German Atrocities 1914: Fact, Fantasy or Fabrication?
John Horne looks at what lay behind allegations of brutality on both sides in the opening months of the Great War.
In August 4th, 1914, German troops invaded neutral Belgium. Within days, rumours of atrocities against civilians were rife. They followed the entire German advance through Belgium and into France, and continued (with diminishing incidence) until October 1914. The issue was picked up on each side by newspapers, cartoons and official reports, until by spring 1915, ‘atrocities’ had become a defining issue of the war. German atrocities might be explained in three ways. They happened, they were imagined to have happened, or they were invented in order to manipulate opinion. We shall look at each of these possible explanations in turn, in reverse order, looking first at atrocities as propaganda.
Before doing so, however, an ambiguity must be noted. The first atrocities reported in the invasion were allegedly committed against German soldiers by French and Belgian civilians in a war of guerrillas, or francs-tireurs. The name franc-tireur, which literally means a ‘free-shooter’, came from the Franco-Prussian war when, after the defeat of Napoleon III, French irregular troops fought for the newly proclaimed Republic by harassing the German armies. They used the term as one of approving self-description, for its deeper origins were bound up with the wars of the French Revolution. However, for the Prussian and Bavarian armies fighting against the French irregulars, franc-tireur became a term of disapproval or downright condemnation. In 1914, accounts circulating in the German army suggested that enemy francs-tireurs were ambushing German soldiers, shooting them in the back, or even poisoning, blinding and castrating them. Such stories were quickly countered by Allied tales of brutal German soldiers burning, raping, pillaging and, above all, butchering Belgian and French civilians. But any explanation of atrocities in 1914 must account for the accusations levelled by the Germans against the Allies, as well as those made by the Allies against the Germans.