When one writes with a hot heart upon events which are still recent one is apt to lose one’s sense of proportion. At every step one should check oneself by the reflection as to how this may appear ten years hence, and how far events which seem shocking and abnormal may prove themselves to be a necessary accompaniment of every condition of war. But a time has now come when in cold blood, with every possible restraint, one is justified in saying that since the most barbarous campaigns of Alva in the Lowlands, or the excesses of the Thirty Years’ War, there has been no such deliberate policy of murder as has been adopted in this struggle by the German forces. This is the more terrible since these forces are not, like those of Alva, Parma, or Tilly, bands of turbulent. and mercenary soldiers, but they are the nation itself, and their deeds are condoned or even applauded by the entire national Press. It is not on the chiefs of the army that the whole guilt of this terrible crime must rest, but it is upon the whole German nation, which for generations to come must stand condemned before the civilised world for this reversion to those barbarous practices from which Christianity, civilisation, and chivalry had gradually rescued the human race. They may, and do, plead the excuse that they are “earnest” in war, but all nations are earnest in war, which is the most desperately earnest thing of which we have any knowledge. How earnest we are will be shown when the question of endurance begins to tell. But no earnestness can condone the crime of the nation which deliberately breaks those laws which have been endorsed by the common consent of humanity.
War may have a beautiful as well as a terrible side, and be full of touches of human sympathy and restraint which mitigate its unavoidable horror. Such have been the characteristics always of the secular wars between the British and the French. From the old glittering days of knighthood, with their high and gallant courtesy, through the eighteenth-century campaigns where the debonair guards of France and England exchanged salutations before their volleys, down to the last great Napoleonic struggle, the tradition of chivalry has always survived. We read how in the Peninsula the pickets of the two armies, each of them as earnest as any Germans, would exchange courtesies, how they would shout warnings to each other to fall back when an advance in force was taking place, and how, to prevent the destruction of an ancient bridge, the British promised not to use it on condition that the French would forgo its destruction—an agreement faithfully kept upon either side. Could one imagine Germans making war in such a spirit as this? Think of that old French bridge, and then think of the University of Louvain and the Cathedral of Rheims. What a gap between them—the gap that separates civilisation from the savage!
Let us take a few of the points which, when focussed together, show how the Germans have degraded warfare—a degradation which affects not only the Allies at present, but the whole future of the world, since if such examples were followed the entire human race would, each in turn, become the sufferers. Take the very first incident of the war, the mine-laying by the Königin Luise. Here was a vessel, which was obviously made ready with freshly charged mines some time before there was any question of a general European war, which was sent forth in time of peace, and which, on receipt of a wireless message, began to spawn its hellish cargo across the North Sea at points 50 miles from land in the track of all neutral merchant shipping. There was the keynote of German tactics struck at the first possible instant. So promiscuous was the effect that it was a mere chance which prevented the vessel which bore the German Ambassador from being destroyed by a German mine. From first to last some hundreds of people have lost their lives on this tract of sea, some of them harmless British trawlers, but the greater number sailors of Danish and Dutch vessels pursuing their commerce as they had every right to do. It was the first move in a consistent policy of murder.
Leaving the sea, let us turn to the air. Can any possible term save a policy of murder be applied to the use of aircraft by the Germans? It has always been a principle of warfare that unfortified towns should not be bombarded. So closely has it been followed by the British that one of our aviators, flying over Cologne in search of a Zeppelin shed, refrained from dropping a bomb in an uncertain light, even though Cologne is a fortress, lest the innocent should suffer. What is to be said, then, for the continual use of bombs by the Germans, which have usually been wasted in the destruction of cats or dogs, but which have occasionally torn to pieces some woman or child? If bombs were dropped on the forts of Paris as part of a scheme for reducing the place, then nothing could be said in objection, but how are we to describe the action of men who fly over a crowded city dropping bombs promiscuously which can have no military effect whatever, and are entirely aimed at the destruction of innocent civilians? These men have been obliging enough to drop their cards as well as their bombs on several occasions. I see no reason why these should not be used in evidence against them, or why they should not be hanged as murderers when they fall into the hands of the Allies. The policy is idiotic from a military point of view; one could conceive nothing which would stimulate and harden national resistance more surely than such petty irritations. But it is a murderous innovation in the laws of war, and unless it is sternly repressed it will establish a most sinister precedent for the future.
As to the treatment of Belgium, what has it been but murder, murder all the way? From the first days at Visé, when it was officially stated that an example of “frightfulness” was desired, until the present moment, when the terrified population has rushed from the country and thrown itself upon the charity and protection of its neighbours, there has been no break in the record. Compare the story with that of the occupation of the South of France by Wellington in 1813, when no one was injured, nothing was taken without full payment, and the villagers fraternised with the troops. What a relapse of civilisation is here! From Visé to Louvain, Louvain to Aerschott, Aerschott to Malines and Termonde, the policy of murder never fails.
It is said that more civilians than soldiers have fallen in Belgium. Peruse the horrible accounts taken by the Belgian Commission, who took evidence in the most careful and conscientious fashion. Study the accounts of that dreadful night in Louvain which can only be equalled by the Spanish Fury of Antwerp. Read the account of the wife of the burgomaster of Aerschott, with its heart-rending description of how her lame son, aged sixteen, was kicked along to his death by an aide-de-camp. It is all so vile, so brutally murderous that one can hardly realise that one is reading the incidents of a modern campaign conducted by one of the leading nations in Europe.
Do you imagine that the thing has been exaggerated? Far from it—the volume of crime has not yet been appreciated. Have not many Germans unwittingly testified to what they have seen and done? Only last week we had the journal of one of them, an officer whose service had been almost entirely in France and removed from the crime centres of Belgium. Yet were ever such entries in the diary of a civilised soldier? “Our men behaved like regular Vandals.” “We shot the whole lot” (these were villagers). “They were drawn up in three ranks. The same shot did for three at a time.” “In the evening we set fire to the village. The priest and some of the inhabitants were shot.” “The villages all round were burning.” “The villages were burned and the inhabitants shot.” “At Leppe apparently two hundred men were shot. There must have been some innocent men among them.” “In the future we shall have to hold an inquiry into their guilt instead of merely shooting them.” “The Vandals themselves could not have done more damage. The place is a disgrace to our army.” So the journal runs on with its tale of infamy. It is an infamy so shameless that even in the German record the story is perpetuated of how a French lad was murdered because he refused to answer certain questions. To such a depth of degradation has Prussia brought the standard of warfare.
And now, as the appetite for blood grows ever stronger—and nothing waxes more fast—we have stories of the treatment of prisoners. Here is a point where our attention should be most concentrated and our action most prompt. It is the just duty which we owe to our own brave soldiers. At present the instances are isolated, and we will hope that they do not represent any general condition. But the stories come from sure sources. There is the account of the brutality which culminated in the death of the gallant motor-cyclist Pearson, the son of Lord Cowdray. There is the horrible story in a responsible Dutch paper, told by an eye-witness, of the torture of three British wounded prisoners in Landen Station on October 9.
The story carries conviction by its detail. Finally, there are the disquieting remarks of German soldiers, repeated by this same witness, as to the British prisoners whom they had shot. The whole lesson of history is that when troops are allowed to start murder one can never say how or when it will stop. It may no longer be part of a deliberate, calculated policy of murder by the German Government. But it has undoubtedly been so in the past, and we cannot say when it will end. Such incidents will, I fear, make peace an impossibility in our generation, for whatever statesmen may write upon paper can never affect the deep and bitter resentment which a war so conducted must leave behind it.
Other German characteristics we can ignore. The consistent, systematic lying of the German Press, or the grotesque blasphemies of the Kaiser, can be met by us with contemptuous tolerance. After all, what is is, and neither falsehood nor bombast will alter it. But this policy of murder deeply affects not only ourselves but the whole framework of civilisation so slowly and painfully built upwards by the human race.