soldier said so."
It may be that there were instances where Belgian housewives threw boiling water on the soldiers, it would not have been surprising if they had, though it seems somewhat less likely in the case of boiling tar, as housewives are not generally in the habit of keeping boiling tar available as means of defence, and it is not stated how the German soldiers were roasted.
But it would seem that there could not have been enough boiling water in all Belgium, even had it all been flung at German soldiers, to make it a military necessity to burn, to slay, to sack and to pillage on such a scale.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Prevalent dysentery among Allied soldiers in Gallipoli came to be referred to as "the Gallipoli gallop".
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