1914: The Germans invade Belgium

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The turn of events in Belgium was a product of the German theory of terror. Clausewitz had prescribed terror as the proper method to shorten war, his whole theory of war being based on the necessity of making it short, sharp, and decisive. 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, “we must place him in a situation in which continuing the war is more oppressive to him than surrender.” This seemingly sound proposition fitted into the scientific theory of war which throughout the nineteenth century it had been the best intellectual endeavor of the German General Staff to construct. It had already been put into practice in 1870 when French resistance sprang up after Sedan. 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.

On August 23 placards signed by General von Bülow were posted in Liège announcing that the people of Andenne, a small town on the Meuse near Namur, having attacked his troops in the most “traitorous” manner, “with my permission the General commanding these troops has burned the town to ashes and has had 110 persons shot.” The people of Liège were being informed so that they would know what fate to expect if they behaved in the same manner as their neighbors.

The burning of Andenne and the massacre—which Belgian figures put at 211—took place on August 20 and 21 during the Battle of Charleroi. Hewing to their timetable, harassed by the Belgians’ blowing up of bridges and railroads, Bülow’s commanders dealt out reprisals ruthlessly in the villages they entered. At Seilles, across the river from Andenne, 50 civilians were shot and the houses given over to looting and burning. At Tamines, captured on August 21, 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 intended 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.

When Bülow’s Army took Namur, a city of 32,000, notices were posted announcing that ten hostages were being taken from every street who would be shot if any civilian fired on a German. The taking and killing of hostages was practiced as systematically as the requisitioning of food. The farther the Germans advanced, the more hostages were arrested. At first when von Kluck’s Army entered a town, notices immediately went up warning the populace that the burgomaster, the leading magistrate, and the senator of the district were being held as hostages with the usual warning as to their fate. Soon three persons of prestige were not enough; a man from every street, even ten from every street were not enough. Walter Bloem, a novelist mobilized as a reserve officer in von Kluck’s Army whose account of the advance to Paris is invaluable, tells how in villages where his company was billeted each night, “Major von Kleist gave orders that a man or, if no man was available, a woman, be taken from every household as a hostage.” Through some peculiar failure of the system, the greater the terror, the more terror seemed to be necessary.

When sniping was reported in a town, the hostages were executed. Irwin Cobb, accompanying von Kluck’s Army, watched from a window as two civilians were marched between two rows of German soldiers with fixed bayonets. They were taken behind the railroad station; there was a sound of shots, and two litters were carried out bearing still figures covered by blankets with only the rigid toes of their boots showing. Cobb watched while twice more the performance was repeated.

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 regiment 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. Afterward 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, the day 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.” Von Hausen, who was very sensitive, felt an “indomitable hostility” emanating from them. He was the general who had been made so unhappy in the house of the Belgian gentleman who clenched his fists in his pockets and refused to speak to von 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. Von Hausen ends his description there, too sensitive to tell the fate of Dinant’s citizens. They 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 targets stood upright. Six hundred and twelve bodies were identified and buried, including Félix Fivet, aged three weeks.

The Saxons were then let loose in a riot of pillage and arson. The medieval citadel, perched like an eagle’s nest on the heights of the right bank above the city it had once protected, looked down upon a repetition of the ravages of the Middle Ages. The Saxons left Dinant scorched, crumbled, hollowed out, charred, and sodden. “Profoundly moved” by this picture of desolation wrought by his troops, General von Hausen departed from the ruins of Dinant secure in the conviction that the responsibility lay with the Belgian government “which approved this perfidious street fighting contrary to international law.”

The Germans were obsessively concerned about violations of international law. They succeeded in overlooking the violation created by their presence in Belgium in favor of the violation committed, as they saw it, by Belgians resisting their presence.

—From The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman.

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