For anyone who cared to read them on the 4th August 1914, on the outbreak of the Great War, the Rules of War in Europe had been well defined by a series of Geneva and Hague Conventions that dated from 1864 onwards. However, the writers of these international conventions could not be expected to have foreseen the savage nature of Total War that quickly swept over the battlefields and occupied territories of Europe in all its technological malevolence, encompassing millions of servicemen and civilians alike. So certain pressures on how well the various Conventions would be observed by the combattants was, in hindsight, almost inevitable.
The article that appears on this website entitled The Truth About German Atrocities gives extracts from a detailed 240 foolscap page contemporaneous report (1915) of a British Parliamentary Committee [On Alleged German Outrages 1915] especially appointed to examine reports of war atrocities in German occupied Belgium in 1914-15. (In May 1915 the German Government produced a 'White Book' which contained a document entitled Offences against International Law in the conduct of the War by the Belgians. Three hundred folio pages long, it similarly detailed atrocities by hundreds of witnesses that had been inflicted on German servicemen and placed the principal blame on the Belgian franc-tireurs).
That the British exposé on the war atrocities was not entirely propaganda-free is apparent from the fact that it was sponsored by the British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee - presumably one concerned with the encouragement of the recruitment of British civilian subjects into the fast expanding British Army. Obviously then, the nature of it conclusions must be assumed by the impartial reader to be somewhat one-sided.
This article aims at achieving some kind of balance by exploring the atrocities of war that are well-recorded in documents and anecdotal reports from all the belligerent nations in Great War. And this despite an official embargo and censorship that was imposed by all the claimants of emphatic adherence to the Geneva and Hague War Conventions.
The War Conventions
A. The Geneva Convention.
In 1862, Henri Dunant, a wealthy Swiss merchant, published a book that detailed the horrors of war as he saw them in aftermath of the 24th June 1859 Battle of Soferino in Northern Italy. This led to the creation of an 'International Committee for Relief to the Wounded' - later to be renamed 'The International Committee of the Red Cross', The following year, the International Committee invited 16 countries to send delegates to a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The outcome of the conference was the official founding of the Red Cross - its emblem was the reverse of the Swiss Flag i.e. a red cross on a white background.
The Swiss government - under the auspices of the Swiss Federal Council - then convened a Diplomatic Conference, again in Geneva, in August 1864. This conference produced a treaty called The Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. There were10 articles, and 12 nations signed an international agreement - The Geneva Convention. A second convention was held in October 1868 to clarify some outstanding issues including those related to warfare at sea.
Later extensions of the Agreement expanded the cover to various other aspects of warfare including:
- The limitation of the kinds of weapons that could be deployed, and their usage, including the banning of the infamous expanding 'dum dum' bullet and the use of projectiles containing toxic gas.
- Protection, safe custody and care of servicemen who surrender, i.e. Prisoners of War (POWs).
- Treatment of the sick whatsoever their nationality.
- The protection of civilians, their religious beliefs, judicial rights, traditions and property, in war-zones and occupied territory.
- Respect for, and identification of medical personnel and their transport, shelter and equipment. The identification took the form of a red cross on a white background - the reverse of the Swiss National Flag.
- Facilitation of the right to the exchange of news between the civilian population in war zones, POWs and their relatives.
B. The Hague Convention.
In 1899, in the Dutch City of The Hague, further explicit extensions were made to the Geneva Convention to cover:
- The definition of bona-fide POWs and the right to adequate medical treatment of all POWs.
- Balloon warfare.
Atrocities against civilians
There is absolutely no question that during the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, the German Army broke the Geneva Convention on crossing neutral borders, and defying Belgium's state of neutrality, to obtain access to the borders of France. There is also incontrovertible proof that the Germans murdered civilians, including women, children, and members of the clergy. The excuse offered by the German High Command that those killed or executed were acting as 'franc-tireurs' i.e. civilian opportunistic snipers, cannot possibly equate with the fact that over 5,000 Belgian civilians were officially reported as killed by the German invaders in August 1914 - some as hostages in mass executions. Or that several hundred more civilian deaths occurred in France at the same time. Certainly, there cannot be any possible excuse for the rape by the Germans soldiery of numerous women in France in the same period. Likewise, it is difficult to justify the wholesale destruction of civilian property - usually by burning, although the Belgian city of Louvain was partially destroyed by shelling - in the search for franc-tireurs, or the use of civilians as human shields, as was alleged on several occasions.
As for an active British or French role in civilian deaths in Belgium, or France, at this time, no significant records have emerged of this. Such reports would surely have been expected and, if they had been delayed, to emerge post-war. In any event it would hardly be the case that the French and Belgian Armies would have deliberately attacked their own people. Other than by the inevitable small criminal element in the Army: every army had its share of psychopaths and villains. The French and Belgian authorities would certainly have taken the other Allies to task in the unlikely event they did so. Moreover, since virtually no Allied forces entered Germany prior to the Armistice, the claim of German casualties of this sort cannot be realistically entertained.
There are, of course, British and French courts-marshal records concerning the death sentence or penal servitude being passed on British, French and Allied soldiers for the raping and/or killing of French and Belgian civilians during the war. There was also remarkable, small, sudden outbreak of civil violence by members of the Chinese Labour Force in France in 1918. But there is no record of systematic violence against French or Belgian civilian population by either British and French servicemen or their Allies.
In East Prussia and Galicia the German Army is reported to have caused many deaths among the civilian population, but numbers are not known. Certainly, though, any such civilian deaths were infinitesimally small when compared with those inflicted by the Germans of the Second War in this Sector - not that the scale affects the ethical issue in any way. There are also definite reports of several hundreds of deaths in the Serbian population inflicted by Germany's ally, Austria.
The two other theatres where serious loss of civilian lives occurred was on the open sea and the conurbations targetted by Aerial Bombing and Naval Bombardment Campaigns of eastern England and France.
Concerning the war-at-sea, the major factor in this was the German Navy's covert policy, from February 1915, of the on off Unrestricted Submarine Warfare Campaign. Later officially sanctioned, it achieved its peak efficacy in 1917. Early casualties were the 1,200 civilians, including 124 Americans neutrals, lost in the sinking of the 30,000 tons Cunard liner, RMS. Lusitania, on 7th May 1915, and the 44 civilians (three Americans) lost in the 15,800 tons White Line liner RMS Arabic on 19th August 1915. Both were torpedoed by German U-boats off the west coast of neutral Ireland. Of course, in the case of German shipping vessels, there were few German civilian ships, or German sponsored neutrals, for the Allies to sink. But the fact is that none such were sunk, or captured, by the Allies throughout the war except under the rules of the Laws of the Sea.
The German aerial bombing campaign of urban areas began with German Zeppelin airship attacks on Liége and Antwerp (Belgium) and Warsaw (Poland). Similar Zeppelin attacks (51 in all) began on England in December 1914 and were supplemented until June 1917 with 57 raids by bomber aircraft.
A total of 4,822 British men, women and children were killed or injured in the two campaigns (Zeppelin raids = 1,914 and aircraft = 2,908) but these included some British service casualties. There were also 30 air raids on Paris, France.
The British Independent Air Force bombed 46 German towns in 1918 in what were claimed to be carefully targetted strategic attacks on the German munitions industry. Casualty figures are not known. There was also sporadic aerial bombing on the other Fronts of the Great War by both sides, but civilians were not generally the prime targets and casualties so incurred were mostly of the collateral kind.
The Germans also launched a series of bombardments by sea of British coastal towns. There were a total of 12 naval bombardments on British eastern coastal towns with 798 casualties. There were no naval bombardments by the Allies of coastal towns of the Central Powers, other than those directly connected with military operations.
Atrocities against the military
There were four major circumstances in the Great War where a signatory nation of the Geneva and Hague Conventions could be said to have been involved in carrying out atrocities against another military force in contravention of the Geneva and Haig Conventions.
These were when the aggressor:
- Used banned weapons.
- Deliberately, or by negligence, harmed wounded servicemen who were hors de combat.
- Harmed servicemen who had offered to surrender.
- Harmed POWs who were in its custody.
Since the major European nations were all signatories to the Conventions, all were guilty of committing atrocities if they erred in their observance of any of these practices.
The first major Great War non-observance of a Hague Convention concerning banned weapons occurred when Germany launched its attack with toxic gas - chlorine - on French Colonial and Canadian troops at Langemarck in theYpres Sector in April 1915. This use of toxic chlorine gas, discharged into the prevailing wind from steel pressure cylinders (not projectiles), was not in direct contravention of the letter of Declaration II - On the use of Projectiles the Object of which is the Diffusion of Asphyxiating or Deleterious Gases (September 1900). But it was definitely contrary to the spirit of the Declaration. The German High Command must have known this. Certainly, it was treated by the Allies as such. The subsequent spread of toxic gas warfare across the entire Western Front brought such horror and distress that it expunged any faint hope that the Germans could ever morally justify their invasion of France and Belgium and their military conduct in the Great War. The later introduction by the Germans of the even more horrendous toxic Mustard Gas, only served to confirm to the world-at-large the depth German depravity and ruthlessness,
During the Great War, the Germans used about twice the quantity of toxic gas that was deployed by Britain or France, who could both claim retaliation as the justification for its own widescale use.
As in other spheres of weapon manufacture, the Americans had plans for the production of huge quantities (200,000 toxic gas bombs and shells per day) of their new and highly effective Mustard Gas derivative called Lewisite until the Armistice caused the calling off of the Project. Even so 150 tons of Lewisite was at sea on route for Europe.
Meanwhile, the British had developed, but not yet deployed, an 'M device' that would generate a fog of an arsenic compound code-named 'AD'. This would readily penetrate the faceplates of the existing German gas mask types and cause intense and totally disabling pain.
Harming of the wounded
Since it was concern about the care of those wounded in battle which led to the Geneva Convention in the first place, this aspect of the Great War attracted a great deal of attention at the time.
Wounded servicemen were often deliberately killed in action by the other side - see below - and accident or negligence often led to the destruction of medical facilities and transport that caused deaths among the wounded. But there was not, in general, any deliberate and officially sanctioned policy of such wanton destruction of medical facilities by any of the belligerents; and particularly not so by the Allies and the Germans. There are many fulsome accounts by veterans of all sides recording their compassionate treatment whilst in the hands of the enemy.
However, there is no question that hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers were killed by all sides on the battlefield in the heat of action. Indeed, one reads anecdotal reports of officers and NCOs giving clear instructions to their men that no wounded soldier should be passed by whilst their troops were advancing for fear of being attacked again from behind. This equally applied to wounded soldiers lying out in the open as well as those sheltering in dugouts, trenches or other structures. Indeed, on many occasions Allied soldiers were forbidden to stop their advance to aid their own fallen comrades, i.e. First Day of the Battle of the Somme July 1916. So the killing of the enemy wounded on the battlefield in such stressful circumstances presumably represented no great descent into immorality to most of the combattants.
The Prisoner of War
The serviceman was probably at his most vulnerable when he surrendered; particularly so as an individual or in a small group. Although whole battalions and armies of POWs were subsequently virtually eliminated in the Great War on the Eastern and other Fronts, either by execution or maltreatment, the writer knows of no case where this happened on the Western Front.
If the fate of servicemen surrendering on any battlefield was highly unpredictable and very much at the whim of often highly stressed and excited individual servicemen, group or their commander, the situation for the individual serviceman, or the small group, was often stark. The hypothetical question was often posed of what would one do with a fit and healthy enemy machine-gunner who surrenders 'after having mercilessly shot down hundreds of one's comrades'.
There are also so many anecdotes by distinguished and reputable authors (e.g. Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That) where this dilemma arises, and surrendered and disarmed soldiers are reported as having been 'shot whilst trying to escape'.
It can be safely assumed that the killing of surrendering, or surrendered, troops in large numbers was commonplace on all of the fronts of the Great War.
Moreover, whilst the order 'Take no prisoners' may not have been officially sanctioned in any Great War army, it was certainly given verbally, and obeyed by many troops in all of them. The Germans definitely adopted the practice in the early days of the war and German newspaper reports confirmed it. The memoirs of German veterans (e.g. Ernst Junger, Storm of Steel, Penquin Classics) verified its widespread practice on the Western Front with approval. Many similar references can also be found in the British war literature and the memoirs of other allied servicemen.
Explainable, if not morally justifiable, as these things may be in the heat of action, it is something few servicemen that were present can have been proud of after due reflection at a much later date.
As they made preparations for war, based on their long gestated Schlieffen Plan for the invasion of France - via Belgium - and Russia, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and the German High Command cannot have had any illusions that their plan was in clear violation of the Geneva and Hague Convention. Particularly so as Germany was a willing signatory.
This reckless and immoral action was the first in what proved to be a whole series of gambles by the German authorities. Others relevant to the committing of atrocities were:
- The German plan to sow terror amongst the civilian population to hasten the rapid conclusion of the fighting. From the outset of their invasion of Belgium and France the German Army adopted a punitive attitude to the civilian population that they claimed to be justified by the actions of franc tireurs, although this particular expression of civil resistance was specifically allowed by the Convention. Most independent observers, while admitting the Allied Press had exaggerated the number of incident and deaths, agreed that the German Army had committed atrocities on the civil population in both countries. Given the strict discipline that was the norm in the German Army, these transgressions must have been with the tacit, if not formal, approval of the German authorities.
- The large-scale use of toxic gas by the German Army against Allied troops in 1915 that was unprecedented and clearly forbidden in principle by the existing Conventions. As the German gas campaign only began eight months into the war, its development would have only been possible with the advance approval and support of the German authorities.
- The German Navy's on-off Unrestricted Submarine Warfare campaign. The German authorities as part of their war strategy openly acknowledged this, although it was clearly in conflict with accepted Rules of the Sea. Consequently, the German merciless sinking of merchant ships, including those of Neutral countries, causing death and injury to civilians, was in clear breech of the Conventions and classifiable as atrocities.
In the horrific world of the trenches, there is ample evidence that atrocities were committed by all the combattant Armies on all Fronts to a greater or lesser extent. Certainly, the heavier and more costly the fighting got, and as the situation grew more stressful and desperate, the greater was the likelihood of atrocities. Therefore, it would injudicious to claim that one group of servicemen in a particular battlefield consistently committed more atrocities than any other. However, as always, it is likely that it was the best fighting divisions with the better discipline that had the least number of atrocities marked down to them. And many atrocities were the work of poorly disciplined non-frontline servicemen.