What happens when myths turn out to be true? I’m talking about the “myth” of the German army’s atrocities in little Belgium in 1914, the raped nuns and the babies spitted on Prussian bayonets.
“Hun barbarism” was the powerful propaganda tool to send the British Tommies and the French poilus — literally, “the hairy ones” — off to the killing fields of the Somme, Ypres and Verdun. But now, thanks to the analytical work of Alan Kramer, a history professor at Trinity College, it all turns to be true.
He’s not the first to catalogue Germany’s war crimes in the 1914-18 conflict — Germany’s own academics proved that the massacre of civilians in Belgium really happened at the start of the war — but Kramer has gone further; he has traced an undeniable pattern of atrocities in Belgium, in First World War Italy and Russia too. The Nazis marched behind earlier German war criminals.
Maybe it’s hypocritical when our own illegal invasion of Iraq may have culled a million Iraqi lives, not to mention Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki — readers can fill in the extra names — and it’s true New Zealand troops murdered German prisoners on 15 September 1916 and so did Canadian troops. And Brits. But slaughtering prisoners on the battlefield is one thing. Shooting civilians is quite another. Kramer’s book has an academic title — Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War — but still freezes the blood.
Civilian prisoners in the Les Rivages suburb of Dinant were killed: “German witnesses... stated the order was given by a major whose face was ‘contorted with rage’... Over half of the 77 killed were women and children: 38 women and girls, 15 children under 14, seven being babies and seven men over 70 years.”
A Captain von Loeben describes another nearby massacre: “The people were arranged in several ranks by the garden wall. Women, children and older men were excluded... I had some difficulty separating the women and children. One woman clung to her husband. I therefore decided to let her go free, together with her husband. One had a child of five in his arms...the child was taken and sent to the women, the man shot.”
In all, 674 citizens of Dinant, including many women and children — one in 10 of the population of the town — were executed. Another 262 civilians were murdered by the Kaiser’s soldiers in Ardenne where the burgomaster — a man called Camus — was hacked to death. German troops had already torched the historic Belgian city of Louvain, bayoneting civilians in their homes and burning the university library with its wealth of Latin manuscripts: “Holocaust of Louvain,” the Daily Mail said.
There’s a chilling photograph of a German shell exploding on the roof of Reims cathedral, one of the finest French medieval treasures. Of course, the Germans said that the Allies were using it as an observation tower — but they effectively blew the place to bits. I recall my dad, 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the King’s Liverpool Regiment, telling me how, after being bitten by a rat in the trenches, doctors removed an entire layer of his skin and how he lay in agony in a makeshift hospital at Reims.
“I was made to sleep on the floor of Reims Cathedral and every night, I’d look up at the stars and see gargoyles glaring down at me.”
After the massive Italian defeat at Caporetto — the Italians were on “our” side in that war — mass deportation of Italian civilians began, with executions and deliberate starvation. Italian deportee and PoW deaths, largely from maltreatment, but also massacre, reached 24,597 —some sent to camps whose names draw collective breath — Mauthausen and Theresienstadt. Indeed, there were Jews in the German army in the First World War — some 12,000 of them were killed — but even while fighting for their lives in 1916, the authorities had a “Jew census” in the army after calls from small anti-Semitic parties in Berlin.
On the eastern front, 92,451 Russian prisoners died in German captivity. “They are not to be given water,” an 8th Army order read. “While they are in the vicinity of the battlefield it is good for them to be in a broken physical condition.” But, at least nine per cent of Germany’s 158,000 soldiers in Russian camps died too.
The Ottoman genocide of 1.5m Armenians — still outrageously denied by Turkey, although it taught Hitler how to destroy the Jews decades later — provides a terrible historical continuity.
Those German-Jewish soldiers of the First World War hadn’t the slightest inkling of what was to come as the angry, gas-blinded corporal from the Somme asked after the Armistice: “Did all this happen only so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay their hands on the Fatherland?”