Ch 1: The Belgian Prelude

The last days of July 1914, found the industrious population of Belgium untroubled by rumour of war. The country people were concerned chiefly with plans for their summer Kermesses. Suddenly a commotion arose in every town and village. From Brussels came the curt order for the mobilisation of the army. The surprised mayors pasted up the telegrams. Officers hurried into the busy factories: "Report yourselves."
   The newspapers had told the public that Austria had declared war on far-off Serbia, but what had that to do with prosperous and contented Belgium? They now heard that Germany had sent an ultimatum ordering Russia to demobilise. But, again, how was that their affair in Flanders, where everybody was busily maintaining the industries which made their trade balance, proportioned per capita, the greatest in the world? Only a few policemen, on the next Sunday night, saw an automobile dash across country, breaking every speed limit, regardless of challenges. A Belgian employed on the railroad had overheard specific train orders in Cologne and historic legend had repeated itself in modern fashion. First by train, then by electric car, and finally by automobile, he had dashed through the night to get the tidings to the capital. That was why a party of army engineers came next morning to the bridge across the Meuse at Vise and drove away the children who had gathered to watch them. Eight German armies were preparing to attack France and strong forces were assembling to reach Belgium at sunrise.
   Since 1831 the preservation of the neutrality of Belgium had been the sworn gospel of Europe. During the War of 1870, Germany expressed to England the fear that France might violate this neutrality, and Gladstone, supported by Disraeli, declared that such a step would range Great Britain as an ally of Prussia. Also a section of the Hague convention, ratified by Germany, reads; "The Fact of a Power resisting by force an attempt to violate its neutrality cannot be regarded as a hostile act."
   On the evening of Sunday, August 2nd, Germany sent a twelve-hour ultimatum, generous in tone if accepted, demanding that Belgium forget her sacred obligations and allow free passage for armies to invade France. Without hesitation the young ruler of this most democratic of kingdoms voiced the will of his people in refusal. He had only the summer Sunday night to gather his parliament from country and sea shore, to ratify the dignified refusal of the note written by Mr. Davignon. Before daylight the messenger had reached the Palace with news that the Germans were moving. As the legislators assembled, it was 7 am. and German troops started over the border. Every bell rang out the news.
   The Meuse forms a natural defence to Belgium on a line extending from the French frontier near Givet, whence it flows north to Namur, roughly eastward through Huy to Liege, then north again to Holland. Between Liege and Namur the river parallels the direct road and rail between Berlin and Paris, which run through the military base at Cologne via Aix-la-Chapelle across Belgium to France, and thence via Maubeuge and St. Quentin to Paris. To discourage the use of this natural line of invasion across her territory by either France or Germany, strong fortifications had been erected by Belgium, at Namur and Liege. Namur closed the gate to France; Liege closed the portal to Germany. On the main roads from Germany to the heart of Belgium there were no fortifications.
   To avoid the fortified line on the Franco-German border and to strike decisive blows before France had time to mobilise, the German General Staff planned to hurl five armies across neutral Belgium and Luxemburg at points where the French frontier was practically unfortified. Fully prepared, they gave Belgium nominal notice of one night, and instantly started their columns over the frontier. Liege was the first obstacle, and strong advance forces of the Second Army moved forward on the roads converging there, through Venders, Dolhain, Francorchamps and Stavelot. An army corps forced its way through Luxemburg, seizing the railroads of the Grand Duchy, opening the way for the Fourth and Fifth Armies, and sending a detached column north by rail through Trois Vierges (Faith, Hope and Charity) to ravish the undefended districts of southeast Belgium.
   Belgian resistance was not taken seriously; the army was small, untried and scattered. A swift blow, therefore, was aimed by the First German Army from Aix-la-Chapelle at the nearest point, the Vise bridge, where troops could pour unhampered across the Meuse, isolate and attack General Leman and the Third Division of the Field Army which was mobilizing at Diest, and strike at the heart of Belgium without touching fortifications.
   Vise lies on the German side of the river. On the road toward the frontier, a patrol of Belgian lancers was already waiting; David looking for Goliath. When a cloud of dust approaching resolved itself, they galloped back through the town and across the bridge where the expectant engineers were waiting. With a roar a breach was blown in the structure, the permanent break between Belgium and Germany. Too late the Uhlans galloped down to the bridge-head where a solitary town guard, in glazed billy-cock and unarmed, stepped forward in protest. Emblem of insignificant Right against Might, he spoke, and laid a restraining hand on the leader's bridle. This was the Civil challenge, contemptuously met and ending in a lance thrust. Instantly the military power, the handful of Belgian troops in the broken masonry across the river, took up the gage, and poured a volley across the breach, which sent the Uhlans flying, and veritably echoed round the world, the first definite shots in the greatest war in history. The mobile columns marched into Vise just too late.
   The destroyed bridge caused a short but vital delay to the invaders of the First Army, which sent back for pontoon trains and made a crossing toward neutral Maastricht. Cavalry and light artillery poured over and massed at Tongres, covering all roads to cut off General Leman. But he had already gathered his famous Third Division and had made a dash of sixty-eight miles south to Liege, where volunteers were erecting defences between the forts, and preparing for the German columns already converging on the city, expecting to find it garrisoned only by artillery. Another pontoon bridge was later erected below Vise, and a column crossed to the west bank, to march on Liege from the north. This force swept aside local troops assembling along the river, shooting as spies the peasants who rowed away from their goose farms sometimes with information, generally with the not unnatural desire to get their families on the "safe" side of the Meuse.
   In turn its advance guard was surprised by Belgian cavalry and cut to pieces. The column, however, pushed steadily south along the river, with huge screens of cavalry sweeping the districts on its right flank, spreading terror everywhere and in many cases rounding up and executing as civilians volunteers, poorly armed, but regularly enrolled in the villages to patrol roads and watch for the enemy.
   When this column entered Herstal, birthplace of Charlemagne and site of the National Arms factory, the men were away busily preparing defences at Liege. But the women seized rifles and cartridges from the factories; scalding water was drawn from the boilers; oil was heated; and as the leading elements of the column went through the town they were furiously assailed, and finally forced to withdraw until artillery hammered out the spirited opposition. This fight accounts for the slaughter of many women and children. The defence of Herstal was a fight by civilians. Yet every free heart thrills at the story, and the delay entailed was of great value to the garrison feverishly strengthening its position a few miles south.
   Many civilians from the neighbourhood, suspected of trying to take information to Liege, were shot and their homes destroyed. This recalls the fact that the homes of Spanish railroad-men who spied on the landing of troops near Santiago were respected and their families fed by the United States Army.
   We must realise that the Germans at the outset were enraged by losses inflicted from every bit of cover, a resistance which they had not expected. Remember also that the descendants of the people who withstood the Spanish Fury were not likely to submit tamely, and a bitterly hostile countryside undoubtedly broke formal rules of war. Study the testimony of those neutrals who marched with the main German army and speak of its discipline. Erase the effect of exaggerated stories of atrocities. All this still leaves hundreds of positive incidents of severity which make the earlier days of invasion a black spot on German history, and without parallel in modern times.
   The first Germans seen in Liege were Uhlans. A patrol made a detour, rode into the unprotected suburbs through St. Laurent, and with magnificent effrontery cantered to the Belgian Headquarters on the rue Sainte Foi. They dashed in upon the staff, shot down several officers and rushed at General Leman. Colonel Marchand, however, unarmed and single-handed, fought them off with his fists and was instantly killed, while an aide dragged the general backward through a rear door. Boy scouts, waiting for duty, recognised the uniform, stampeded the horses with their staves and gave the alarm to guards who rushed up and bayoneted the invaders.
   Further south two corps of the Second German Army were closing irresistibly on Liege. Various Belgian detachments had harassed its columns persistently, firing from wooded hills along the route, despite flanking cavalry, ineffective against a mobile foe which knew the by-paths and was helped by commandeered automobiles with machine guns.
   As a proof of German preparation, war had come automatically at 7 am. on August 3rd. At 11 pm. (Belgian time) the outposts on the main roads holding Pepinster, Battice, Herve and smaller hamlets, were heavily engaged and finally forced back to the fortified lines of Liege. The pretty towns defended near the frontier were soon flaming ruins, the quaint neutral territory of Moresnet rising as an oasis in a desert of destruction.
   The German attack was so sudden that the Belgian Third Division in Liege could only be supplemented by the Fifteenth Mixed Brigade before the city was invested. Detachments of Civil Guards and enrolled civilian volunteers, who aided the defence, were afterward refused the rights of belligerents, and many were executed. The defences of Liege were based on a ring of twelve self-contained forts, dominant points on the circumference of the natural bowl in which the city is spread over the junction of the Meuse and lesser rivers and canals and railroads. Next to Antwerp, the position, fortified in 1886, marked the supreme effort of Brialmont. The forts were capped with burnished steel cupolas based on solid concrete, with disappearing guns. The turrets were impregnable to the fire of regular artillery, the domes deflecting shells fired at ordinary trajectory. Given sufficient time to prepare subordinate field, works between the forts, and enough troops to man the defensive circumference of thirty-three miles, the position was practically impregnable under old conditions. Redoubts between the forts, often suggested, had never been constructed.
   Because of the frank threats of German military writers, and the network of strategic railroads that had been built from the German military bases to the Belgian, French and Russian frontiers, to enable rapid concentration of troops, Belgium had partly heeded the warning and kept the forts equipped. It is significant, however, that a large order for shells for the 400 guns in the defences, placed with the Krupps for delivery during the previous spring, had been delayed persistently without satisfactory excuse. The Belgian Field Artillery also had little proper ammunition, and I have seen scores of their guns with the rifling torn out through the use of old shells without driving bands. Time and men were lacking to prepare adequately and to hold field works in the huge gaps between the forts before the attack on Liege opened, for while demanding that Russia demobilise, Germany had three army corps ready to attack this plant alone.
   General von Emmich, commanding the Tenth Army Corps, had charge of the operations against Liege. With the Tenth was the Seventh Corps, under Count von Arnim, and the Ninth followed under General von Luetwitz. The advance guard of the Seventh Corps first clashed with the Belgian outposts on the Herve road. Forces moving from Verviers through the Vesdre Valley were also hotly engaged on August 3rd. By the afternoon of the 4th the attack had fully developed, and the Seventh Corps advanced in force on the northeast sectors including Forts Barchon and Evegnee. The Germans opened fire with their regular complement of field artillery, but the shells ricocheted harmlessly from the forts, and Evegnee was bombarded for hours without losing a man. A large force of infantry then moved in close order against Fort Barchon, sweeping below the final depression of the guns. The centre reached the glacis of the fort before it was swept away by infantry and machine guns in the parapet. The left and right wings pushed on against the two-mile gaps on either side, to encounter an effective repulse from a line of crude trenches constructed hastily the previous night. Three times the assault was attempted with huge masses which were slaughtered in hundreds and hurled back. After dark the Germans retired out of range with appalling losses. Their expected surprises had miscarried.
   But on the 5th the Germans were heavily reinforced as the Tenth Corps, including the famous Ironsides of Brandenburg, closed in, followed by the Ninth Corps. Attacks were now delivered on all sides, and though the defenders fought desperately, General Leman soon found that he could no longer muster enough troops to meet simultaneous assaults between all the forts. Early on the 6th, heavy artillery opened on the town without notice, shelling three of the oldest churches in existence, and smashing stained glass and carvings which all the world loved and which can never be replaced. Many women and children were killed, and a Zeppelin added to the terrors.
   Realising that the city was doomed, the Belgian field forces made an amazing escape late at night on the 7th and the Germans entered next day. Though enormous siege howitzers were now firing, the forts prepared to resist to the last. General Leman and his staff retired to Fort Loncin.
   His cavalry and cyclist patrols, cut off east of the city, maintained a vigorous guerrilla warfare on the German communications. Their lawful tactics caused the most heartless reprisals by the invaders against the civil population. A detachment under Corporal Van Dael, an artist well known in New York, rode around the outskirts of Vise, cleaned up guards on the water supply, from a hill sniped officers’ cars in Maastricht Avenue, and ambushed some Hussars at Loretto. In reprisal many hostages in Vise were executed, and the town, in which all arms had been given up, was set on fire. Even the church containing the famous reliquary, Chasse de St. Hadelin, was gutted, firemen being shot and thrown to the flames. In a dozen villages the shameful story was repeated. Non-combatants trapped in the outskirts of Liege suffered terribly before the Germans gained entry on August 8th.
   Let no one underrate the capture of Liege as a feat of arms. For four days, gallantly and fruitlessly, the infantry in massed formation had tried to storm modern fortifications. The secret of the war, Germany's huge siege artillery, then came into action. Austrian howitzers and Krupp mortars, with high-angle fire and enormous projectiles, spelled the doom of the forts. The necessary masonry platforms were ready when the hour arrived. Concrete takes many days to dry, and on the 6th the guns were in place. The Germans now claim that they have a secret concrete which hardens rapidly. In Belgium and in France there is positive proof that gun platforms were ready, carefully masked as the foundations of flimsy commercial sheds operated by German firms. The guns had the range measured to a foot by previous survey.
   On Fort Loncin, west of the city, a ton of steel dropped from the sky cracked its central turret like an eggshell, and blew the top of the fort to pieces. Subsequent shells destroyed the entire structure, the heroic Belgian commander being buried in the ruins. Major Collard, two devoted orderlies and a gendarme, crept into the shattered vaults where General Leman was being asphyxiated by the gases, and tore the masonry from his body. Major Collard collapsed and was suffocated. The other heroes dragged the General out and when he recovered consciousness the Germans were standing by him.

Giant Austrian Howitzer in Belgium

   General von Emmich hurried over, shook hands with his brave adversary, refusing his sword and congratulating him on his defence. "Report that I was insensible when I was captured, that I did not surrender," Leman replied. The other forts made a sporadic defence for days. Not one capitulated after the city had fallen. They were reduced one by one in turn, becoming the tombs of their gallant defenders. At Fort Chaudfontaine Major Nameche blew up his magazine, dying with his men after sending engines and dynamite into the nearest tunnel, thus destroying the railroad to Aix-la-Chapelle. Near Chaudfontaine half of the Thirty-fourth Regiment was cut off in the woods, but finally cut its way out at night and reached Namur. Ten days were lost in opening the first gate to France.
   The Belgian Army, with its "Garde Civique," was originally a compulsory National Guard, stiffened by a small regular army and its trained reserves. It also had some splendid volunteer regiments. Its formation deserves special study in the United States, as it maintained an effective fighting force with few of the elements of conscription. Many definite plans for improvements were being tested when war broke out. Its strength then was 260,000, more than half being fortress troops.
   The mobilisation was conducted like clockwork, the Brussels division being equipped and ready in twenty-four hours. The infantry divisions are large, 22,000 men. Extensive fortifications called for garrison forces more than equalling the field army, and for them the Civil Guard was largely destined, until Germany denied these National Guardsmen belligerent rights, and deliberately executed those captured fighting. The Civil Guard, therefore, was finally withdrawn until it could be uniformed and incorporated in the regular army. Colonel Falls, then Adjutant of the Seventh Regiment of New York, was at the front with the Belgian army, and his instructive report on the simple effectiveness of Belgian mobilisation has been filed in Washington.
   While Liege was tottering, the Belgian Field Army, which was to have been caught when scattered and unprepared, by the First German Army, which had massed unopposed at Tongres, had moved swiftly to its allotted positions. Its front, facing east, formed a huge crescent between France and Holland, its right resting near Namur, the line curving across Brabant through Wavre, Louvain, Aerschot and Diest, with cavalry on both flanks.
   When the First and Second German Armies should have been sweeping across France if the dash to Paris was to succeed, the Field Army across Belgium had still to be defeated. They attacked on both flanks, and by sheer weight of numbers beat the Belgian left and right back until the crescent became inverted into a semi-circle before Brussels. Namur was thus isolated, but the Field Army was intact and fighting stubbornly, delaying actions when every hour gained was of vital importance to France.
   Recall the German contention of military necessity, which claimed that French troops were massing at Givet to attack Germany through Belgium. During the spirited resistance of her small neighbour, the French had neither the forces available to make a defensive line along the Meuse, nor to check the army that marched in unopposed, north of Luxemburg. In the third week of war, only cavalry could be spared to help the Belgian right and when General Sylvester led his mounted troops to Gembloux, they were too late to make a junction. Namur was cut off and almost invested when a single French battalion went up to reinforce the garrison. History must emphatically negative the German claim. Nearly a million men were ravishing Belgium before France moved a man across the frontier.
   When war was imminent, two unarmed engineer officers did motor from France two miles over the frontier to discuss the need of destroying the new bridge near the famous church at Hastierre, a gateway to France. Less serious than the presence of the spies who reported it, this incident is the basis of the charge proclaimed by world-known professors as a breach of neutrality, and a justification for all that Germany has done to Belgium.
   I could fill a volume with unpublished incidents of the campaign which I have gathered from Belgian soldiers, officials, refugees and German deserters. When we realise that a peaceful country suddenly swarmed with hostile detachments, partly free from discipline and encouraged in excesses, outrages on unprotected women were to be expected. There are fiends in every nation and in peace the statistics of degeneracy in Germany were astounding. What does materially concern the world was the enforcement of an authorised and pitiless military code of rape, arson, murder and theft, which no people outside Germany can either justify or understand; the deliberate foundation for their political heritage with a nation which they expected to absorb and Germanise.
   Though all its articles were not ratified by all the nations, the Hague Convention definitely outlines the military code of the United States, and by that code the conduct of the war will be judged by American public opinion. A clause agreed to by Germany states that the inhabitants of a territory, who take up arms spontaneously to resist invading troops without having time to organise themselves, shall be regarded as belligerents, if they carry arms openly and respect the laws of war. When the call for volunteers was made, civil guards, reservists, ex-soldiers and other able-bodied men hurried to various points of mobilisation. Notably at Vise, the dividing line of Flemings and Walloons, who everywhere rallied to the common cause, men from outlying districts seized their rifles, but were caught in the tide of invasion as they made their way to various centres. They were rounded up in scores and summarily executed, because they had no uniforms. Most of them were members of organised forces that corresponded to the National Guard of the United States. The splendid armouries of American cities are unknown in Europe. Detachments were widely scattered; the men kept their rifles for local drills, but uniforms and equipment were stored at central headquarters for use when the regiments were mustered for training, parade or emergency.
   In the Liege district a female spy was employed at some telephone exchange. The names of many people who called up Belgian Headquarters with information during the invasion were reported and all who were caught were shot. Among these was the superb heroine of Dalhem, a girl of seventeen. German batteries were grouped before her home, and regardless of the hail of bursting shells she remained for hours on the wire, correcting the aim of the Belgian gunners who were engaging the enemy's artillery. She did not flinch as she faced the firing squad, so piteously alone. Some of us who are pledged after the war to erect a statue on the spot hallowed by that child-woman's blood will appeal for funds only to the children of the United States and the British Empire, that each may give a mite.
   Caught in Verviers by the war and trying to reach Ostend, Dr. John Munro MacKenzie, pastor emeritus of the Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church of Liverpool, seventy-eight and an invalid, was staying with Mr. Blaise, an official of Dalhem. The night that Liege fell an isolated patrol of the Thirty-fourth Regiment fired at the guard as they fled past the town, killing two men. In reprisal several houses were fired by the Germans, the male inmates being shot down like dogs as they escaped. The stairs of the Blaise home were on fire when the inmates, including a Danish lady with a sick child and the aged clergyman, escaped in their night clothes. Dr. MacKenzie and Mr. Blaise, with his wife clinging to him, were dragged to the gutter and shot at close range. Other people were burned in their beds. The shameful reign of terror there is fully verified.
   At a later stage some cavalrymen had ordered coffee made at a village store. Owing to the intolerable sanitary conditions caused by the bivouac of thousands of troops, the local authorities had distributed small bags of quicklime. These Belgians had no sugar, but an eager soldier ladled lime into the coffee by mistake. The storekeeper and his wife were executed. Like a mare's nest a wholesale poison plot was scented, and several innocent people who had the official lime were shot, before an officer arrived who could interpret and understand.
   A boy scout, returning from a mission near Ghent, was caught by Hussars and, refusing to answer questions, was taken up the road a prisoner. Without a sign he let his captors march into an ambush of the troops to which he was attached as messenger, and after the fight he was executed. At Soiron three farmers, finding soldiers stealing their crops, were attacked. They defended themselves with hay forks and killed one in the fight. They were hanged in a row.
   Paul Hocker, the novelist, and Captain of Landwehr, describes the code. He was searching for arms. A boy, an enrolled volunteer, was discovered in the straw, with a rifle. The mother and sister pleaded, but the youth was shot. "Thus we suppress the rabble that wars on German soldiers," was the naive comment in the diary of this cultured author. A boy, executed near Louvain, was patrolling the road with an empty .22 rifle, by the side of his soldier father. Peasants sometimes fired; they often waylaid and attacked small detachments of men that were ravishing their women. But the actual perpetrators were seldom caught, the villages were burned and innocent victims were hanged or shot. If hostages had been taken, generally mayors and priests, they paid forfeit if an over-zealous citizen or patrol fired a shot. At Aerschot, after its capture, three shots at night led to the destruction of several streets and the indiscriminate shooting of 150 civilians in reprisal. The nephew of a lady whom I had met at the Plaza a few months earlier, a lad of 16, was executed. His crime was a hot-headed remark made when the house was searched. No rifles were found, but this house was deliberately burned.
   These are typical of hundreds of incidents of ruthless official massacre and destruction stimulated by inspired stories of impossible outrages by an unarmed people against an army. When half Belgium was a smouldering ruin the chief German surgeon of the Military Hospital in Aix-la-Chapelle, through which all casualties were then evacuated, admitted that he had seen no German wounded mutilated by Belgians.
   For eleven days, fighting raged along the entire Belgian line across Brabant. Louvain fell on August 19th, and with both flanks enveloped the army was forced to withdraw to Brussels, unfortified but hastily barricaded. The government had moved to Antwerp. To save the capital from destruction, on August 20th, the barricades were removed and the greatly outnumbered army fell back in good order to the fortified lines of Antwerp. But von Kluck turned his main forces at Brussels and moved to France, leaving new formations to hold the roads. The Belgians made a sortie on the 25th and reached Malines. The alarm from this fighting and the running amuck at night of a youth, half -crazed by an attempted assault of his sister by a staff officer, led to the burning of the Ville Haute quarter of Louvain, including the Jesuit college and the famous library. Civilians were executed in scores, including many neutral students. Among them were five Spaniards, for whom Germany has paid Spain 100,000 marks for their relatives, with an official apology.
   The German schedule had allowed five days for the armies to wheel across Belgium from the frontier zones, with columns only partly unfolded. With siege guns on the left to batter the forts, the right wing was to rely on its cavalry for combat, and move in echelon to shorten the arc of the wide swing, on moving pivot, to change the front from west to south, and sweep on across France in line with the centre armies. Six days more were to find the columns fully unfolded and deploying on the wide front between Verdun and Paris to attack before the French armies could mobilise and concentrate. Three weeks had been consumed before Namur fell. The First, Second and Third German Armies then could only complete the turn to march southward down the main roads to France by leaving the unbroken Belgian army intact in its last stronghold to retain for weeks an army of investment urgently needed to support the march on Paris. And Anglo-French forces were now gathering across their path.
   The delay stirred the invaders to frenzy, and the final days were black for Belgium. Women and children were forced to act as screens to the advance, and the rear guards wreaked foul vengeance on the captured villages as they were evacuated. Every one has heard of children with amputated hands, but not a single case has been authenticated, and the widespread canard has been easily refuted. Shall we substitute the charge by the photograph now beside me, taken by German soldiers, showing the tortured bodies of seven tiny girls in a heap? Here is another of five older girls on the banks of a stream, also outraged to death. One of a boy crouched beside the stripped body of his sister. There are medical photographs also of living victims of degenerates; these were taken to Belgian and French surgeons, but perhaps would have been better dead. Officers inured to battle turn away in horror from these photographs which illustrate part of the price that the innocent country has paid. "We lived like gods in Belgium, boozing and raping our way across," wrote one soldier to his brother.

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