Atrocities in the First World War

During the First World War most countries publicized stories of enemy soldiers committing atrocities. It was believed that it would help persuade young men to join the armed forces. As one British general pointed out after the war: "to make armies go on killing one another it is necessary to invent lies about the enemy". These atrocity stories were then fed to newspapers who were quite willing to publish them. British newspapers accused German soldiers of a series of crimes including: gouging out the eyes of civilians, cutting off the hands of teenage boys, raping and sexually mutilating women, giving children hand grenades to play with, bayoneting babies and the crucifixion of captured soldiers. Wythe Williams, who worked for the New York Times, investigated some of these stories and reported "that none of the rumours of wanton killings and torture could be verified."

Norman Lindsay, The Bulletin (1916)
Norman Lindsay, The Bulletin (1916)

In December 1914 Herbert Asquith appointed a committee of lawyers and historians under the chairmanship of Lord Bryce to investigate alleged German atrocities in Belgium. The report, published in 30 different languages, claimed that there had been numerous examples of German brutality towards non-combatants, especially towards old men, women and children. Five days after the Bryce Report was issued, the German authorities published its White Book. This included accounts of atrocities committed by Belgians on German soldiers.

Although soldiers from all countries were guilty of individual brutalities, research after the war suggested that these were isolated incidents rather than any systematic attempt to terrorize and punish the enemy. However, others have suggested it was fairly common to kill prisoners of war. Robert Graves pointed out in Goodbye to All That (1929): "For true atrocities, meaning personal rather than military violations of the code of war, few opportunities occurred - except in the interval between the surrender of prisoners and their arrival (or non-arrival) at headquarters. Advantage was only too often taken of this opportunity. Nearly every instructor in the mess could quote specific instances of prisoners having been murdered on the way back. The commonest motives were, it seems, revenge for the death of friends or relatives, jealousy of the prisoner's trip to a comfortable prison camp in England, military enthusiasm, fear of being suddenly overpowered by the prisoners, or, more simply, impatience with the escorting job."

Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier argued in his book, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930): "The British soldier is a kindly fellow and it is safe to say, despite the dope, seldom oversteps the mark of barbaric propriety in France, save occasionally to kill prisoners he cannot be bothered to escort back to his lines."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) James Seignior was interviewed about his experiences of the First World War in 1983.

As early as 1910 the propaganda machine was in full swing. There were anti-German stories in the press, and even in our children's comics. All young lads loved to read comics in my young days. In these stories the Germans were always cast as the enemy and the message was what terrible things they would do if they landed on our British soil. So after a few years of this type of thing the feeling for peace began to slip away and the people began to anticipate war. I wonder if at the time the German people were being told what awful people we were?

(2) The Times (27th August, 1914)

Nearly all the people I interrogated had stories to tell of German atrocities. Whole villages, they said, had been put to fire and sword. One man, whom I did not see, told an official of the Catholic Society that he had seen with his own eyes Germans chop off the arms of a baby which clung to its mother's skirts.

(3) Lord Bertie, British Ambassador in France (21st February, 1915)

I began by not believing in German atrocities and now I feel that I myself would, if I could, kill every combatant German that I might meet.

(4) The Bryce Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages (May 1915)

One witness saw a German soldier cut a woman's breasts after he had murdered her, and saw many other dead bodies of women in the streets of Belgium. Another witness testified that she saw a drunken German soldier kill a two-year-old child: The soldier drove his bayonet with both hands into the child's stomach, lifting the child into the air on his bayonet, he and his comrades were singing." Other witnesses saw a German soldier amputate a child's hands and feet.

(5) The White Book (May 1915)

It has been established beyond doubt that Belgian civilians plundered, killed and even shockingly mutilated German wounded soldiers in which atrocities even women and children took part. Thus the eyes were gouged out of the German wounded soldiers, their ears, noses and finger-joints were cut off, or they were emasculated or disemboweled. In other cases German soldiers were poisoned or strung up on trees; hot liquid was poured over them, or they were otherwise burned so that they died under terrible tortures.

(6) The Times (8th January, 1915)

The stories of rape are so horrible in detail that their publication would seem almost impossible were it not for the necessity of showing to the fullest extent the nature of the wild beasts fighting under the German Flag.

(7) Phyllis Campbell was in Paris during the early months of the First World War. She wrote about the arrival of Belgian refugees in France in her book Back to the Front (1915).

In one wagon, sitting on the floor, was a naked girl of about 23. One of her suffering sisters, more fortunate than the rest in possessing an undergarment, had torn it in half and covered the front of her poor body. It was saturated with blood from her cut-off breasts. On her knees lay a little baby, dead. There were women covered with sabre cuts, women who had been whipped, women burned alive escaping from their blazing homes, little boys maimed in the hands and feet, their wounds done up in sacking or any kind of old rag. On one side of a door sat a soldier who had lost both his legs, and he was supporting a boy whose arms were gone. One Highlander implored me to run away - "Get away, lassie," he said, heavily. "They're no men, they're devils!" His dying eyes seemed to look at an awful something beyond us.

(8) Robert Graves served on the Western Front throughout the First World War.

Propaganda reports of atrocities were, it was agreed, ridiculous. We no longer believed the highly-coloured accounts of German atrocities in Belgium. By atrocities we meant, specifically, rape, mutilation, and torture - not summary shootings of suspected spies, harbourers of spies, or disobedient local officials. If the atrocity-list had to include the accidental-on- purpose bombing or machine-gunning of civilians from the air, the Allies were now committing as many atrocities as the Germans.

French and Belgian civilians had often tried to win our sympathy by exhibiting mutilations of children - stumps of hands and feet, for instance - representing them as deliberate, fiendish atrocities when, as likely as not, they were merely the result of shell-fire. We did not believe rape to be any more common on the German side of the line than on the Allied side. And since a bully-beef diet, fear of death, and absence of wives made ample provision of women necessary in the occupied areas, no doubt the German army authorities provided brothels in the principal French towns behind the line, as the French did on the Allied side. We did not believe stories of women's forcible enlistment in these establishments. 'What's wrong with the voluntary system?' we asked cynically.

As for atrocities against soldiers - where should one draw the line? The British soldier, at first, regarded as atrocious the use of bowie-knives by German patrols. After a time, he learned to use them himself; they were cleaner killing weapons than revolvers or bombs. The Germans regarded as equally atrocious the British Mark VII rifle bullet, which was more apt to turn on striking than the German bullet. For true atrocities, meaning personal rather than military violations of the code of war, few opportunities occurred - except in the interval between the surrender of prisoners and their arrival (or non-arrival) at headquarters. Advantage was only too often taken of this opportunity. Nearly every instructor in the mess could quote specific instances of prisoners having been murdered on the way back. The commonest motives were, it seems, revenge for the death of friends or relatives, jealousy of the prisoner's trip to a comfortable prison camp in England, military enthusiasm, fear of being suddenly overpowered by the prisoners, or, more simply, impatience with the escorting job. In any of these cases the conductors would report on arrival at headquarters that a German shell had killed the prisoners; and no questions would be asked. We had every reason to believe that the same thing happened on the German side, where prisoners, as useless mouths to feed in a country already short of rations, would be even less welcome. None of us had heard of German prisoners being more than threatened at headquarters to get military information from them. The sort that they could give was not of sufficient importance to make torture worth while; and anyhow, it had been found that, when treated kindly, prisoners were anxious in gratitude to tell as much as they knew. German intelligence officers had probably discovered that too.

The troops with the worst reputation for acts of violence against prisoners were the Canadians (and later the Australians). The Canadians' motive was said to be revenge for a Canadian found crucified with bayonets through his hands and feet in a German trench. This atrocity had never been substantiated; nor did we believe the story, freely circulated, that the Canadians crucified a German officer in revenge shortly afterwards. How far this reputation for atrocities was deserved, and how far it could be ascribed to the overseas habit of bragging and leg-pulling, we could not decide.

(9) Irving Cobb, was one of several American reporters in Belgium when the country was occupied by the German Army in 1914.

Every Belgian refugee had a tale to tell of German atrocities on noncombatants: but not once did we find an avowed eye-witness to such things. Always our informant had heard of the torturing or the maiming or the murdering, but never had he personally seen it. It had always happened in another town - never in his own town.

(10) George Coppard, With A Machine Gun to Cambrai (1969)

I feel I must mention a piece of psychological propaganda put about by some War Office person, which brought poor comfort to Tommies. The story swept the world and, being gullible, we in the trenches were taken in by it for a while. With slight variations it indicated that the German war industry was in a bad way, and was short of fats for making glycerine. To overcome the shortage a vast secret factory had been erected in the Black Forest, to which the bodies of dead British soldiers were despatched. The bodies, wired together in bundles, were pitchforked on to conveyor belts and moved into the factory for conversion into fats. War artists got busy, and dreadful scenes were depicted and published in Britain. The effect on me at first was despondency. Death was not enough apparently. The idea of finishing up in a stew pot was bloody awful, but as I had so many immediate problems the story soon lost its evil potency for me.

(11) Margaret Postgate was involved in the campaign against conscription during the First World War.

Conscription did not arrive until 1916, after every expedient, including solemn promises not to introduce conscription, had been used to man the armies with volunteers; but right from the start any critics of the war suffered a great deal of sporadic persecution by victims of war hysteria. They were booed and pelted, served with white feathers by excited young women, and subjected, particularly at the news of Mons and Charleroi began to come through and it appeared that our army and the French armies were not marching on Berlin but rather running away from it, by a barrage of untrue and idiotic "atrocity stories" about children with their hands cut off by the Germans, priests tied upside-down to the clappers of their own bells, dead bodies boiled down for fat, and the like. (It was a unfortunate that subsequent exposure of all stories as lies conditioned some muddled souls into rejecting any atrocity story whatsoever and so led them to deny or to discount up to the last any reports, however factual, about the doings of the Nazis.

(12) Frank Percy Crozier, A Brass Hat in No Man's Land (1930)

The British soldier is a kindly fellow and it is safe to say, despite the dope, seldom oversteps the mark of barbaric propriety in France, save occasionally to kill prisoners he cannot be bothered to escort back to his lines.