Primary Documents - U.S. Ambassador to Austria-Hungary on the German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line, March 1917
Reproduced below are the views of the former U.S. Ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Frederic C. Penfield, upon witnessing at first hand the French Department of the Aisne in the wake of the retreat of German forces to the Hindenburg Line in the Spring of 1917.
Given that America entered the war shortly afterwards it is perhaps unsurprising that Penfield should have spoken so harshly upon the "brutal instances of excess" practiced by German troops. Penfield's report would have made for useful propaganda.
Click here to read the text of the official French report into alleged excesses of German forces in France during the retreat. Click here to read the views expressed by Penfield's counterpart in Paris, William Sharp. Click here and here to read memoirs of the retreat to the Hindenburg Line as witnessed by two noted German journalists. These bear out French claims of wanton destruction by German troops but offer a spirited defence of its rationale.
U.S. Ambassador to Austria-Hungary, Frederic C. Penfield, on the German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line
By invitation of Premier Ribot I went to the French front to witness the great drive slowly but surely forcing the German invaders from French soil, and to view the area recently evacuated by the Germans.
Secretary Frazier of the American Embassy and I were sent in a military automobile in charge of a high official from the Foreign Office. We had been told much of the ruthless devastation, prompted by military necessity or custom, but no oral account could give more than a suggestion of what we saw that day.
We travelled practically all over the Department of the Aisne, and approached to within eight miles of the lines of the German Crown Prince near St. Quentin. A terrific artillery battle was in progress. Many observation balloons were above us and military flyers seemed battling as fiercely in the sky as were the artillerists from their hidden positions. It was a sight never to be forgotten.
We visited Noyon, Peronne, Ham, Coucy, Chauny - in fact practically every town between the British front on the west and Verdun on the east. Scores of towns and villages, isolated chateaux and factories were razed to the ground. The entire Aisne Department seemed destroyed beyond repair.
The Germans appeared to have an antipathy to Catholic churches, for battering had reduced all to shapeless piles of debris. The destruction everywhere was complete, outrageous, fiendish. During the day we saw no living thing native to the land - no cow, sheep or horse; no dog, cat or fowl.
We visited many stately chateaux that had been destroyed beyond man's ability to repair. At one place we found the private chapel of a historic family of France whose coffins had been opened by vandals searching for plunder.
Everywhere French soldiers told us that it had been only five weeks earlier when the rout of the Germans had become so urgent that they hastened through villages plundering and burning as they went - but not until all art objects and furniture of value had been dispatched beyond the Rhine.
Critics of Germany claim that one has but to visit the northern departments of France to learn that the refinement of barbarism is not confined to Germany's program on the seas, for it is expressed in the invaded zone of France in a manner causing revulsion to witness. From every town and village men and women had been driven into Germany like animals by the infuriated and beaten Teutons.
As I saw the destruction and thought of the generosity of my country people, I wondered if liberal Americans would not be glad to rebuild or assist in restoring some of the ruined towns and villages of the Aisne and Champagne. There can be no form of charity half as useful at this time.
The most ruthless and revolting thing that a visitor to the evacuated area perceives is the total destruction of all trees, fruit-bearing and ornamental. Nearly every tree in the Aisne Department has been felled, and for what purpose? There can be but one - to cripple the restoration of Northern France to usefulness.
Men and money can rebuild the homes and factories in a year or two, but to restore the orchards and other useful trees will call for a half century. What the Germans did to tree life in Northern France was the systematic murdering of Nature, nothing less.
Our automobile broke a tire near a village that had been the appanage of a once splendid chateau, and when the chauffeur was making the repairs six or eight children gathered about the machine to witness the work. Two lads were better dressed than the others and wore neat suits of cotton corduroy.
I engaged the elder of these brothers in conversation by asking where the garments came from and he promptly replied: "From the American Relief Clearing House Committee, which has fed and clothed us since the Boches were driven away."
"Have you any relatives?" I inquired. To this the boy answered: "Yes my poor mother lies sick in that cottage there," pointing to a poor peasant house. "Have you sisters?" I asked, and this was the reply: "Two, aged 19 and 21. Both were outraged by the Germans and carried off by the retreating army. Our poor father, who tried to protect our sisters, was shot dead by the Boches, who said he was disobedient, and his body lies buried there by the roadside."
To me this incident in an Aisne village was more convincing of the barbarity and fiendishness of the men of military Germany than all the books and newspaper exposures I had ever read. I returned that night to Paris and decided in my belief that God would never permit the ferocious Kaiser William to succeed in his mad assault upon civilization. As an illustration of German Kultur, Belgium may present brutal instances in excess of those of the evacuated regions in France, but not many, I am sure. The deportations have been fewer from France, but fully as cruel in character.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A "British warm" was a heavy issue greatcoat for officers.
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