Found Pages: The Remarkable Harold Ernest (“Darcy Glinto”) Kelly, 1899–1969.
Sidebar 14: Propaganda, Atrocities, and the Limits of the Thinkable; the Bryce reports and others.
Dishevelled girls staggered from the private quarters of the Crown Prince of Germany who raped his way across Belgium, while his officers tortured civilians behind haystacks. The Kaiser himself was busy gloating over Zeppelin raids, the chopped-off hands of little children, and the worse-than-death fate of nuns and nurses.Photographer Lee Miller, recalling wartime propaganda movies in America (quoted in Carolyn Burke’s Lee Miller, 2005)
Our obligation, and it is an obligation, is to take in what human beings are capable of doing to one another…Susan Sontag, preface to Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season; the Killers of Rwanda Speak (2003)
The most important text here, at least for Anglophones, is the Bryce Report, more formally known as Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages appointed by His Britannic Majesty's government and presided over by the Right Hon. Viscount Bryce.
It was published in two paperback volumes by the Government Stationery Office in 1915.
Evidently a lot of copies were printed, for it’s surprisingly easy to pick up cheap ones now.
It was translated into over thirty languages.
The work consists of a sixty-two-page report signed by seven persons, of whom I recognize the names of the historians H.A.L. Fisher, Kenelm Digby, and James Bryce, and an almost three-hundred page supplement containing the texts of depositions gathered by a network of Government-appointed lawyers, presumably competent linguistically or assisted by translators, from Belgian refugees in England, plus some other persons, including British soldiers.
The blue-ribbon Committee is reporting on the assembled documents that were presented to it, not doing research of its own.
Some of the depositions are substantial, and one can “hear” them being voiced. Some are very brief. A lot have the flatness and lack of digressions and repetitions of a police constable testifying in a magistrate’s court.
The second volume is hard reading now. The place names are likely to mean nothing to anglophone non-specialists, and no attempt has been made to provide links or to keep providing details of the campaign in those weeks in August and September, 1914. It’s also hard to tell, unless one sets to and makes notes, whether at times one is reading several accounts of the same episode.
The names of the witnesses are not provided, for fear, it is explained, of reprisals against family members still in occupied Belgium. Instead we have “Belgian Refugee,” “Belgian Soldier,” “British Soldiers,” etc.
The absence of “texture” means that one has to work at bringing back the chaos, the groups of soldiers, mounted and on foot, in rapid movement, the shootings, the burning houses, the drifting smoke, the huddled Belgian figures, the glinting steel, the atrociousness of what again and again lies behind a few words.
Or does it?
The following are among the worst of the reported incidents. I have quoted the fourth passage already.
(a) One day when the Germans were not actually bombarding the town I left my house to go to my mother’s house. In High Street. My husband was with me. I saw eight German soldiers. They came round a corner into the street in which I was walking with my husband and came towards us. They were drunk. They were singing and making a lot of noise and dancing about. They were in grey uniforms. As the German soldiers came along the street I saw a small child, whether boy or girl I could not say, come out of a house. The child was about two years of age. The child came into the middle of the street so as to be in the way of the soldiers. The soldiers were walking in twos. The first line of two passed the child; one of the second line, the man on the left, stepped aside and drove his bayonet with both hands into the child’s stomach, lifting the child into the air on his bayonet and carrying it away on his bayonet, he and his comrades still singing. I could see the man for about 200 yards, still carrying the child on his bayonet. Then the soldiers were hidden by a curve in the street. The child screamed when the soldier struck it with his bayonet but not afterwards. (pp.82-83)
(b) On the 9th September at Weerde, a village south of Malines, about ten kilometers [a “Belgian soldier, electrical engineer by profession,” is speaking], I was on special services in plain clothes. I met another man from another regiment in the same capacity. I do not know his name, but I should recognize him if I saw him. We saw the corpse of a man and a woman. We inquired of the neighbours and they told us that the woman was enceinte. She had been violated by German soldiers and had had her womb cut open by them in her husband’s presence. He had been previously bound to the bannisters. They had removed the unborn child. We saw the latter half burnt. The flesh was grilled more than burnt. They had beheaded the husband. We saw the very place where they beheaded him covered with blood. They took the man’s head and thrust it into the woman’s womb after tearing out the child. We saw the two corpses in this state after it had been done. There were many neighbours round, at least a dozen, from the houses quite near. I asked if the soldiers who did it were drunk and they said they were not. (p.110)
(c) Between Malines and Louvain we saw a woman 30 to 35 years of age standing up to her neck in a cesspool of filth into which she told us she had been thrown by German soldiers—for what reason she did not say. She was unable to extricate herself and we (I and one other) helped her out. She was in a pitiable condition and told us she had been violated by five or six German soldiers immediately before being thrown into the pool—a full hour she had remained in the pool. There were ten men in the patrol, all of whom saw the woman and heard her story. In the same district I saw the dead body of a child about eight months old with both hands cut off, and it must have been done recently because the stumps were covered with congealed blood. (p.127)
The historian Trevor WIlsan has a substantial section in his massive The Myriad Face of War; Britain and the Great War, 1914–1918 (1986), in which he argues persuasively that the members of Bryce’s committee didn’t get to speak with any of the witnesses or with the lawyers who had taken down their depositions, and that the efforts of one member of the committee to get that done were blocked.
There are indeed matters about which a committee member might have wanted to ask questions. How for instance, was the interviewing done? Did the interviewers speak French? Did some of the witnesses speak English? Where had the necessary shorthand-takers who were fluent in French been found? Who did the tidying up of the prose—for of course there was tidying, despite what the committee says about interviewers having been required to let witnesses speak in their own words.
Again, why are so many of the references to severed hands by Belgian soldiers? Not all, but many. Was this because of a particular time frame and/or locale? Or had instructions been given to the witnesses by Belgian officers and/or officials?
Some episodes are so appalling that one would indeed want to get maximum reassurance about the credibility of the witnesses.
It would also help to see a map with incidents marked on it.
Anyone who’s served on a committee of enquiry, however modest, knows what it means to seek clarity and probe soft spots, not necessarily because one’s convinced there’s lying, but to see how the responder will firm things up.
It is bothersome that the original depositions, which must have occupied a considerable space, never became available after the war, having been reportedly destroyed in a fire.
But a number of objections seem weak, such as
—the testimonies weren’t taken under oath (as if people only tell the truth, and tell only the truth, when under oath)
—no handless Belgian children were found walking around later on (in the Bryce Report they are all dead),
—even if there was some “bad” German behaviour, British troops would have behaved just as badly at the time (they wouldn’t and didn’t),
—diaries and letters of German soldiers don’t report the worst atrocities (which the perpetrators are unlikely to have acknowledged!—“Oh my dear Fritz, we had such fun the other night”—and which the occasional “civilized” soldier may not have known about)
—fictive news items and “eyewitness” Letters to the Editor were turned out by the government’s propaganda machine (as if such items were the same thing rhetorically as the multitude of detailed accounts here)
—all wars have had their “atrocity” stories (as if that meant the stories were necessarily untrue)
When we were graduate students in Minneapolis in the later Fifties, my wife and I had a couple of sophistication tests in our apartment.
One was a colour photo from Life of a giant tortoise photographed close to from in front, with its head in the process of appearing or disappearing through the hole in its stretched skin. Level One visitors liked it as a photo of a giant tortoise. Level Two were a bit embarrassed by our evident unawareness of its erotic symbolism. Level Three liked it, as we did, as a photo of a giant tortoise.
We also had a pink stuffed dachshund sitting up on his rear end and wearing a mortarboard, called Vincent Van Dogh. We talked with him quite a lot, and would tell visitors about his opinions. When someone on one occasion called him a child substitute, I said no, he was a dog substitute.
Heaven knows, one needs to be suspicious about first-person recollections. They may be accurate, but memory and the rhetoric of narrative can falsify.
There was a propaganda war going on in the 1914-18 war, which the British were generally conceded to have won, particularly when it came to gaining sympathy in America.
But Reality doesn’t all dwindle down to words, and things can be said for propaganda purposes that owe their effectiveness to their being true.
The two most notable post-war exposés of wartime propaganda were those by Arthur Ponsonby and Harold Lasswell. I say something about their two principal books further on. Their conclusions caught on very fast with the enlightened and progressive.
It’s not hard to see why.
The carnage in the War to End Wars had been so appalling that it was natural for there to be a Peace Movement fuelled by a determination that nothing was going to be allowed to stir up once again the kinds of passions that had ignited in 1914.
Moreover, the exposure of German atrocities had soon been followed by exposés of Bolshevik ones.
Since those, by definition, had to be false, the mechanisms behind such accusations needed to be laid bare.
I say “by definition,” because of the persisting belief that people only have to be shown the right path to start wanting it.
Back then, the broad high road to a sunlit future was in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Later it would be elsewhere.
In 1970 a not-unlikable Communist (oh, all right, Marxist) couple showed us their slides from a recent trip to Mao’s China.
When my wife asked what was done with criminals in China, we were assured, in a kind of duet, that there were NO PRISONS IN MAO’S CHINA. Neighbours simply got together with the misbehaving and brought them round in discussion to the true path.
There are progressive people right now, I’m sure, whose heroic image of Chairman Mao has been unaffected by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s 800-page biography of him (Mao, 2005), and for whom the savagery of the Red Guards was merely “corrective.”
At bottom, though, I surmise that a lot of people, being incapable (as they think) of doing certain dreadful things themselves, simply cannot imagine others doing them.
It’s as if they conjure up for their inspection the mind of an “ordinary” soldier—playing cards, writing letters home, enjoying a spot of relief behind the lines etc—and find it impossible to conceive of such a mind’s doing those utterly beyond the pale things—not having themselves any inkling of the processes by which a mind ceases for awhile to be civilized.
So, if the atrocious in fact happened, how did it happen?
John Horne and Alan Kramer’s massively researched German Atrocities, 1914; a History of Denial (Yale, 2001) throws a lot of light on the matter. Here is the conveniently lucid account of it in Publisher’s Weekly, which I have divided into paragraphs for greater onscreen readability.
The German invasion of France and Belgium was from the beginning linked with stories of atrocities committed against civilians. These stories became grist for Allied propaganda, in turn were submerged in the far more hideous atrocities that accompanied W.W. II. But as Horne and Kramer, historians at Dublin’s Trinity College, demonstrate in this seminal book, German behaviour in the first weeks of the Great War was more than a passing episode.
The atrocities began when poorly trained and poorly disciplined troops reacted to the shock and anxiety of battle by interpreting the rear-guard resistance of French and Belgian soldiers, and their own uncontrolled firing, as the acts of guerrillas. Instead of restoring order in their own ranks, junior officers themselves succumbed to delusion and authorized near-random large-scale shootings of civilians. Since German army policy imposed draconian collective penalties for insurgency, senior officers receiving reports of large-scale partisan activity responded by ordering its ruthless repression. The partisan myth thus took on a life of its own, independent of a reality that consisted of no more than a few isolated acts of civilian resistance.
As time and rhetoric blurred memories, politics and the need to heal the wider wounds inflicted by the Great War were responsible for downplaying or dismissing charges of atrocities. Brought to light here, stripped of their penumbras, they offer fresh perspectives on the German Army, the First World War and, by extension, the nature of war itself: the province of horror, confusion and lies.
The book leaves not a scintilla of doubt about the taking of hostages, the shootings by way of reprisals, the callous rounding up and deporting of males to Germany, the looting and burning of private dwellings and historic buildings.
This was plainly the barbarism that it was condemned as at the time.
And you, or at least I, can also start to get a feel for the seething angers of troops, particularly when controls by officers were eased, and even more when there were intimations from above that inducing terror in this population would shorten the war when it came to France.
Soldiers were drunk, buildings were being methodically and randomly burned, civilians were being put up against the wall and shot, or simply shot out of hand, stores and private houses were being plundered.
There was fury at the unexpected Belgian resistance, slowing the push towards Paris. There was the fear of franc-tireurs—invisible snipers. There were rumours of Belgian cruelties to German soldiers—eyes gouged out, acid poured on the wounded.
It wouldn’t surprise me if photos of atrocities in the Belgian Congo, including the cutting off of hands, had been circulated.
This was NIGHTMARE time.
Rape was a natural adjunct, including gang rape and rape in front of husbands and fathers.
So was the killing of rape victims, so that they couldn’t complain afterwards.
So was the killing of children, of the old, the sick, the crippled.
One of the lousy truths about violation (broadening the term) is that it can be done to the weak and innocent especially, as witness the horrors reported at times from nursing homes and state asylums (see for example the appalling Answer Me #4)—or from our own Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. It’s as if not treating some people horrifically would constitute an admission that not everything is justifiable.
A bayonet on the end of a rifle was insidiously easy to prod with, whether into a peasant’s thigh as punishment, an old man’s back because he was walking too slowly, a recalcitrant woman’s breast, a child.
A rifle butt could prod or club to death.
There is something curious about the skeptical references to “obvious” exaggerations.
Ponsonby and Lasswell don’t talk about details in the Bryce Report. Nor does Trevor WIlsan get down to specific testimonies, behaving instead as though the possibility that if the Bryce Committee had dug deeper it might have uncovered myth-making, misremembering, and outright lying (in a good cause) therefore means that they were there to be found.
But that is no argument at all, and unworthy of a professional historian—a too easy tapping into late-twentieth-century paranoia about government faking and cover-ups.
Nor does the use of the words “myth” and “legend” do the work of showing how this person, and this, and this, reporting on particular experiences of theirs, would either so greatly misremember or so barefacedly lie as to create a bayoneted baby or a dead child with hands cut off out of thin air.
Of course in hectic situations glimpses can be made to do too much work.
Of course there can be suggestibility, brainwashing, and the creation of false memories. We know that this has happened in the assisted “recollections” by daycare kids of fantastic gory satanic rites and killings that mysteriously leave no traces.
But what phenomenological account would one have to give about the memories—the recent memories—of this particular Belgian adult, as observable in the account, and his or her later interaction with a lawyer in England to get some of those events?
My own memory, I know, is bad. What people say simply doesn’t imprint on it.
But no, without an intensive massaging and scrubbing, it is not going to come up, a few months after the events, with detailed, vivid, and unforgetable horrors which are not the equivalent of mis-seeing in a lecture demonstration, an intruder’s pencil- or hot-dog-holding hand as a gun pointed at the lecturer’s head.
There are, I think, only two incidents in the Report of a child being impaled, but they are enough. And there are far too many references to severed hands for it to be a collective delusion or a fiction cunningly disseminated by Bryce’s team.
I can even—reluctantly— believe in the other killings. The kind of pacifist who argues that horror is simply part of the nature of war may be forgetting how truly horrible things can be.
But I do not believe that the British army contained the kinds of psychopaths, or was driven by the mores, that made them possible, or that British Tommies, whose kindliness to German prisoners, as reported by the war correspondent Philip Gibbs in his excellent Now It Can Be Told (1920), amazed the prisoners themselves, would have allowed deported women and children to be deprived for long long hours of the most minimal sustenance and sanitary provisions.
Nor, for that matter, would ordinary decent officers.
The authors of the Report, who are far from naïve in their concern with probability, themselves raise the possibility of cavalrymen slashing down at raised hands, particularly when the army has been indoctrinated with the ethos of total war and fed accounts of Belgians gouging out the eyes of wounded Germans. The cutting off of hands had in fact gone on in King Leopold’s Congo, and there were photos to prove it.
The authors also carefully distinguish between the decency and kindliness of ordinary German peasants in peace time, and the “new” German militarism. In an anticipation of what would be even more characteristic of the Nazis, they write:
In the minds of Prussian officers War seems to have become a sort of sacred mission, one of the highest functions of the omnipotent State, which is itself as much an Army as a State. Ordinary morality and the ordinary sentiment of pity vanish in its presence, superseded by a new standard which justifies to the soldier every means that can conduce to success, however shocking to a natural sense of justice and humanity, however revolting to his own feelings. The Spirit of War is defied [deified?]. Obedience to the State and its War Lords leaves no room for any other duty or feeling. Cruelty becomes legitimate when it promises victory. (p.44)
Which is an accurate description of the Japanese militarism that resulted in the horrors of Nanking, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
But still, what about specifics in first-person accounts?
Let me look at a few.
Here is a stretch of narrative by an Englishwoman married to a Belgian:
In October last I was at my husband’s house at a little town not far from Antwerp. Two German soldiers came to our house and one of them asked me for beer; I said I had no beer, but I offered them food. He asked me where I came from and I said I was English. He abused the English. He noticed some rings on my hand and asked for them. I refused them. He took off two. The other was my wedding ring and fitted tightly. He could not remove it, but said if I did not he would cut my finger off. I then managed to get it off and handed it to him. The two soldiers then seized me. They drove two nails into the wall, and after removing the whole of my clothes, bound me with cords all round my arms and body and fastened me to the wall. One of them then left. The other then took my baby, 14 months old, from my arms and put it on the table, from which it fell on to the floor. He then asked me to have connection with him. I refused, stating that I was about to be confined; he then said he would burn me and brought straw and petrol into the room. He made no attempt to have forcible connection with me. He poured petrol on the floor and set light to it. It was then that the child fell off the table. The fire reached my feet and the cord caught fire and then slackened so that I was able to free myself before I was burnt. The child was, however, slightly singed. As soon as I could get free I picked up the child and ran out of the house with nothing on. My clothes were burning on the floor, but outside the house I had some linen out to dry and I put some of it on.
The German then took my husband and locked him up in a room; there was no one else about. He then came to the room where I was in bed. I got out of bed and asked him to fetch a doctor as I was ill. He said, “I am a doctor,” and told me to get back into bed. He then had connection with me from behind. I begged him not to do this, telling him I was about to be confined, but he insisted. He then asked me for money and I told him it had all been taken from me, and my house burnt. The German then left, and I let my husband out and we ran away, but before we could reach shelter my baby was born in the open fields. It died a few days after. (p.219)
Yes, I notice the inconsistency about the binding and the baby taken from her arms. But this is not a court of law where a clever advocate for the defense seeks for examples which will, he hopes, cast doubt in a jury’s eyes about a whole narrative.
People make mistakes when narrating. The question is whether most of an account feels true. And, if it doesn’t, how it could have come into being.
These narratives contain many details which fictionists in the service of the British government at that time would not, to judge from the quality of Edwardian and early Georgian fiction, have come up with.
Here is another passage:
The 19th August Germans arrived in Louvain. Five were lodged with us. One, a man of 55, who did all he could to help us with advice and assistance. For three days the Germans did not behave badly. From the beginning I dressed as a man by the advice of the German mentioned above. On the 24th August we were obliged to come out of our house by order of the Germans. At about 15 yards distance from us were a man and a woman with hands tied behind them whom I knew by sight, and their little girl about six years old. While we stood there the Germans began to cut the child in pieces with a bayonet. First they cut off the girl’s foot, then her hands, then the forearm, and so on. I fainted. They also cut off the little girl’s head and stuck it on a lance. I did not see this last—my parents did. We were told it was to punish the parents because neither husband nor wife would consent that the wife should be given up to the Germans. I was taken into a room upstairs. When I recovered, and as I came down to go for shelter to the cellar, another German came in; he saw me and looked closely and tore off my cap. He saw I was not a boy. He had to go out and I hid myself in a wardrobe for 24 hours to escape them. We again had orders to leave the house, but the German first-mentioned advised us not to and we returned therefore directly. As we did so we saw the Germans firing on all the people as they came out and but for the advice given us we should have been shot down as the rest were. While the Germans were with us we had to feed them. What they did not eat they threw on the ground. All we got was what we managed to abstract. (p.157)
So, are all the true-feeling details true—the decent officer, the initial good behaviour, the dressing as a youth, the disclosure, the wardrobe, the throwing of food on the floor—and the baby-killing simply untrue? If so, how were they arrived at?
The speaker doesn’t sound delusional. You would have to be very delusional to “see” that horror killing if there was none? Did the examiner say, “Did anything really bad happen?” and the witness say, “Oh. I forgot. They chopped up a child?” Or had the witness said, “They killed a child,” and the investigator say, “How did they do it? Did they use a bayonet?” “Yes.” Did they cut of its hands?” “I don’t remember.” “Think harder. “Umm! Maybe. I don’t know.” “Did they cut off its hands?” “I guess they could have. “Did they do—WORSE?” “You mean?” “Did they cut it up bit by bit?” Etc.
For which you have to postulate a reputable barrister not only leading the witness but coming up with a scarcely imaginable horror. And a witness who has seen, say, a child killed with a bayonet thrust allowing this far more dreadful, this surely unforgettable event to be extracted? I’m sorry, but there are limits to how malleable the memories of adolescents or young adults are.
Or did the barrister come straight out and say that the Germans, in her initial account, don’t sound that bad, and a good atrocity story would really help in the war effort?
One more example:
I saw one of the Uhlans [Prussian mounted lancers] pricking a young woman who had four or five children walking by her side. An old woman, evidently the mother of this woman, was being prodded with his lance by a Uhlan to make her walk faster. This caused the younger woman to turn round and shout something to the Uhlan, which I was unable to hear. The Uhlan then deliberately plunged his lance into one of the children, a little girl of seven or eight years old. The young woman screamed out “My child is dead!”; and several others screamed, which caused the crowd to become infuriated. The Uhlans then charged into the people, scattering them in all directions, and I saw no more. 161
I’m sorry, but no, a reader, even one with credentials as a historian, who says immediately that this just couldn’t have happened because, well, such things don’t happen is going to have to do a good deal more than simply say “myth” or “legend” or “hysteria” by way of explanation.
A myth offers literally false but emotionally true accounts. But to say that the events described here couldn’t have happened, one would have to go into the psychology of Uhlans, the kind of training and indoctrination they had gone through, their particular battle experiences here, their behaviour or the behaviour of troops like them in other situations, the attitudes of officers and non-coms, the possibility that they’d been drinking, etc.
Sticking a child with a lance (or bayonet) could be only a step or two away from raising it up afterwards.
OK, how about this one, the disposition taken from a British soldier by a Professor Morgan?
When we were approaching Ypres from Hazebrouck, we met several refugees, chiefly of women and children. All the men civilians, we found afterwards, were kept by the enemy for the purpose of making trenches. The women were in an exhausted state—with their children—some with their hands deliberately cut off—deliberately off, not blown off by shell. The women told us this by signs. The cutting off of the hands of the women and children was in order to get the bangles off the wrists. The women—their clothes (skirts) were torn and they were crying—had also been insulted. I mean outraged. In the village, whose name I forget, it is about 3 miles this side of Ypres (the Belgian headquarters were very close here, in a big fine chateau: a lovely place), there is a publican who was made to pay 800 frs. To keep his house from being fired. The publican, who spoke English very well, told me this, and so did his wife. Two doors off lived a poor old lady who had no money for the Uhlan patrol, so they fastened her down in her own home with ropes and outraged her. (p.278
When people throw up their hands in front of their faces to ward off attack, the hands are likely to cross at the wrists, so that one swipe with a cavalry sabre can take them both off.
Members of German student fraternities duelled, after a fashion, with sabers, the point being to gash one another’s cheeks so as to leave scars attesting to one’s manhood.
When you learn the art and craft of a weapon, you may welcome the chance to try it out in battle conditions.
That advancing Belgian and British troops reported finding bodies with cut-off hands could have been because the retreating Germans, particularly if they’d been unable to sabre them in battle, were in an especially filthy mood.
Men on horseback with sabers and lances!
The ten pages of depositions at the end taken by Professor Morgan are particularly impressive, having more of the feel of speech. E.g.
On the 17th December—I think that was the date—I was in the trenches. I had lost my company and was attached to B. I saw Private G … coming back from getting water; I knew Private G … because he was my chum. He was hit by a sniper and fell on his knees, he was a wild chap and he shouted out.
They include incidents like, “The whole house, from the front door to the living-room, &c, had been used as latrines.” (pp.281-2)
And officers deliberately wrecking an old lady’s house—“In one room they had pulled the old lady’s fine linen sheets out of the presses where they were kept in lavender, piled them in a heap on the floor, and then made water’ all over them,” (p.287),
On being told that there was no more coffee, “one of the Germans, presumably with the object of forcing Mme V… to produce more coffee, picked up the baby and dipped the top of its head into some boiling water which had been prepared and was standing on the table … I saw the infant to-day and found that its condition was quite compatible with Mme V … ’s statement, the whole of its scalp being one large scab.” The statement is signed by C.E.M., Lieut, R.A.M.C. (Royal Army Medical Corps).
If these are not factual, I don’t know what a fact feels like, and they can not be dissolved into language games, or into a game of moral equivalences.
This is neutral Belgium, in a Europe that had been at peace for four and a half decades since the Franco-Prussian war.
If British wartime propaganda, as Hitler noted in Mein Kampf, was much superior to Germany’s, it wasn’t just because the British were better liars. It was because, where Belgium was concerned, words like “barbarism” and “atrocities” were simply, factually, the right ones.
Even if something happens very rarely, the fact that it can and does happen can have a big psychological-symbolical weight. If John Wayne or Clint Eastwood deliberately shot an unaggressing woman and child in a Western—just once—our whole sense of those characters would be changed.
The Bryce Report about Belgium was not the only work on the subject by any means. Here is another.
Pierre Nothomb, The Barbarians in Belgium (English translation), Jarrold, 1915
The author has examined the findings and the materials accumulated by a blue-ribbon Belgian Committee of Inquest, of which he observes:
Scrupulous impartiality and exactitude, and a mistrust a priori of indirect testimonies were the lines on which the Commission of Inquest proceeded. It accepted nothing without ascertaining the facts and submitting the witnesses to a severe cross-examination. Its proceedings were like those af an examining magistrate who arrives at the truth by the consistence of the evidence. It employed the help of well-known legal men, who were sent to the bedsides of the wounded, and among the soldiers in the firing line, to get confirmation of facts which they were bound to have witnessed, sometimes tracking from village to village fugitive peasants, whose testimony demanded further investigation … (p.39)
He provides a chapter-by-chapter account of hostages shot, houses burned in reprisals, churches wrecked, the ancient university city of Louvain (including the library) pillaged and fired, women and children gathered into “concentration camps” (the term used), drunken rapes, casual shootings, etc., etc.
[One man] had seen his wife seized by the German soldiers, stripped naked, and then driven forward at the point of their bayonets towards the Belgian lines, who dared not fire, until at last she fell down dead at the feet of her tormentors … [Another man] stated before the Members of Inquest, that on August 16th he was forced by a German outpost to march before them with his hands up, accompanied by his daughter, whom the soldiers had stripped naked. The girl herself trembling with shame, confirmed the fact and she added: “Such awful things happened to me that I dare not tell them.” (p. 107)
The epigraph to the book is the text of a letter, dated November 1914, from a Professor Lasson, presumably German:
Germany has taught the world that it is possible to direct public affairs honestly, and to make war loyally.
Our army is, so to speak, typical of the intelligence and morality of the German people.
We have nothing to apologise for. We are not a violent people. We do good to everyone.
Our strength is the strength of intellect, and our victory that of mind over matter.
We are truthful. Our chief characteristics are humanity, kindness, honesty, and the Christian virtues. In this wicked world we represent love, and God is with us.
The book conveys the special indignation elicited by the contrast between the Germany that supposedly embodied the highest spiritual aspirations of civilized Europe and most progressive programmes of social welfare, and the horrors that had welled up when controls were relaxed—relaxed deliberately, as they would later be for the Japanese occupiers of Nanking in 1937. Relaxed in a spirit of fear and rage—rage at the unexpected resistance by the Belgian army had prevented the effortless victory envisaged by the German high command.
See also Note 48.
In 1939 Jarrold would publish James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish.
Atrocities were also reported from elsewhere. Here are two such reports.
(a) R.A. Reiss, Report Upon the Atrocities Committed by the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First Invasion of Serbia (English translation). 1916
A complaint about the Bryce Report about Belgium was that the evidence was collected from refugees in England, and rarely from individual victims of atrocities. Reiss, by his own account gathered his evidence on the ground in areas from which the Austro-Hungarian forces had withdrawn, and he identifies a lot of individual victims, or reliable sounding individuals in a position to witness what had been going on. The book reads persuasively, and what is being documented, by the sound of it, is an early-warning experience of ethnic ferocity at work not in Armenia under the Turks or, later, in Africa, but inside Europe itself, under the aegis of a culture, at least in its Viennese manifestations, thought of as particularly tolerant and civilized.
For more, see Note 56.
(b) Viscount Bryce, ed., The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-16, 1916
667 pages of text packed with largely eye-witness accounts testifying compellingly. to the atrocious mistreatment by the Turks (Germany’s ally) of the Armenian inhabitants of the large area south of the Black Sea. On the pretext of what would now be called national security, but which was more obviously ethnic hatred, hundreds of thousands are torn from their homes and herded off to physically inhospitable regions on foot or in packed cattle cars, with inadequate clothing and food, and pitiless treatment en route. The consequent deaths and numerous outright massacres, chiefly of males, result in an estimated death toll of 600,000 persons, a third of the Armenian population.
We hear occasionally of atrocious torturing, chiefly by means of the crippling bastinado, and rapes are mentioned, but the principal emphasis is on the forced evacuations—the first ethnic cleansing of its kind in the 20th century, but with eerie anticipations of what would come later under Hitler and Stalin.
It is fascinating seeing the polemics on the Web against this and other works, fuelled with the evident assumption that if a work is propaganda (that is, designed to propagate information and ideas and influence opinion), what’s said in it must necessarily be false. The subtext, at least for me, is that by analogy America today has no right to claim any moral superiority to other countries and modes of government, and no right to interfere in their operations.
Here, finally, are the two principal voices of skepticism that I mentioned earlier.
(a) Arthur Ponsonby, Falsehood in War-Time; Containing an assortment of lies circulated throughout the nations during the Great War. 1928
A pernicious little book, its toxicity increased by its having every appearance of virtuousmess and being very readable.
A leading upper-class English pacifist succinctly dissects a number of examples of wartime disinformation. The crisp certitude is that of someone who has walked the corridors of Whitehall power himself, and no doubt a good deal of what he says is true. He quotes tellingly.
But he assumes that if a quoted assertion is false, a quoted denial of it will necessarily be true, and the tenor of the book is that any claims by the Allies to moral superiority over Germany and its allies will be unwarranted. As he puts it in the concluding paragraph,
International war is a monster born of hypocrisy, fed on falsehood, fattened on humbug, kept alive by superstition, directed to the death and torture of millions, succeeding in no high purpose, degrading to humanity, endangering civilization, and bringing forth in its travail a hideous brood of strife, conflict and war, more war.
So his animus is principally against his own government and its allies for their hypocrisy. What Germany and its allies did (though he discreetly avoids bringing Turkey into it) is simply part of the common practice of war.
The effect is to redeem Germany from its pariah status, blur or (in intention) eliminate the concept of atrocities, and, by hinting at vast disjunctions between official words and deeds, encourage a cynical-sophisticated isolationism.
The drift of the book and a few of the more amusing examples in it were doubtlessly known to the young gentlemen who passed the infamous 1933 motion in the Oxford Union debating society about being under no circumstances willing to fight for King and Country.
Ponsonby’s only acknowledgment of the existence of the Bryce Report is to tell us that six, I think it was six, American journalist were with the Germans in Belgium in 1914 for two or three weeks and signed a report saying that they had noticed nothing amiss—as if (a) there wasn’t a strong isolationist and pro-German strain in American political thinking and (b) the German command mightn’t have figured out that good behaviour would be smart politics during those two or three weeks.
Apparently the best-known specimen in the book, thanks to Robert Graves having cited it in Goodbye to All That the following year, emanated from Germany and was intended satirically, showing the progressive distortion of an innocuous news item about the ringing of church bells.
(b) Harold D. Lasswell, Propaganda Technique in the World War (1 927)
An influential and very American book, in the sophistical American tradition of rhetoric-as-persuasion, rather than as truth-telling or truth-seeking. Lasswell seems to have looked at a lot of things that were written, said, or drawn with some kind of governmental impulsion and classified the various doings as techniques, without any strong concern to probe the truth or falsity of what was communicated, but with a general presumption that “Actual propaganda, wherever studied, has a large element of the fake in it.” (ch. VIII, p.206).
Hence, proffering first-person eye-witness accounts of atrocities is a “technique,” with the implication that they are fiction (but written by whom?), and assembling a lot of such narratives, as was done in the Bryce Reports about Belgium and Serbia, is also a technique, with the implication that an eminent historian is either a partner to lies or has been duped. No evidence is offered in support of those hypotheses.
The book proceeds on an implicit false syllogism wherein, “(a) some works of propaganda are untruthful; (b) X is a work of propaganda; (c) therefore X is untruthful.
The deep cynicism of the book emerges into daylight at the end:
All the voluble men of the day—writers, reporters, editors, preachers, lecturers, teachers, politicians—are drawn into the service of propaganda to amplify a master voice. All is conducted with the decorum and the trappery of intelligence, for this is a national epoch, and demands its raw meat cooked and garnished by adroit and skilfui chefs.
Propaganda is a concession to the wilfulness of the age. The bonds of personal loyalty and affection which bound a man to his chief have long since been dissolved, and the idolatry of the individual passes for the official religion of democracy. It is an atomised world in which individual whims have wider play than ever before, and it requires more strenuous exertions to co-ordinate and unify than formerly. The new antidote to wilfulness is propaganda. If the mass will be free of chains of iron, it must accept its chains of silver. If it will not love, honour and obey, it must not expect to escape seduction. (ch. VIII, pp.221-2)
The book is, in effect, a kind of How To book. When was it translated into German, I wonder? Did Hitler and Goebbels read it? Lasswell must have read Mein Kampf, the most sympathique parts of which are Hitler talking with enthusiasm and relatively unegotistically about the art and craft of propaganda.
Lasswell seems to feel that if the Germans lost the propaganda war about Belgium, it was because they weren’t skillful enough,
But in German Atrocities 1914, Horne and Kramer say flatly that if Germany failed to sway international opinion, it wasn’t, “as most Germans came to believe, because allied propaganda was more effective, but because the Allies had a better case.” (p.261)
George Orwell says somewhere that a bad effect of exaggerated atrocity stories was to induce a skepticism in the Thirties about reported current atrocities. He might also have spoken of the bad effect of simplistic anti-atrocity analyses.
I think we can see here the beginnings of a Weltanschauung in which one feels more comfortable disapproving of one’s own government than hating the doings of an alien one, because “hatred,” don’t you know? is bad.
It is so much easier to begin with the certainty that however solid-seeming the presentation of a case may look, one doesn’t need to work at following it carefully because claims to objectivity and accuracy are simply smoke-screens and everyone lies.
In an essentializing quite at odds with the supposed increase in linguistic sophistication, the question of degree—of quality and quantity—becomes largely irrelevant. Prodding someone on the shoulder during an argument is just as much (legally) an “assault” as breaking their jaw with a rubber truncheon.
I think, too, that we have here, in the subsequent dismissings, the most important disjunction thitherto between the official version of something and the actualities—in effect, the workings of a conspiracy of falsification much more serious than the barefaced PR lying on behalf of the “civilizing” mission of King Leopold’s Congo domain.
I say “more serious” because of the much greater number of European participants, the blue-ribbon credentials of some of them, and the magnitude of what was being played for, namely the winning of isolationist America to sympathy with the Allied side.
Personally I don’t believe there was such a conspiracy. And when I came upon that photo of the giant tortoise some time ago, I still liked it as a photo of a tortoise. But it would certainly be nice to be able to vanish inside yourself when you felt like it.
An hour-long TV documentary by Iain Overton (2002) compellingly argues that the much-derided report that a Canadian soldier was crucified in the Ypres Salient in 1915 was in fact true, and that the soldier in question, a sergeant, has been identified, though whether he was alive or dead when it was done appears to be uncertain.
Why is all this still important?
Partly it is a matter of “reading,” interpretation, and the nature of historiography, which begins with texts—verbal, visual, sometimes aural—and ends with the re-imagined physical doings of (it is presumed) credible consciousnesses.
When there is no smoking-gun or dripping-saber corroboration, the historian cannot, well shouldn’t, simply shrug his or her shoulders and do a “’What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate” act. Nor, when it comes to the potentials of what may still be called human nature, can he, or at least should he, arbitrarily and subjectively, which is to say without offering reasons, simply give his own preferences an outing and say, this is credible, this is isn’t, such a thing couldn’t happen.
The Devil, like God, is in the details, and by now we have had an extensive and often intimate education, where the 20th century is concerned, in what is possible and credible.The ad hoc horrors perpetrated by the street-fighting S.A., particularly in their own concentration camps before the SS took over and rationalized things, didn’t simply come out of nowhere. (For a glimpse here, see the item about Dr. Max Plaut.) Nor did the Bolshevik atrocities or the Spanish Civil War atrocities. But perhaps one should disbelieve in those too?
Our world is indeed awash in political propaganda, some of it outright lying of considerable ingenuity. I have talked about some of that lying elsewhere in these pages. It is important not to veer between an ironical distancing on the one hand and, on the other, loose talk about “innate” human wickedness. Some behaviour by individuals, in particular circumstances, whether alone or in groups, is wicked, is truly monstrous. If one is trying to predict the likely consequences of this or that course of action now, it is important to figure out as clearly as one can what events in the past have shown about what can happen.
It is what used to be called exercising one’s reason and, at times, one’s common sense.
These are not merely academic questions. The misreadings of Hitler and Nazism in the 1930s by well-intentioned pacifists and dithering opportunists resulted in millions upon millions of often atrocious deaths.
Read in full, the Bryce Committee’s disturbing and, yes, in some ways problematic report is a major 20th-century document.
To judge from a Google, John Horne and Alan Kramer’s splendid book has been producing shifts in what “everyone” knew for decades, or thought they knew, about Belgium in 1914.
I am glad to see that it won the Fraenkel Prize for Contemporary History given by the Institute of Contemporary History and the Wiener Library, London, and the 2002 Western Front Association’s Norman B. Tomlinson, Jr. Book Award for the best work in English (in that year?) on the Great War.
In Violence in the Arts (Cambridge U.P., 1973), which I call an informal poetics, I myself try to figure out some of the things that can go on in presentations of violences, and why some of them—feeling true— have charges of meaning that don’t fade.
I have now had a chance to become acquainted with Isabel V. Hull’s excellent Absolute Destruction; Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Cornell, 2005).
I can’t hope to do justice to her argument. But it appears that after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the German General Staff had developed a policy of maximum force. The object was to smash as quickly and completely as possible the enemy’s armed forces, and to require of the civilian population, while combat was going on, a condition of total peace—non-resistant, compliant collaborative. Any departure from that condition was considered an instant passage from “peace” to “war,” inviting the greatest severity in suppressing revolt. Instilling terror would shorten conflict.
We can see these principles at work in Belgium in the fall of 1914—the human shields, the execution of hostages, the destruction of buildings, the deportations of males, and so forth—principles intensified in practice by fury at the halting by Belgians in the Liege fort system—Belgians!—of the lightning advance called for by the risky Schlieffen plan.
The same principles had been atrociously deployed against the 1904 revolts by Hereros and Nambas in the German South-West African colonies, where the conflict between “peace” and “war” was sharpened by the perception of the revolutionaries as savages. Something of that conceptualizing may have extended, consciously or not, to the “disorderliness” and unreason of Belgians.
We can be sure that all this constituted a climate in which the governor, in the mechanical sense, was removed from the impulsions to more individual violences described in the Bryce Report and elsewhere.
Maybe, too, some of the soldiers now in Belgium had earlier been exterminating Hereros and Namas in Africa. Unlike the British and French, the Germans did not have a special overseas branch of the army.
Here are some of Hull’s own words:
As in the colonies, the franc-tireurs myth placed the blame for extreme troop behavior on civilians, whose alleged armed resistance placed them outside the protection of international law, indeed made them savages, as one of Germany’s newspapers of record claimed on 9 August, when it spread the already widespread tale that civilians (often women, in the stories) had mutilated or tortured German troops in a fashion rivaled only by the Herero.
The wave of systematic violence in August and September 1914 killed six thousand civilians, possibly more, and destroyed fifteen to twenty thousand buildings, including some entire villages. The allies dubbed these actions the “Belgian atrocities”… When the haze of appeasement settled over Europe in the 1920s, the “Belgian atrocities” were interred as propaganda lies until historians in the 1980s and 1990s unearthed them and found they were true. (p. 210)
A curious and surely contributory aspect of this campaign was that the bold but rickety Schlieffen plan—drive 400 miles unstoppably in ten days and seize Paris—depended partly for its success on “reserve officers and men years removed from military training.” (p.208)
Recently (fall of 2007), a contributor to the Spectator called the sources of the texts in Bryce’s The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire “unimpeachable.” He was rebuked by a letter-writer, who suggested that if he had read M.L. Sanders and Philip M. Taylor’s British Propaganda during the First World War, 1914–1917 (1982), he might have been less confident of that. I thought I’d better take a look myself.
In fact only two or three sentences in the book refer to Armenia, which doesn’t even make it into the index. But it’s clear from early on that the authors disapprove of “atrocity” stories (quotation-marks theirs) and don’t believe in the kind that I’ve talked about here.
And when they turn from interesting and persuasive descriptions of the various kinds of propaganda that the British engaged in to the contents of that propaganda, their voice is what might be called Oblique Accusatory. If something is propaganda you know already that what’s said will have been untrue, or exaggerated, or slanted, or untrustworthy in some way.
Even statements like, “From the beginning the guiding principle of Wellington House [the British propaganda center] was that propaganda should be based upon accurate information and measured argument” (p.41) and, “When an atrocity was said to have been committed on a Belgian baby and the subject was proposed as an ideal propaganda topic, [ C.F.G ] Masterman replied: ‘Find me the name of the hospital where the baby is and get a signed statement from the doctor and I’ll listen’” (p.143), come across implicitly as evidence for the Prosecution, presumably demonstrating the gap between good intentions and bad performances.
Heads I win, tails you lose.
So obviously the Armenian documents, all 603 pages of them, will be unreliable, won’t they? I mean, one doesn’t need to argue the case, does one? Or actually read through all the documents?
As for the pages given to the Bryce Report, I was glad to learn that the Committee was even more blue-ribbon than I’d realized. Sir Frederick Pollock was a distinguished jurist and constitutional historian; H.A.L. Fisher a reputable historian and vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield; and Harold Cox the editor of the Edinburgh Review. There were at least three lawyers.
But as to why the worst atrocities just couldn’t have happened, the grounds offered in a few sentences are (a) that reportedly no “undoctored” corroborative photos (children without hands? women with breasts missing?) had been found, (b) that Trevor Wilson had said that the Bryce Commission didn’t “produce a dishonest or fraudulent report in the sense that it reached conclusions which the evidence had shown to be untrue. What it did do was to avoid verifying the evidence.” (p. 144), and (c) that a Belgian commission after the war (whose report I would like to see with my own eyes) had not come up with evidence of them.
A footnote took me back (I had visited it too impatiently earlier) to James Morgan Read’s Atrocity Propaganda 1914–1919, published in the States in 1941, and tending, I would think, to discourage a still neutral America from getting embroiled in the European War. In the final paragraph we learn that “Both sides had unclean hands. Just as both sides invented atrocities tio ascribe to the enemy, so did both sides commit atrocities.” (p.286).
But it’s an impressively researched work which gives details of large numbers of obvious fictions on both sides, including the report that Germany was rendering down human corpses for soap. Some of those fictions were the creations of governmental propaganda mills, some of newspaper hype, some of word-of-mouth transmissions garbled and intensified, with isolated incidents blown up into widespread practices.
The pages devoted to Belgium and the Bryce Report may well be the most responsible critique to have appeared.
Details are provided about stories that hadn’t checked out after the war or been confirmed by American journalists in Belgium at the time, one of whom sounds very credible (p. 30). There’s also an interesting suggestion that some of the Belgian refugees were pretty scummy. It was easy to forget how, a few years earlier, the Belgium responsible for the Congo horrors and all the barefaced PR lying about them was the festering plague spot of Europe.
And we’re given the text of an intercepted letter to Germany in which the writer, “a person of some standing in the United States,” and presumably pro-German, tells how the son of a friend had been asked by a Belgian priest to mail a letter after he, the lad, had left the country. The young man reportedly opened the latter, found it contained “the most incredible tales of cruelty, outrage, and every other kind of deviltry” (p. 208), and, on asking the priest about them was told, “I know it is all untrue, but I do this for my country.”
Allegations, allegations, allegations. Personally I’d want to examine the text of the Belgian commission’s report, to see if they had explicitly excluded certain matters for consideration, or if they explicitly denied that the worst atrocities had occurred.
Since the question of German war guilt and reparations was becoming a quasi-legal one, had they decided, as in legal trials, to settle for the most solid evidence, such as the shooting of hostages, the use of human shields, and the burning of the library of the University of Louvain?
But Read isn’t denying the existence of atrocities. The second chapter opens,
Atrocities are committed in war. They are inseparably connected with the very nature of that institution. Nothing in the following pages concerning the fabrication of atrocity stories should be taken as detracting in the least from the essentially atrocious nature of war.
Nor, seemingly, were on-the-spot American journalists quite as absolute in their absolution of the Germans as it might seem. One of them, in conversation with the author, “rather strongly implied that … he believed in the reality of the atrocities,” while another opined later that only “about ten percent of the atrocities were true”(p.29), which still leaves a number of them on the board.
As early as August 7 a German publisher, safely returned to his native soil, told of mob actions in Antwerp that had cost the lives of Germans. A week later more details were disclosed: half-dead German women, children, and old men had littered the streets leading to the station, having been foiled in their attempt to escape from the enemy’s metropolis. (p.44)
It’s not hard to imagine the impact on frustrated, impatient, angry, and, with the reports of Belgian snipers at work, scared German troops of such reports and of alleged atrocities like the gouging out of the eyes of wounded German soldiers.
Revisiting the Report itself, I was reminded of what Bryce had to say about care taken in the information gathering. E.g.,
The depositions were in all cases taken down in this country by gentlemen of legal knowledge and experience, though, of course, they had no authority to administer an oath. They were instructed not to “lead” the witnesses or make any suggestions to them, and also to impress upon them the necessity for care and precision in giving their evidence.
They were also directed to treat the evidence critically, and as far as possible satisfy themselves, by putting questions which arose out of the evidence, that the witnesses were speaking the truth. They were, in fact, to cross-examine them, so far as the testimony given provided materials for cross-examination.
We have seen and conversed with many of these gentlemen, and have been greatly impressed by their ability and by what we have gathered as to the fairness of spirit which they brought to the their task. We feel certain that the instructions given have been scrupulously followed … .
The depositions printed in the Appendix show that the stories were tested in detail, and in none of these have we been able to detect the trace of any desire to “make a case” against the German army. Care was taken to impress upon the witness that the giving of evidence was a grave and serious matter, and every deposition submitted to us was signed by the witness in the presence of the examiner.” (pp. 3–4)
Something very important is going on when statements like these and others in the report are dismissed later on by practitioners of irony.
The seemingly reasonable and authoritative claims by an eminent historian and his distinguished associates are perceived as falsely rational, either because of deception by the deposition-takers in whom Bryce has put his trust, or the deception of them by the witnesses and, maybe, the Belgium government, or because of a predisposition to believe whose strength (despite his denial) he is unable to recognize, or because of a felt need to demonstrate solidarity with the war aims and rhetoric of the British government.
In effect, we have an indictment of the ethos and practices of a whole British governing class.
I remain convinced that it is up to those who consider the worst accusations a pack of fictions (aka lies) to explain in some detail how they could have come into being. I remain convinced, myself, that atrocious things occurred in Belgium during those early weeks of the war.
But even should they in fact all have been fictions, something very interesting would have happened in the mind of “civilized” Europe, namely the release into decent British daylight of an extraordinary phantasmagoria of horrors welling up from goodness knows what sources in the minds of—of whom?
At the modest prices of threepence for the Report itself and sixpence for the supporting volume, who read it? Did “decent” men try to keep it from their women-folk? Did copies circulate clandestinely in the dormitories of boys’ boarding schools? Or make it into super-patriotic school libraries? Did spirited girls get hold of it?
Was it pushed back down out of sight after the war? Was the whole subject deemed too sexually inflammatory for British adolescents? Was this why the original depositions, including ones not printed in the Report and probably even worse, mysteriously disappeared after the war?
I myself never caught a whiff of the existence of the Report during my boyhood in the Thirties and Forties. At my boarding school I had to make do with things like “The Rape of Lucrece,” The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and, of course, Darcy Glinto’s Lady—Don’t Turn Over.
- Sidebar 1. Some Orchids
- Sidebar 2. Chase and Glinto
- Sidebar 3. The Pre-trial Glintos
- Sidebar 4. Deep South Slavery
- Sidebar 5. Darcy Janson
- Sidebar 6. Rogues’ Gallery
- Sidebar 7. Kelly Brothers
- Sidebar 8. Scandal
- Sidebar 9. Westerns
- Sidebar 10. City Mid-Week
- Sidebar 11. Gangdom
- Sidebar 12. Jungle Books
- Sidebar 13. Bodily Harms