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Monday, March 23, 2015

Historical Note: The Great War, Chapter 9-2

Catholic Bibliophagist asks on Chapter 9-2, "Was this based on a real incident?" I'd meant to write a historical note on this chapter, so this is a good opportunity.

The incident described in the installment is not directly based on a specific incident, but it's representative of a large number of incidents that took place during the occupation of Belgium in August 1914. There were memories in the German Army of guerrilla warfare waged against them during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, and officers were instructed to deal harshly with any attacks by un-uniformed fighters. As the German troops passed through Belgium (and to an extent Northern France, though as the troops gained experience the incidents stopped, so it was Belgium which suffered by far the most) there were frequent scares that they were being shot at.

From this remove, it's impossible to know how often these fears were justified (civilians whose country is being invaded do sometimes shoot at the invading soldiers) and how often these were simply panics with no real attack.

German units responded to these perceived attacks by searching houses, rounded up the suspected perpetrators (or at times simply rounding up hostages) and summarily executing them. Modern scholars of the period believe that roughly 5,500 Belgian civilians were executed by German forces during August and September of 1914.

On August 25th (four days after Walter's IV Reserve Corps passed through) German soldiers occupying the city of Leuven, believing that they had been shot at by civilians, went on a rampage which resulted in 248 civilians being killed, the remaining 10,000 being forcibly expelled from the town, and the town being burnt (including the destruction of the University of Leuven library, containing more than 300,000 medieval and early printed manuscripts.) Other smaller incidents occurred in many towns. In addition to summary executions of civilians, the homes of those accused of having shot at German troops were often burnt in order to serve as a lesson to others, but in my chapter I felt that confiscating the house worked better for the story.

In Sint-Truiden where I set this incident, a total of twenty Belgian civilians were killed and a number of homes burnt.

During the course of the war, the stories of these atrocities were circulated and often exaggerated. The real things that had happened were bad enough, but sensational accounts felt the need to come up with stories even more horrifying, and so newspapers were filled with claims of women being crucified, of thousands of children having their hands cut off, etc.

After the war, as it became clear how false these sensational claims were, and as post-war disillusion set in, the realization that these stories (a sort of grass roots propaganda which often originated with private journalists rather than with the government) were not true, and disgust with anything that had caused people to believe the war was worth fighting, caused many people to reject all stories of German atrocities in Belgium, true and false. However, German executions of civilians on fairly flimsy pretexts did happen to a shocking degree in the first months of the war , and is attested to in German accounts as well as in Belgian ones.

For further reading, consult:
14-18, Understanding the Great War by Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker
Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings
The Marne, 1914 by Holger Herwig
The Rape of Belgium by Larry Zuckerman

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