Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

How the Germans Made War

When the long gray-green column of German troops approached Brussels, with bands playing and flags flying, they entered the city with the famous goose-step, as if on parade. Their object was to impress the Belgians with the discipline and strength of the German army. But as they proceeded down the gay streets in the beautiful sunshine, the Belgians saw, strapped to the stirrups of two cavalry men, two Belgian officers, their arms bound behind them, their hands handcuffed and chained, dragged hither and thither as the horses jumped and stamped. It was in this way that the conquerors of old, in Egypt, in Greece, and in Rome, in the days when there were really  barbarians, used to lead their captives in triumphal procession. Here was Belgium, in chains, dragged at the stirrup of her conqueror!

On the street-curbing in the main square of Brussels stood a lame hawker with a tray of flowers which it was his custom to sell to the passers-by. In his eagerness to make sales on this day, when there were so many in the streets, he stepped from the curb into the street and offered a flower to an officer riding by on horseback. Without changing a muscle in his face, the officer spurred his horse and rode over him, pitching the poor lame man into the gutter and scattering his flowers over the street. "Let no Belgian so much as lift his hand towards a German soldier!" was the lesson which the Germans meant the Belgian nation to learn.

Another incident showing how the Germans made war occurred in the triumphal entry of the long column into Antwerp. On they came, toiling infantry, clattering cavalry, rumbling artillery, regiments, divisions, one after another for hours at a time; and, in the rear of more than one division, came a great carriage, stolen from some Belgian, drawn by splendid horses, and filled, not with officers, nor yet with guns, but with bottles of champagne and violins! The Germans were conquerors,—and should they not feast? They were victors,—should they not drink and be merry? The Belgians should know that they were to celebrate the conquest of Belgium.

Let us follow the German army in its march upon Paris. They came to the little village of Aershot; they found thirty Belgian soldiers there; they led them out of the town and, without trial or investigation, shot them. Those who were not killed outright were kicked to death or brained with the butts of the soldiers' rifles. In the public square, while the Germans were completing their arrangements for the occupation of the town, a shot was heard. Immediately the Germans fell into a panic and began to shoot at random into the various houses. Then, by order of the officers, all the people who could be found were brought out of the houses into the streets; every third person in the line was taken out, marched beyond the village, and shot. The remainder were compelled to dig a ditch to bury the bodies. One hundred and fifty were killed; nearly four hundred houses were burned. The Germans marched out, eventually, over pavements spattered with blood and littered with broken wine bottles.

German Solder in French Home


Here is a description of an action against the French, written by a German officer: "By leaps and bounds we got across the clearing. They were here, there, and everywhere, hidden in the thicket. Now it is down with the enemy! and we will give them no quarter. . . . We knock down or bayonet the wounded, for we know that those scoundrels fire at our backs when we have gone by. There was a Frenchman there stretched out, full length, face down, pretending to be dead. A kick from a strong fusilier soon taught him that we were there. Turning round he asked for quarter, but we answered: 'Is that the way your tools work, you—,' and he was nailed to the ground. Close to me I heard odd, cracking sounds. They were blows from a gun on the bald head of a Frenchman which a private of the 154th was dealing out vigorously; he was wisely using a French gun so as not to break his own. Tender-hearted souls are so kind to the French wounded that they finish them with a bullet, but others give them as many thrusts and blows as they can."

The Germans came to the wonderful city of Louvain. Beautiful old wooden houses lined its streets, in its great square stood a wonderful construction, the Town Hall, built by the magic of deft hands in the Middle Ages. There was a University, famed for the beauty of its buildings, for the learning of its professors, the splendor of its library. The Germans entered and took possession. Not long after, in some way,—the Belgians say by the carelessness of some German soldier,—a gun was discharged. At once the cry arose, "The Belgians are shooting, they are firing on Germans"; and, as usual in such cases, the German troops in the city fell into a terrible panic. Machine guns were placed so as to rake the streets, and every one who ventured out of the houses was shot down.

It was evening, and presently a red glare and a great volume of smoke showed that the Germans had fired the town. Doors were broken in with the butts of rifles, the people dragged into the street, and shot. One old man captured by a German was being conducted as prisoner and could not run fast enough to suit his captor. Prodded on with the sharp bayonet, presently he stumbled and fell; without hesitating, the soldier ran his bayonet through the body and hurried on, leaving him lying in a pool of blood. In some cases, the people were thrust back by the German soldiers into their own burning houses, from which they were seeking to escape.

Presently, their first panic of fear over, the soldiers began to loot the homes, hunting everywhere for wine, and becoming, of course, extremely drunk. They decked themselves in women's clothes, in curtains torn from the windows, in table-covers snatched from parlor tables. When some band of these drunken men would approach the house of some wealthy Belgian, which had not yet been sacked, one would call out, "There was firing from here," and they would all then burst out into tremendous guffaws of drunken laughter. The officers stood on the street corners, roared with laughter at this splendid joke, and calmly watched the men tear the house to pieces and pitch the property of the Belgians into the street.

In many cases, the Belgians with whom the Germans were offended were packed on cattle trucks or open flat-cars as close as they could stand and shipped into Germany. They were given no food and no water, had no chance to sleep, and, if they made the slightest complaint, were likely to be shot or bayoneted. As they passed through German towns, the train would be drawn up in the railroad station to allow the German women and children the pleasing spectacle of the Belgians who had resisted the Germans and who had been consequently punished for it. The women reviled them, called them bad names, cursed them, and very often spat in their faces. One Belgian priest, a remarkably holy man, was repeatedly slapped and buffeted.

The German officers were quartered during the nights in the finest houses of the Belgians, and later of the French, dining in the evening in the most splendid rooms of these houses, many of which were historic buildings occupied in the past by princes and even by kings. Their furniture was a priceless relic of past civilization, and the ornaments and tableware were heirlooms. Almost invariably after the dinner was over, the German officers became drunk, broke all the mirrors and windows by throwing bottles around; stamped the seats out of the chairs, cut the curtains to ribbons with their swords, and broke the crockery on the table. That the owner should have no doubt that it was done intentionally, the pile of fragments was neatly collected at each man's place; the lighted end of his cigar was allowed to burn holes through the table-cloth into the mahogany beneath, and the officer's visiting card was placed on top of the broken china.

This was "The Day" which the Germans had so often toasted. This was their method of celebrating its arrival. The greatest generals—and even the Crown Prince himself were not above this sort of practice, and each commonly sent off every morning to Germany a great wagonload of pictures, statuary, and china which they coveted and therefore did not allow the officers to smash. Again, that there might be no doubt as to the purpose of this vandalism, the general wrote his name on the wall on the spot which the picture had covered.

It is not difficult to understand the looting of the homes of the wealthy, filled with precious heirlooms, but it is hard to see why the German troops should have looted so many of the little school-houses in Belgium and France. What pleasure did they receive from smashing the wooden desks at which children of six and eight had been sitting, of breaking the flower pots in the windows, tearing the blackboards from the wall, pouring ink over the books, and scattering the chalk on the floor and tramping on it? That was no mere purposeless raging, nor a readiness and desire to destroy. They meant to leave nothing behind that would be useful.

There were thousands of such incidents; hundreds of towns burned to the ground; thousands of people slain in cold blood or tortured to death. Hundreds of women killed without reason; hundreds of little children destroyed for, so far as we can see, the offense of getting in the way of some German soldier. Did you ever see a dog killing a kitten? It was so that the German army dealt with Belgium and northern France.

There was, in France, a great city in which stood one of the most wonderful of the great cathedrals, built during the Middle Ages with a skill which men no longer possess. The Cathedral at Rheims was one of the most remarkable of its kind. It had been the scene of the coronation of many French kings. There Joan of Arc knelt before her king whom she had at last crowned. There his successors had been anointed. Hardly a detail of the great building but was admitted by architects to be extraordinary. It was one of the greatest legacies of the past.

After the trench line had been established, the great Cathedral stood in sight of the German lines and within range of their guns. They declared that they saw French artillery officers, with their glasses, on the towers of the Cathedral, using it as a station from which to direct the fire of the French guns. To the Germans, this justified the destruction of the great building by shell fire. There were no French officers on the Cathedral. The greatest care was exercised by the French because they were particularly anxious not to give the Germans any excuse for injuring it. Certainly, after the first two or three bombardments, even the Germans must have known that the French were not using it, and yet shell after shell was thrown into the great building, until it was set on fire, the magnificent wooden roof burned, the windows destroyed, statues demolished, much of the delicate stonework thrown to the ground, and nothing more than a mere skeleton left to show the frightfulness of German methods.

On the first day of the bombardment of the city, when it was not yet clear that the Germans would fire on the Cathedral, the French carried into the building a great number of wounded German soldiers whom they wished to shield from the frenzy of the mob of French citizens who wished to take vengeance upon them for the sort of deeds just described. The mob was about to attack the French soldiers defending the church when the German shells began to fall upon it. Above the crash of the roof, the broken glass, the fall of statues, and the distant thunder of the German artillery, came suddenly the voice of a French priest standing on the steps of the building. "Stop," he said to the mob; "remember the ancient ways and chivalry of France! It is not Frenchmen who trample on the maimed and fallen foe! Let is not descend to the level of our enemies."

The French were different from the Germans. They did not burst into the Cathedral and slay the German wounded; they could not do to the Germans what had been done to their own loved ones. Most of the wounded Germans were carried amidst the flying stone and fragments of shell from the burning building to a place of safety, but a good many of them were slain, while they lay on the floor, by the falling stones and by the German shells. And there is to-day upon the pavement of that great church, and there will be as long as the ruins stand for men to see, a great dark stain—the burnt blood of the German wounded, slain by the barbarism of their own countrymen who fired upon the church to which these wounded had been taken as a place certainly safe. That great splotch will remain to subsequent generations as a stain upon German honor that will not be washed out, a permanent reminder of the way in which the Germans made war.

But it must not be supposed for a moment that such deeds as these were isolated instances or due merely to drunken soldiers. They were the execution of a set policy. It is that which makes them so frightful. They were systematically committed by the men under the orders of the officers. They were repeatedly done at the suggestion of the officers, though without their orders; constantly done before officers who made no attempt to stop them. The dreadful purpose of these atrocities was to terrify the French and Belgian people so that neither would dare to continue the war against Germany. The French government published after the armistice a letter written by the Kaiser, William II, with his own hand to his ally, the Emperor of Austria, early in August, 1914. "My soul is rent, but everything must be put to fire and sword, the men and women, old people and children slain, nothing must be left standing, neither houses nor trees. With such methods of terrorism, the only means of striking at a race as degenerate as the French people are, the war will finish in two months or earlier, whereas, if I consider humanitarian principles, it may drag on for many years. In spite of my repugnance, I have therefore been compelled to adopt the former system, which will, notwithstanding appearances, prevent such bloodshed . . ."

When it became clear that the French would not thus be frightened, the atrocities were continued to terrify the majority of people in Belgium and in northern France into working for the Germans. They could till the ground and raise food for German soldiers. They could work in factories and make things German soldiers needed. They could be sent to Germany and work in the fields and factories there. They must help the Germans carry on the war. They refused. They preferred to die.

A third purpose, more terrible than either of these, was the German intention to kill so many Belgians, French, and Poles in Poland, where this same terrorism was used, that the Belgian and Polish nations would be destroyed, and the French so weakened that when the war was over no resistance to Germany would ever be possible. There is no doubt of these facts; we have the German War manuals describing this and positively ordering it. We have the original orders of the German generals; we know from witnesses that the officers carried them out; we have diaries found upon dead German soldiers on the battlefield, telling why they committed such deeds. These methods of making war were adopted by the Germans consciously; they were not the disorderly conduct of a few men of whom their officers had lost control.



If it had not been for the immediate assistance of the American people, organized by Herbert Hoover through the American Committee for the Relief of Belgium, for the work of the American Red Cross and other organizations in northern France, for the most part within the German lines, it is probable that there would to-day be few left of the Belgian people. When these dreadful facts became clear at the outset of the war, the American nation demanded the privilege of saving the Belgians, and the Germans, bad as they were, could not in decency refuse, although they did what they could to obstruct the work of the Committee. America fed Belgium through the war; it clothed the Belgians; and of that fact we have every right to be proud. In a sense, it made the United States a participant in the war from the beginning.