Atrocities in Belgium

There is a good article in this week’s Times Literary Supplement, called The culture of destruction in the First World War.

It’s a review by Craig Gibson of WW1 books, including Alan Kramer’s Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and mass killing in the first world war, and recounts what happened in Louvain in 1914, broadly supporting the view that the cruelties imposed by the German invaders were mostly the result of a panicky reaction to real or imagined franc-tireurs – a reaction that got quite out of hand:

Spooked troops broke into houses suspected of harbouring francs-tireurs, firing wildly and rounding up terrified townsfolk. Houses were torched. Summary executions followed. At 11.30 pm, troops broke into the University Library, one of the most important collections in Europe. Using petrol and incendiary pastilles, they set fire to hundreds of thousands of volumes and manuscripts. Within hours, a priceless piece of European – indeed, world – heritage had been reduced to smoking ashes.

He points out that:

As news of the German outrages was reported in both the neutral and the enemy press, and as Germany’s reverse on the Marne, in early September 1914, put the outcome of the war in doubt, the German authorities took steps to ensure that there would be no more Louvains. And, with a few notable exceptions, there were none.

The atrocities in Belgium (often made even more terrible in the re-telling) were a crucial factor in determining the widespread British support for the project of the War in 1914. Was the huge publicity given to the refugees’ stories  a devious Government propaganda initiative, as is sometimes suggested? I recently came across an article in The Nation in August 1914 that suggests a very different explanation. The public was eager to know about the War, but military information was strictly censored. The only war stories available to reporters were the ones told by refugees:

The reading of censored newspapers is apt to produce a certain myopia. Of the great movements of troops in the war we learn next to nothing, for the pens of the correspondents are paralysed by the duty of secrecy. They take their revenge by describing the little happening on the outer fringe of the war. We see very vividly the coming of German cavalry to an undefended Belgian town…

The other book reviewed in the article is Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History. Craig Gibson is a bit tough on this book, but I thought it was rather good, if only because its emphasis on economic history was a good corrective to the cultural history that I’m more usually entangled with.


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