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[That soldiers behave badly off the battlefield is an ugly fact of war. Contributor Dan McEwen  examines how in WW1, that ugliness began in the first days.]

War is a special kind of hell for the civilians who get in the way of one. During the four years of fighting in The Great War, an unprecedented 8.5 million soldiers died on battlefields, a number that shocked the world. Yet all around the soldiers, 13 million civilians also died, mostly from starvation, privation, and disease. Added to this mass misery were acts of barbarity that were immediately condemned as atrocities. An atrocity is officially defined as; “an act of violence condemned by contemporaries as a breach of morality or the laws and customs of war.” WW1 had hardly begun when these acts of violence began too.  

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Germany’s grandmaster of military strategy Alfred von Schlieffen’s bold scheme for a quick, knock-out blow to France envisioned the Kaiser’s armies making a fast right wheel through Belgium, past a ring of defensive forts around the city of Liege. There, the plucky Belgians put up a fight that put Schlieffen’s plan behind schedule, angering the Germans to take revenge. 

“To retaliate for the shelling from these forts, the German troops rounded up inhabitants of surrounding villages,” reports Penn State University professor Sophie De Schaepdrijvert. “They were accused, incorrectly, of being franc-tireurs (civilian snipers). Most of the German rank and file genuinely believed that the locals were attacking them; this sniper delusion was sometimes countered by the commanding officers, sometimes not.” 5,521  Belgians died in these reprisals. 

The German army claimed that it had met sustained civilian resistance – a Volkskrieg, or ‘People’s War’ – but it was all fake news according to Modern History professor John Horne at Ireland’s Trinity College. Rather, “a ‘Great Fear’ seized all seven German armies engaged in the invasion and then persuaded them by a collective delusion that they faced mass civilian resistance. “The fantasy took the form of a myth complex which centered on the figure of the male franc-tireur. But it also had sub-variants including the evil priest, the revolutionary proletarian, and the seemingly innocent women and girls who blinded, castrated, and poisoned hapless German soldiers.” 

The Rape of Belgium’ formed the basis of the Allies’ most successful anti-German propaganda campaign of the war, swelling recruitment and inciting the London Times to rage indignantly; “The stories of rape are so horrible in detail that their publication would seem almost impossible were it not for the necessity of showing to the fullest extent the nature of the wild beasts fighting under the German flag.” And the poster girl for the campaign was not a Belgian, but an English nurse named Edith Cavell. 

Cavell had several years of experience as a nurse in England when in 1907 she was recruited to teach at a nursing school in Belgium. Within a year, she was training nurses for three hospitals, twenty-four schools, and thirteen kindergartens. When WW1 broke out, Cavell opted to stay in Belgium and treat the wounded on both sides. But her aid went beyond bandages to smuggling Allied soldiers out of German-occupied Belgium. She’d helped over 200 escape when she was arrested and tried for treason by a German military tribunal. Too honest for her own good, Cavell willingly confessed, dooming herself. “Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” Found guilty, she was executed by a firing squad. She went to her death with quiet dignity, her final words to the prison chaplain; “Tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.” 

Newspapers in the UK and United States made the kindly nurse “the most prominent British female casualty of the First World War.” Lionized as a heroic martyr, Cavell was elevated to near-saintly status, one Allied journalist declaring that: “What Jeanne d’Arc has been for centuries to France, that will Edith Cavell become to the future generations of Britons.” 

However, “the wild beasts fighting under the German flag” were unmoved by the widespread criticism of the execution. The Secretary for Foreign Affairs responded to the outcry with a statement to the newspapers that did nothing to endear him to their readers. “It was a pity that Miss Cavell had to be executed, but it was necessary. She was judged justly. It is undoubtedly a terrible thing that the woman has been executed; but consider what would happen to a State, particularly in war, if it left crimes aimed at the safety of its armies to go unpunished because they were committed by women.” [Who knew women posed such a threat to the safety of the German armies?]  The Allies would not forgive and forget.

In 1919, delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference appointed a commission to determine the responsibility of the German military for the crimes committed by its soldiers. After exhaustive investigating, the commission found Kaiser Wilhelm and his uniformed aristocrats directly answerable on over twenty charges of war crimes, the top five being the massacre of civilians, the killing of hostages, the torture of civilians, the starvation of civilians, and rape. Little wonder that Wilhelm had been hustled off into exile in Holland, never to be heard from again. As for nurse Edith, her body was exhumed from its Belgian grave after the war and reburied with great ceremony, with a statue raised in her honor in London’s St. Martins Square.

While English propaganda was portraying German soldiers as lustful Huns, German propaganda was portraying Russian soldiers as barbarous Slavs. And they had the atrocities to prove it. During the few weeks in August of 1914 the Czar’s armies had occupied territory in East Prussia, Russian soldiers looted, raped, bayoneted, mutilated, and shot 1,600 German civilians, deported 10,000 more, and destroyed 34,000 of their homes, crimes that only confirmed the long-held German public perception of Russians as mindless barbarians. It was Russia, not France they feared.

After ruining the lives of thousands of Germans, the Russian army turned to ruin the lives of their own people. In the first three months of its 1915 offensive, Germany’s 11th Army led by the fearsome August Von Mackensen, landed a series of well-timed punches that staggered the ineptly led Russian army backward, killing 1.4 million of its soldiers. Terrified, the rest fled in the unmitigated debacle known as The Great Retreat, stopping only to carry out a scorched earth policy that would starve millions of their own people along with mass deportations: 300,000 Lithuanians, 250,000 Latvians, 500,000 Jews, 743,000 Poles, all turned into destitute refugees left to die of hunger, disease, and cold by the armies sweeping over them. 

For their part, the Austro-Hungarian soldiers conducted mass hangings of as many as 35,000 Poles, Jews, Ruthenians Serbs, and Bosnians in the early months of the war. So many that additional hangmen had to be recruited and trained by the authorities to carry out the executions.   

“There was intense resentment on the part of the Austro-Hungarian army towards the ethnic-religious minorities within their own state, as well as towards civilians in the occupied territories,” contends Viennese photo-historian Anton Holzer. “The excesses were arranged and planned at the highest level. They included hostage-taking and hostage-shootings, massed deportation, incarceration, and forced labor and mass executions… rape, looting, arbitrary killings and the destruction of houses.” 

Bulgaria joined the war on side of the Central Powers in 1915. Its army occupied the Serbian town of Surdulica late in 1916 and proceeded to round up the intelligentsia in the region. An estimated up to 3,000 teachers, priests, civil servants, and former soldiers were taken into the forests around the town, never to be seen again. 

Arguably WW1’s most egregious atrocity was Medz Yeghern [The Great Crime) or Aghet [Catastrophe], the mass murder of the Armenians by the Ottomans. Minister of War, Enver Pasha had marched his ill-equipped, poorly-clothed 3rd army through a snowstorm that killed 25,000 of his men before they had even reached the battlefield at Sarikamish on the Russian border. There, further calamities awaited as Pasha’s dis-organized troops were utterly routed by the Russians. To hide the naked truth of his abysmal generalship, Pasha used the fig leaf of a minor Armenian insurgency within the army’s ranks to explain the disaster. It proved to be the thinnest of justifications for the grossest of crimes. By the autumn of 1916, 1.2 million Armenians had been systematically shot or driven into a desert and left to starve. Successive Turkish governments have denied the Armenian diaspora ever happened and no one has been held accountable for these crimes. But as U.S. historian Howard Zinn has observed; “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”  

WW1 was itself an atrocity. “We all slithered over the edge when no one was looking,” remarked a rueful British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. The lamentable chronicle of Great War atrocities proves that some slithered further than the others.

Dan McEwen is a former corporate wordsmith who writes about military history. Contact him at: danielcmcewen@gmail.com

Sources

The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War 1, Larry Zuckerman,

“A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War (Book Review)” by Isabel V. Hull.”  (2015)  

The Eastern Front in 1914, Peter Lieb, WFA lecture

Why are so few WW1 heroines remembered? BBC News online 

Russia’s ‘Enemies Within’: Jewish and German Minorities on the Eastern Front, Jakob Zenzmaier, Habsburg Monarchy virtual exhibition 

1914-1918 online, History.net, Wikipedia, U.S Holocaust Museum, Imperial War Museum 

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"War Crimes & Atrocities: WW1’s Darkest Deeds" History on the Net
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September 24, 2022 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/war-crimes-atrocities-ww1s-darkest-deeds>
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