Category Archives: Belgium

25. The Belgian Narrative. Part 2: The Shire responds

A previous post (15. The Belgian Narrative. Part 1: to the end of September 1914) looked at the development of the Belgian Narrative in the opening months of the War. This narrative placed Germany as the unprincipled aggressor prepared to crush any nation that stood in its way, and Belgium as the heroic but doomed small nation upholding its rights as an independent state. In the same narrative, Britain and the Empire, as defenders of Belgium’s neutrality, were drawn, reluctantly, into war in Europe against the military tyrant. Belgium’s heroic and fierce resistance had slowed the German plans for the conquest of France and brought precious time for the Allies. The resistance of the Belgians also brought out all the latent savagery and barbarism of the German nation and the world press was full of stories of German outrages and atrocities against the civilian population.

The Belgian Narrative summarised the origins of the War in essential elements for patriotic Australians – the resolute Empire, the beastly Hun and the heroic Belgians – and through to the end of April 1915 it dominated Australian reporting of the War.

This post examines how the story of Belgium was presented in the Shire of Alberton and what the locals did by way of support for the cause.

Post 15 concluded with an advertisement for a Handkerchief Afternoon Tea to be held in Yarram on 7 October 1914, with the proceeds to go towards Belgian relief. Admission to the fund raiser was by handkerchiefs for wounded soldiers. The following is an account, taken from the South Gippsland Chronicle of 9 October 1914, of this particular fund raiser. The headline was Patriotic Garden Fete.

The residence of Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Fleming, of Yarram, presented a very pretty appearance Wednesday evening last, when a garden fete was held to collect money and kind for the Red Cross Society. … The residence and grounds were adorned with flags and bunting, emblematic of the British Dominions and allied forces. … A large number of the residents of Yarram and district were present and all expressed themselves freely of the splendid work of the host and hostess. … Refreshments of a very sumptuous nature were provided. Withal, the visitors were attended to in a right royal fashion, and all enjoyed themselves immensely.
As a means of collecting funds games were carried on and charges made. Croquet, putting and rifle shooting were all well patronised, and the competitions were interesting and keen. …
Altogether, gifts of 363 handkerchiefs, 36 tea-bags and 5 bandages were received, which is very commendable. The Hostess (Mrs. J. W. Fleming) requests us specially to make mention of W. G. Growse, of handkerchiefs, tea-bags and bandages. For all other donors thanks are also tendered.
The amount collected per medium of the various games amounted to £2 10s. … This amount will, we understand, be given to the Belgian Fund.

James Weir Fleming was a ‘manager’ of Yarram. He was an executive member of the local branch of the People’s Party (Liberal), a member of the board of management for the local Presbyterian Church and he would in time become a member of the local Recruiting Committee. William Charles Growse was a local merchant who ran one of the main emporiums (Growse’s Leading Stores) in Yarram.

The newspaper account of the fundraiser suggests an almost surreal disconnect between faraway Yarram and the suffering in Belgium. At the same time, there was an ongoing attempt by the local press to drive home just how dire the true situation in Belgium was and how Germany was such a ruthless enemy. In an editorial at Christmas that year, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (Wednesday, 23/12/1914) claimed:

For fifteen years past the cult of brutality has been preached as the German spirit in the army, on political platforms and in the University. Brutality with the German nation has become a disease; all virtue has clean gone at the will of a military despot, who has demoralised his people with the one thought of gaining power by brute force.

Germany was held totally responsible for the War, the cause of which was … Germany’s attempted self-aggrandisement at the expense of her more peaceful neighbours. In the process of ruthless conquest, she had turned her back on Christian principles, as shown so forcefully in her invasion of Belgium:

The guiding principle of “do unto others as you would that they should do to you” has had no place in the hearts of the German leaders, otherwise the peace-loving Belgians would not have had their neutrality violated, because they resisted the depredations of a burglar nation. They were ruthlessly murdered – men, women and children. What is Christmas for the brave little Belgian nation today? A desolate country, with the pall of death spread over their fair land, for daring to intercept the march of a foe intent on battle.

By the end of February 1914, support for Belgium had shifted away from the occasional fete to a more sustained and organised contribution scheme. It was run under the slogan of Bread for the Belgians. The local paper, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, was one of the the driving forces for the campaign. In the edition of Friday 26 February 1915 there was an article under the headline Bread for the Belgians. Appeal to Gippsland. It started by setting a grim scene,

In Brussels over 200,000 people every day wait in the snow for their bread. In Liege, where for 6 months the bravery of a small nation altered the whole complexion of the greatest war in history, 30,000 old men, women, children and cripples daily line up to get their half pound of bread and litre of soup, which alone enables them to live. Babies and children are barely kept alive for want of milk.

The paper reminded its readers of the debt owed to the Belgians – We in Australia have been asked to help these most deserving people, to whom we owe our liberty today – and listed in detail all contributions, both in cash and kind, that had been received. The paper called for the setting up of a committee to manage the appeal.

In the same edition, the editor had organised for a letter from the Reverend F Tamagno (Presbyterian) to appear in support of the contribution scheme. The Rev Tamagno would become another key player in the local Recruiting Committee. The letter itself stands as something of a classic account of the Belgian Narrative.

I am sure that the appeal to loyal Australians, from Belgium, will be generously responded to. Surely the faintest hearted Australian can now see that little heroic Belgium gave Britain and France time to gather their forces together and meet the nation of “kultur”. There is no doubt that had Belgium assented to Germany’s diabolic demand, to march through her country unmolested, then France would have been the awful sufferer, and most probably Britain would have been seriously hampered from getting her transports quickly into France. Can we who know very little of indescribable agony and want shut our ears to the bleeding nation of Belgium? Will we not prove our intense admiration of the Belgian people by giving month after month a few shillings each to sustain starving men, women, children and babies? Sacrifice! we know not the meaning of the word. Let us do immediately and constantly something practical, which is the beginning of sacrifice. God forbid that, through our indifference, millions of Belgians should continue to suffer and starve, when it is in our power to relieve them, hearten them, and give to their succeeding generations the sweet consciousness of a nation’s heroism. I suggest that all who can will contribute, month by month, towards the fund you have opened in your columns. Every man, woman and child among us ought to keep on doing a little regularly, until either Belgium gains her freedom, or the devilish foe is forced out – baggage and body. I enclose 5s, and I shall continue to do so month by month, until heroic Belgium breathes yet once again the air of peace, hope and love.

The appeal was for locals to contribute a fixed amount on an ongoing basis. There were more letters in the next edition (3 March 1915), together with lists of more donors – now nearing one hundred – and a breakdown of their individual donations. The total raised stood at £176. The letter by Ben Percival Johnson – a well-known lawyer in Yarram who would become heavily involved in key patriotic associations, including the Recruiting Committee – also laboured the idea of the debt owed to Belgian for holding up the German advance. He argued that the Belgians … could easily have protested against the German invasion and then let the invaders through. The result would have been the loss of many more lives, the infliction of much more suffering and sorrow, and the expenditure of millions more in money by the people of Great Britain and her colonies, that is us. France would have, for the time being, crushed; Paris and Calais would have fallen, and, perhaps, Britain invaded, for our army was too small to offer any serious resistance to the hordes of trained Germans. Belgium saved all this, and their pathetic appeal should meet with the most generous response.

Future editions kept up the appeal for Belgium with the growing list of donors being published. The practice created a type of honour board of patriotic citizens. A formal fund-raising committee was duly formed and it included clergy from all faiths, including Fr Sterling (Catholic), Rev Tamagno (Presbyterian), Rev G Cox (Church of England). At this point there was very much a combined religious front to the War, and both France and Belgium, the 2 nations suffering most at the hands of the German invaders, were Catholic. Another key committee member was A J Rossiter, the editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. The first meeting of the committee closed with everyone there singing a verse of the National Anthem. The grand total continued to grow. At the start of March 1915 it was £257. The committee stressed that the fund was not a case of charity, rather it was about repaying a debt owed to the Belgians. But not everyone was as committed as the members of the committee and the conviction that people had to be made aware of their responsibilities – set to become one of the most critical political themes of WW1 – was there from the start. Rev. Tamagno wrote in the paper (23/3/15), The people must bear in mind that there were 7,000,000 Belgians to be fed. Some people seemed quite unconcerned, but they must be woke from their slumbering, and be induced to give in large or small sums. By the end of May the total was £716. The Shire’s efforts were being mirrored all over Victoria and the nation as a whole, and across the Empire. Newspapers throughout Australia over the first half of 1915 featured countless articles on funds being raised for Belgian relief. As a quick comparison with the Shire’s efforts, articles in The Argus gave Ballarat’s total to early May (12/5/15, p. 10) as £1,350 and Broken Hill’s to the middle of June (18/6/15, p. 4) as £2,625. The funds were distributed by the American based Commission for Relief in Belgium, whose chief executive – and future US president – Herbert Hoover, had been recently involved in the mining industry in Australia.

Evidence of just how pervasive the preoccupation with Belgium was in the first year of the War can come from the most unlikely places. For example, in March 1915 a new football club was formed in Yarram. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (31/3/15) reported that an attempt was made to call the team the ‘Yarram Imperials’ but this rather patriotic title lost out to the far more specific ‘Yarram Fire Brigade Football Club’. However, on the issue of colours, patriotism did win out: The colours were under discussion, when a smart looking guernsey was placed on the table, red and yellow. It was suggested that the letters be black, so that the players would bear the Belgian colours. This, of course, appealed to the patriotism of all present, and these colours were adopted amidst applause.

From late April 1915, reports of events unfolding in the Dardenelles would come to dominate Australian reporting of the War but even as the focus shifted to the experiences of Australia’s own soldiers, the plight of the Belgians was still being written about. The following account is of a fund-raising concert held at Kjergaard at the end of April 1915. It was published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 7 May 1915.

Friday night, 30th ult., was fixed for a Belgian benefit, and the elements being propitious, people flocked to Kjergaard from miles around. … Enthusiasm had been aroused in the good cause. Some people thoughtfully brought “live” produce, one of the number, an Aylesbury duck, being very much alive during the concert. It had been deposited on the stage, and much merriment was created at intervals when it showed its appreciation of a song by a pronounced “quack quack”. …
The chairman called on Mr. N. J. Cook, head teacher of the Blackwarry State School to address the gathering. Mr. Cook referred to the appeal to help the brave little Belgium nation, which had been trampled upon by a relentless foe, and was now in deep distress – an appeal that would not be made in vain. Germany expected to have got to Paris, and would not have been disappointed had she not been held fast at Liege and Namur. They all had admiration for the brave Belgium nation.

Total receipts for the night came to some £18, and the duck in question – clearly a key player in the night’s entertainment – fetched the princely sum of £1/1/6. After the speeches and auction, the hall was cleared for supper and dancing. The purpose of the night was serious but it was also a an opportunity for the community to come together and socialise.

Late in May 1915, (Gippsland Strandard and Alberton Shire Representative, 26 May 1915) Alberton Shire received its share of 1,100 ‘Belgian Buttons’ to sell. They were 1s each and were sold from a number of businesses in Yarram. The slogan that went with the buttons was, “Be a Briton! and buy a button for a ‘bob’ to buy bread for the Belgians!” The ambitious plan was to sell one to every adult in Australia (2.7M). Like the lists of donors which was published regularly in the local press, the buttons were a means of identifying those in the local community who were serious about supporting the Belgians. Tellingly, the buttons came with a new measure of patriotic commitment: There are two kinds, one for those who have father, husband, son or brother at the front, and these have white circle round the edge; the other kind is for those who have no near relative at the front. The design of the buttons is a tangible illustration of how the Belgian Narrative became a test of commitment to the Empire and the War. The Belgian Narrative was always more than any simple or even heartfelt account of the terrible fate of Belgium. It became a test of commitment.

Finally, to emphasise the extent to which the Belgian Narrative was both interpreted and presented within Christian teaching – it served as a modern parable – consider the following poem written by J. C. D of Welshpool, which appeared in the Gippsland Strandard and Alberton Shire Representative on 14 April 1915. Little of the poem’ s intent or style strikes accord with modern sensibilities, but it does demonstrate how for some – or many – the War had to be seen as some expression of divine purpose, where both the generic call to arms, and the more immediate appeal for Belgium, were divinely sanctioned.

Pity for Belgium

Pity for Belgium! Yes, and all beside
Who suffer in the world, this Easter tide
Grant us, O Lord, the power to realise,
Not only for our friends, but for ourselves,
In England and in Honor’s name,
The shame
That lies in loyal lips and cringing hearts,
The pity of infamy we dig, forsooth,
With prudent hands – While o’er ensanguined hands
Hurtle the portents of colossal war.
The thorn-besprinkled path illuminate!
Our stricken souls with avarice and fear
Are blind to that imperial sacrifice,
That quickens in the hearts of dullest men
In crises and abysses of alarm.
On the cold hearthstone of our pampered lives
Lay Thou the fuel of compassion, now
The miraculous spark with power endow,
To kindle and consume, but not expire.
Pity for Belgium! Yes, and all beside
Who suffer in the world at Easter tide,
The bread and wine ye give will Christ restore
With power growing ever to give more.


South Gippsland Chronicle

Gippsland Strandard and Alberton Shire Representative

The Argus

15. The Belgian Narrative. Part 1: to the end of September 1914

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

The Argus

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

Raemaekers’ Cartoon History of the War. Volume 1: The First Twelve Months of War