This is the first in a series of posts that looks at the development and dissemination of the narrative of events in Belgium through August and September 1914. Later posts will look closely at the impact of the narrative on the local community of Alberton Shire, in Gippsland.
When war commenced there was a desperate need for news. Some sense of the desperation is evident in this account taken from The Argus of 7 August 1914 (p.6). It describes the scene in Collins Street, Melbourne on the night of Thursday 6 August. The previous night – the day on which news of the British declaration of war had reached Australia – there had been ‘rowdyism’ and riots in the streets of Melbourne as people’s emotions had run out of control. As a consequence, on this night – 6 August – the police were out in force.
For a long time it looked as if they [the police] were going to have the street [Collins Street] to themselves. Suddenly a board appeared on the front of The Argus office bearing the news of the German repulse in Belgium. As if by magic a seething crowd sprang from nowhere, and in five minutes’ time Collins street was packed from kerb to kerb with a surging throng thirsting for news.
As desperate as people were for news of what was happening in Britain and Europe, the actual flow of news from that part of the world was drying up. Censorship had been introduced even before the formal declaration of war. Printed in The Argus on Wednesday 5 August (p.10), the official notice from E D Millen, Minister of State for Defence, declared that 2 days earlier, on 3 August … censorship of all cable and wireless telegraph communications throughout the Commonwealth had come into effect. In the same edition, the editor of The Argus (p.9) noted:
The strictest censorship of all cable messages, both press and private, received in and sent from the Commonwealth was exercised by the Military Authorities throughout yesterday.
This fact, taken in conjunction with others, indicates that Great Britain has become so seriously involved in the great European conflict that war with Germany, if it has not already broken out, certainly appears to be inevitable.
The establishment of censorship explains the comparative brevity of our cable messages in this edition. A considerable number of our telegrams from England have been detained by the Censor.
In addition to the limits imposed by censorship, the reality was that the military situation in Europe over the period August – September 1914, was hard to track and comprehend. Even if there had been no censorship it would have been difficult for news agencies to report accurately on what was happening. The period from early August to the aftermath of the Battle of the Marne saw massive troop movements as the armies of Germany and France, supported by the BEF and Belgian forces, attempted a rolling series of flanking and envelopment manoeuvres across vast areas. Even today, with all the history written on this period, there is still ongoing debate over interpretations of what happened. The sheer scale – and horror – of the military conflict that convulsed western Europe in the first 2-3 months of WW1, is evident in figures taken from Strachan (Chapt 3). He gives French casualties (dead, wounded, missing) to 10 September, after one month of war, as 385,00 and notes that by the end of 1914 France had lost 265,000 dead. The twenty-second of August 1914 saw the highest level of French casualties in a single day for the whole of WW1 – 27,000 dead. The equivalent figure for total German casualties to 9 September was 265,000. Casualties for the British Expeditionary Force to the end of November were 89,964 and by the same point the Belgian armed forces had been reduced by half. Casualties at these levels were unsustainable, for any army.
Strachan’s account demonstrates the size and complexity of the military operations in the first few months of the fighting. It highlights that even those directly involved – including the field and overall commanders – were often unsure of what was unfolding. Occasional news despatches, from one or other battlefield, were therefore always going to be of doubtful value, assuming in the first place that they were even passed by the censors. Impartial, accurate, meaningful and timely news was a seriously limited commodity.
It was against this background of confusion and censorship that the narrative of events that unfolded in Belgium became so powerful over the first few months of WW1. It dominated news services in the Empire and came to define the purpose and nature of the War. It was an unfolding news story with simple characterisation and plot, and it was set within the context of high principles and moral absolutes.
The narrative commenced with the declaration of war. Britain’s obligation to guarantee Belgian neutrality was presented as the pre-eminent reason for the declaration. In the edition of The Argus of 5 August (p.9) Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, was reported thus:
It has been said that we might stand aside and husband our resources, and intervene in the end to put things right, but if we ran away from our obligations of honour and interest regarding the Belgian treaty, I doubt whether any material forces would be of much value, in face of the respect that we should have lost.
Against this principled position, Germany was the blatant aggressor, prepared to invade Belgium if its ultimatum for free movement of its troops through the country was not immediately met. The developing themes in the basic narrative were simple: Germany was the aggressor; Belgium was the victim facing overwhelming Germany forces; and Britain was the reluctant but principled major power that was forced to intervene.
Once the German assault on Belgium began, another key theme was added to the narrative: Belgian heroism. Belgium’s refusal to accede to German demands and its willingness to mount uncompromising and deadly resistance to the vastly superior invading forces cast it immediately as the heroic small nation. Headlines in The Argus on 6 August (p.7) declared: Germans in Belgium. Neutrality Violated and “We Will Not Submit.” Belgians’ Cry “To Arms.” The next day, 7 August (p.7) the paper was full of stories of how the heroic Belgians had stopped the German advance. The headlines proclaimed: German Reverse. Enormous Losses Sustained. Victory for Belgians and the report claimed: The Belgian War Office announces that the German invading army has been repulsed near Liege with enormous losses. … The heroism of the Belgians is described as “superb.”
There were other reports quoted in the same edition that claimed, “The general situation in Belgium is excellent.”
The reality was that the situation in Belgium was anything but excellent and by 11 August, readers in Australia should have picked up that the plight of Belgium was dire. The headlines in The Argus that day, Germans Outside Liege and Forts Held By Belgium, were supported by claims from Brussels that the Belgians continued to hold the forts. However, the same article also reported the German version: “We hold Liege fast in our hands. The losses of the enemy are considerable.” The German forces first broke the Belgian line at Liege on 7 August but it was not until 16 August that the siege of Liege was over. It had taken the German Army far longer than the scheduled 2 days; and the siege had highlighted the heroic – but doomed – struggle of the Belgian resistance.
The next theme in the Belgian Narrative – German atrocities – also seems to have first appeared in Australian papers at this point round 11 August. The same edition of The Argus featured accounts of the punishment handed out to the civilian population when it resisted the German forces. At this point, the German reprisals were set within some sort of context. It was not random violence. For example, under the headline Prisoners in Firing Line (p.7) there was an account of how
… the Germans were fired at from windows by numbers of the inhabitants of Liege. They were all caught instantly and shot. The Germans hold the Governor of the province of Liege (Lieut-General Heimburger) and the Bishop of Liege as a hostage, and threaten them with death if the forts continue to fire. A number of railway men and 25 others were accused of firing at Germans and driven at the point of the bayonet into the firing line before the forts. Three of them were killed, and the rest, pretending that they were dead, fell and lay on the ground.
There are other reports in the same edition of how the Germans threatened severe reprisals if their troops were fired on.
Reporting that continued to acknowledge the context for German reprisals in Belgium lasted for another couple of weeks. For example, in The Argus on 24 August (p.9), under the headline Germans Fire on Civilians, readers were informed:
The position of civilians in Liege is critical. The “Daily News” correspondent at Rotterdam states that shots were fired by the troops from a house. On Thursday the Germans bombarded 20 houses, killing many inhabitants. … The “Daily Chronicle’s” Amsterdam correspondent says that the situation of the citizens of Liege is very unfavourable. A shot was fired from a house on Friday. The Germans immediately opened fire with their machine guns, destroying 20 houses, and killing the inmates, and setting fire to 10 other houses.
However, just a few days later, on 27 August, the emphasis shifted dramatically to the reporting of German ‘atrocities’. The context was no longer that important. Rather, the focus was the appalling nature and ferocity of the reprisals. Under the headline Atrocities in Belgium (p.7) the following appeared:
The Belgian Minister has published a startling statement, giving a long list of outrages committed by German troops. These are vouched for by a committee of inquiry. While Belgian troops were resisting an attack by German cavalry they killed a German officer. No civilian took part, yet the village of Linsmeau was invaded by German artillery, cavalry and machine guns, notwithstanding assurances by the burgomaster that no recently fired guns had been found. Houses were burned, and the peasants were divided into groups. Afterwards were found in ditches skulls apparently fractured by rifle butts.
By 31 August (p.10), after the destruction of Louvain, the German forces in Belgium were being described as ‘barbarous’. The headlines that day proclaimed: Barbarous Germans. Beautiful City Burnt. “An Unpardonable Act”. In the commentary was the following statement, which had been released by the British Government Press Bureau. It ran under the headline, Residents Shot:
The destruction of Louvain was an unpardonable act of barbarity and vandalism. … Louvain is miles from the real fighting. International law recognises that the only legitimate aim of war is the weakening of the enemy’s army, and the rules forbid the destruction and seizure of property not imperatively called for by military necessities. By destroying Louvain, the Germans committed a crime for which there can be no atonement. Humanity has suffered a loss which can never be repaired.
Similarly, the edition of The Argus on 2 September (p.9) featured the headlines Ruthless Germans. The Tragedy of Louvain. Dead Litter Streets. It related the eye-witness account of an Oxford undergraduate who was present at the sacking of the beautiful Belgian town of Louvain by the Germans. The eye witness described how Gutted houses were tumbling into the streets, and German soldiers were looting the ruins. … Bodies of the murdered townspeople littered the streets.
Finally, the string of headlines in The Argus of 17 September (p.9) illustrate just how dominant the theme of German barbarity in the Belgian narrative had become by this point: Germany’s Shame. The Belgian Atrocities. Fiendish Outrages Related. An Orgy of Blood. German Abomination. Civilians Slaughtered. German Atrocities. Ten Priests Murdered. Drunken Men’s Orgy. Women Stabbed. Beyond the shocking headlines, the examples of brutality highlighted in the reports left little to the imagination:
The body of a man was found with arms and legs cut off, and that of another with the legs amputated. The hands of a child, 15 years of age, were tied behind its back and then the body was torn open.
A woman was stabbed with a bayonet, petroleum was next poured over her, and she was thrown alive into her burning home. The corpse of another woman was burnt in a similar manner.
An old man was suspended by his arms from a rafter and burnt alive.
The Belgian narrative – with its themes of British integrity, Belgian heroism, and German arrogance and barbarity – dominated the metropolitan press in the large cities by the end of September. The same narrative was presented in the local paper in the Shire of Alberton, albeit in a scaled down manner.
At the start of the German invasion of Belgium the local paper presented the same confusion and false hope. On 12 August (p.2) the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative was reporting that German morale at Liege was low because of the withering Belgian fire … which mowed them down like corn. The German supply train was said to be in chaos, the troops starving and and men surrendering just to get food. In one report the Germans had been repulsed: A telegram from Brussels states that 40,000 Belgians have repulsed 43,000 Germans near Liege. But even in the same edition there were other more alarming reports: The Belgians displayed heroic courage in the defence of Liege, but they declared that they were too fatigued to repel the perpetual onsets of an overpowering number of Germans. Reporting by the end of August is far more sombre and it is clear that the German onslaught cannot be stopped. On 28 August the headline reports Heavy Belgian Losses, which a Belgian officer gives as 10,000 men.
By September the locals in the Shire of Alberton were also reading the claims about German atrocities. For example, the edition of 18 September (p.3) reported that various committees had been set up to investigate German outrages in Belgium. In terms of the atrocities themselves there were many accounts. In the same edition, locals read of how the German troops even set about the desecration of churches. The headline was Horrors in Aerschott Cathedral. Deeds by Drunken Soldiers:
The Antwerp correspondent of the “Evening News” describes horrors in the Aerschott Cathedral on the high altar, on which there were many empty wine and beer bottles. In the confessional were champagne and brandy bottles. The offertory box was stolen and replaced by beer bottles. Bottles were stuck in the pews, and everywhere were bottles and filth. The Madonnas Head and a large crucifix were burnt on the altar, brocades were slashed, pictures chopped from the frames, and a dead pig was found on one side of the chapel. This is the work of drunken German soldiery.
There was an even more sordid report in the same edition: Awful Outrage. Death of a Nurse:
On Wednesday, a daring German attack was made on Vilvorde. The Germans cut off the breast of Grace Hume, of Dumfries, a Red Cross nurse engaged in the Vilvorde hospital. The nurse died in great agony.
The reports of German brutality continued to multiply. On 23 September (p.2) there were more accounts of German perfidy and Belgian suffering under the headline, More Plundering By The Germans:
A large number of places situated at the triangle of Vilvorde, Malines and Louvain, are given over to plunder by the Germans, and partially destroyed.
The inhabitants were shot without trial, and women unable to escape were exposed to the brutal instincts of the Germans.
The Germans allege that the Belgian Government has distributed arms amongst the inhabitants; that the Catholic clergy has preached a sort of holy war; and that the women are as ferocious as the men. These are a tissue of lies.
The true extent and nature of German atrocities in Belgium from August 1914 have been the focus of historical debate for the past 100 years. There is no doubt that Belgium’s neutrality was violated, the German invasion was ruthless and the subsequent occupation of Belgium was harsh and exploitative. There were atrocities against the civilian population. Against this, many of the sensational, lurid and macabre stories – written in part to fashion public opinion in the then neutral United States – that filled newspapers at the time were fabrications. For example, the report above about the British Red Cross nurse murdered by the German soldiers was a complete fabrication. While nurse Hume was a real person, she was not in Belgium – she was living in Huddersfield – and the story had been concocted by her sister. The sister, Kate Hume, was subsequently prosecuted. The story itself had been disproved by late September 1914. Yet for the entire duration of the War similar stories about the mutilation of Belgian civilians remained common.
The Belgian narrative, in all its themes, was very powerfully presented and it was very effective in shaping people’s attitudes and beliefs. It reinforced for people the righteousness of the Imperial cause. The war had been forced on Britain and the Empire. They had been compelled to act to protect Belgian’s neutrality. Germany was the aggressor. The narrative also underscored the ideal of sacrifice: Belgium was doomed. It could never withstand the onslaught of the German forces; yet it resisted – stubbornly, forcefully and heroically. And, undeniably, Germany was a ruthless and determined enemy. Within just weeks Germany had shifted from being one of Australia’s major trading partners, and a nation recognised for its advanced technology, industrial output, training and education, arts and culture, as well as the original homeplace of so many highly successful and well-regarded immigrants – and whole communities – to a pariah state, given over to the most extreme form of militarism, that threatened the very basis of Western Civilisation.
The locals, like people all across Australia, were deeply affected by the Belgian narrative and enthusiastically supported major relief programs for Belgium. By the end of September advertisements were appearing for all kinds of activities. As an example, the local paper of 30 September (p.3) advertised a Handkerchief Afternoon Tea to be held at Aylesbury, Yarram on 7 October, with proceeds to the Belgium Fund. Everyone was cordially invited and admission was handkerchiefs for wounded soldiers. All such sympathy, support and fund raising became an extension to the Belgian narrative. A later post will show the practical effects in the local community of the outpouring of sympathy for the poor, oppressed people of Belgium.
Strachan, H 2001, The First World War. Vol1. To Arms, Oxford University press
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
For those interested in following up pictorial depictions employed at the time, the cartoons by Louis Raemaekers on the invasion and occupation of Belgium are available on Project Gutenberg. See:
Cammaerts, E 1917, Through the Iron Bars: Two years of German occupation in Belgium