‘Certain severities are indispensable in war, nay, more, the only true humanity very often lies in a ruthless application of them.’
In 1917 two books, entitled ‘The Retreat from Mons’ & ‘The Marne and After’, written by a major in the R.F.A., were published in Great Britain. It so happens that a few days ago, I decided it was time to re-read both – it had been a long time – and by pure coincidence came across the two short passages, quoted verbatim (including punctuation) in this post, that relate two instances of German atrocities on the civilian population of Belgium & France early in the war – considerably earlier, in fact, than the event I wrote about last post.
The utterly insane opening sentence to this post is taken from ‘The Usages of War on Land’, issued by the General Staff of the German Army in 1914, and referred to in the text that follows, and available as a free PDF if you search for it – or, failing that, if you ask me nicely. The image below appeared in ‘Life’ in July 1915.
“A regiment of German Dragoons had pushed its way south through the little village of Moncel after the retreating British. Now had come the inexplicable order to abandon the pursuit and return the way they had come. It was not the best of tempers that the dragoons clattered once again down the village street, for the cursed English cavalry had been leading them a rare dance all the afternoon, and the experience had not been a pleasant one. “Captain Schniff with a squadron will hold the village till further orders,” the colonel commanded as he took the remainder of the regiment with him on the northern road. The captain did not feel too happy about the position, and thought once or twice of telephoning to headquarters for a couple of maxims. However, deciding to make the best of it, he turned his attention to instilling a little wholesome respect for “Kultur” into the villagers. Unfortunately, his class was likely to be a small one, for everybody had fled with the exception of three old women, two girls, two old men and four or five children. Nothing daunted, he and his men set to work upon the principles officially laid down by his Government*, with the gratifying result that before nightfall the two old men had both been shot for trying to defend their womenfolk from insult; one girl had been outraged and had escaped somewhere after shooting the man with his own carbine, and the remainder had been reduced to a state of mental and physical paralysis.”
*”The Usages of War on Land”, translated by J. H. Morgan.
“It was along the line of the Grand Morin river that the town of Coulommiers through Rebais and so beyond La Ferte that our men made their first acquaintance with German “Kultur”. There had been a few isolated instances during the Retreat, symptoms of Hun brutality which had for the moment stricken with horror the unit immediately concerned. But now the troops suddenly crossed the threshold of a new world: a world which revealed as in a blinding lightning-flash not merely the wanton excesses and unbridled licence of an invading army, but the unspeakable depravity of a nation.
Remember that at this time the war was barely a month old. The civilised world had not yet learned of the crimes committed in Belgium; the Lusitania had not been sunk, the ghastly story of Wittenberg camp was yet to come. Even the rumour about Dinant, Termonde and Louvain had barely reached the Army in the field, nor indeed was it credited. I mention these facts to suggest more clearly how unprepared the men must have been for the sights they now witnessed.
The little town of Rebais was the first. There were about two streets of houses still standing, the remainder was merely a ruin. When the first British troops entered after driving out the enemy it was imagined that the town was quite deserted. But after diligent search a few old men and half-crazy women were discovered in cellars and basements. A corporal and a couple of men got into one shop, and in the back room found two young girls. They were trying to climb up the blank wall, legs and arms outstretched, as though they were flies. At the entrance of the men they merely glanced over their shoulders and laughed – a laugh which sent a shudder through the veins. When the corporal touched them they turned round, crouched on the ground and fawned upon him like puppies. In a cot close by lay the body of a tiny child.
Rebais, too, was the scene of one of the most extraordinary cases of sexual perversion on the part of some Germans ever recorded. I cannot possibly set down the story here; besides, it has already been published.* But it may be remarked in passing that one of the outstanding features of Hun “Kultur” as exhibited in Belgium and Northern France, has been a glut of such obscene and bestial acts as can only be detailed between the covers of a book of medical science as instances of mental and physical depravity.
*”German Atrocities” by J. H. Morgan, late Home Office Commissioner with the B.E.F. (www.gutenberg.org has this online for your reading pleasure – except it won’t be).
From this line of country northward to the Aisne the Huns had left behind them one long track of foul deeds and desolation; a memory which nothing will efface from the heart of the French people till France is no more a nation. Some few places escaped in great measure, but there was not one which did not bear some traces of that trail of slime.”
The children of Rebais, pre-war.
The children of Rebais post-war. Rebais war memorial photographed in 1924; the names of two women can be found on the Roll of Honour. The photographs of Rebais in this post were all taken circa 1907-1910. Little did they know……