III SHOOTING CIVILIANS IN BELGIUM
SHOOTING CIVILIANS IN BELGIUM
AT 11 o'clock all further philosophizing was put a stop to; we were ordered to halt, and we were to receive our food from the field kitchen.
We were quite hungry and ate the tinned soup with the heartiest of appetites. Many of our soldiers were sitting with their dinner-pails on the dead horses that were lying about, and were eating with such pleasure and heartiness as if they were home at mother's. Nor did some corpses in the neighborhood of our improvised camp disturb us. There was only a lack of water and after having eaten thirst began to torment us.
Soon afterwards we continued our march in the scorching midday sun; dust was covering our uniforms and skin to the depth of almost an inch. We tried in vain to be jolly, but thirst tormented us more and more, and we became weaker and weaker from one quarter of an hour to another. Many in our ranks fell down exhausted, and we were simply unable to move. So the commander of our section had no other choice but to let us halt again if he did not want every one of us to drop out. Thus it happened that we stayed behind a considerable distance, and were not amongst the first that were pursuing the French.
Finally, towards four o'clock, we saw a village in front of us; we began at once to march at a much brisker pace. Among other things we saw a farm cart on which were several civilian prisoners, apparently snipers. There was also a Catholic priest among them who had, like the others, his hands tied behind his back with a rope. Curiosity prompted us to enquire what he had been up to, and we heard that he had incited the farmers of the village to poison the water.
We soon reached the village and the first well at which we hoped to quench our thirst thoroughly. But that was no easy matter, for a military guard had been placed before it who scared us off with the warning, "Poisoned"! Disappointed and terribly embittered the soldiers, half dead with thirst, gnashed their teeth; they hurried to the next well, but everywhere the same devilish thing occurred---the guard preventing them from drinking. In a square, in the middle of the village, there was a large village well which sent, through two tubes, water as clear as crystal into a large trough. Five soldiers were guarding it and had to watch that nobody drank of the poisoned water. I was just going to march past it with my pal when suddenly the second, larger portion of our company rushed like madmen to the well. The guards were carried away by the rush, and every one now began to drink the water with the avidity of an animal. All quenched their thirst, and not one of us became ill or died. We heard later on that the priest had to pay for it with his death, as the military authorities "knew" that the water in all the wells of that village was poisoned and that the soldiers had only been saved by a lucky accident. Faithfully the God of the Germans had watched over us; the captured Belgians did not seem to be under his protection. They had to die.
In most places we passed at that time we were warned against drinking the water. The natural consequence was that the soldiers began to hate the population which they now had to consider to be their bitterest enemies. That again aroused the worst instincts in some soldiers. In every army one finds men with the disposition of barbarians. The many millions of inhabitants in Germany or France are not all civilized people, much as we like to convince ourselves of the contrary. Compulsory military service in those countries forces all without distinction into the army, men and monsters. I have often bitterly resented the wrong one did to our army in calling us all barbarians, only because among us---as, naturally also among the French and English---there were to be found elements that really ought to be in the penitentiary. I will only cite one example of how we soldiers ourselves punished a wretch whom we caught committing a crime.
One evening---it was dark already---we reached a small village to the east of the town of Bertrix, and there, too, found "poisoned" water. We halted in the middle of the village. I was standing before a house with a low window, through which one could see the interior. In the miserable poverty-stricken working man's dwelling we observed a woman who clung to her children as if afraid they would be torn from her. Though we felt very bitter on account of the want of water, every one of us would have liked to help the poor woman. Some of us were just going to sacrifice our little store of victuals and to say a few comforting words to the woman, when all at once a stone as big as a fist was thrown through the window-pane, into the room and hurt a little girl in the right hand. There were sincere cries of indignation, but at the same moment twenty hands at least laid hold of the wretch, a reservist of our company, and gave him such a hiding as to make him almost unconscious. If officers and other men had not interfered the fellow would have been lynched there and then. He was to be placed before a court-martial later on, but it never came to that. He was drowned in the river at the battle of the Meuse. Many soldiers believed he drowned himself, because he was not only shunned by his fellow soldiers, but was also openly despised by them.
We were quartered on that village and had to live in a barn. I went with some pals into the village to buy something to eat. At a farmer's house we got ham, bread, and wine, but not for money. The people positively refused to take our money as they regarded us as their guests, so they said; only we were not to harm them. Nevertheless we left them an adequate payment in German money. Later on we found the same situation in many other places. Everywhere people were terribly frightened of us; they began to tremble almost when a German soldier entered their house.
Four of us had formed a close alliance; we had promised each other to stick together and assist each other in every danger. We often also visited the citizens in their houses, and tried to the best of our ability to comfort the sorely tried people and talk them out of their fear of us. Without exception we found them to be lovable, kindly, and good people who soon became confidential and free of speech when they noticed that we were really their friends. But when, at leaving, we wrote with chalk on the door of their houses "Bitte schonen, hier wohnen brave, gute, Leute! " (Please spare, here live good and decent people) their joy and thankfulness knew no bounds. If so much bad blood was created, if so many incidents happened that led to the shooting by court-martial of innumerable Belgians, the difference of language and the mistakes arising therefrom were surely not the least important causes; of that I and many others of my comrades became convinced during that time in Belgium. But the at first systematically nourished suspicion against the "enemy," too, was partly responsible for it.
In the night we continued our march, after having been attached to the 21-centimeter mortar battery of the 9th Regiment of Foot Artillery which had just arrived; we were not only to serve as covering troops for that battery, but were also to help it place those giants in position when called upon. The gun is transported apart from the carriage on a special wagon. Gun-carriage and guns are drawn each by six horses. Those horses, which are only used by the foot artillery, are the best and strongest of the German army. And yet even those animals are often unable to do the work required of them, so that all available men, seventy or eighty at times, have to help transport the gun with ropes specially carried for that purpose. That help is chiefly resorted to when the guns leave the road to he placed in firing position. In order to prevent the wheels from sinking into the soil, other wheels, half a yard wide, are attached round them.
These guns are high-angle guns, i. e., their shot rises into the air for several thousand yards, all according to the distance of the spot to be hit, and then drops at a great angle. That is the reason why neither hill nor mountain can protect an enemy battery placed behind those elevations. At first the French had almost no transportable heavy artillery so that it was quite impossible for them to fight successfully against our guns of large caliber. Under those conditions the German gunners, of course, felt themselves to be top-dog, and decorated their 21-centimeter guns with inscriptions like the following, "Here declarations of war are still being accepted."
We felt quite at ease with the artillery, and were still passably fresh when we halted at six o'clock in the morning, though we had .been marching since two o'clock. Near our halting place we found a broken German howitzer, and next to it two dead soldiers. When firing, a shell had burst in the gun destroying it entirely. Two men of the crew had been killed instantly and some had been seriously wounded by the flying pieces. We utilized the pause to bury the two dead men, put both of them in one grave, placed both their helmets on the grave, and wrote on a board: "Here rest two German Artillerymen."
We had to proceed, and soon reached the town of Bertrix. Some few houses to the left and right of the road were burning fiercely; we soon got to know that they had been set alight because soldiers marching past were said to have been shot at from those houses. Before one of these houses a man and his wife and their son, a boy of 15 or 16, lay half burnt to cinders; all had been covered with straw. Three more civilians lay dead in the same street.
We had marched past some more houses when all at once shots rang out; they had been shooting from some house, and four of our soldiers had been wounded. For a short while there was confusion. The house from which the shots must have come was soon surrounded, and hand grenades were thrown through all the windows into the interior. In an instant all the rooms were in flames. The exploding hand grenades caused such an enormous air pressure that all the doors were blown from their hinges and the inner walls torn to shreds. Almost at the same time, five men in civilian clothes rushed into the street and asked for quarter with uplifted hands. They were seized immediately and taken to the officers, who formed themselves into a tribunal within a few minutes. Ten minutes later sentence had already been executed; five strong men lay on the ground, blindfolded and their bodies riddled by bullets.
Six of us had in each of the five cases to execute the sentence, and unfortunately I, too, belonged to those thirty men. The condemned man whom my party of six had to shoot was a tall, lean man, about forty years of age. He did not wince for a moment when they blindfolded him. In a garden of a house nearby he was placed with his back against the house, and after our captain had told us that it was our duty to aim well so as to end the tragedy quickly, we took up our position six paces from the condemned one. The sergeant commanding us had told us before to shoot the condemned man through the chest. We then formed two lines, one behind the other. The command was given to load and secure, and we pushed five cartridges into the rifle. Then the command rang out, "Get ready! "
The first line knelt, the second stood up. We held our rifles in such a position that the barrel pointed in front of us whilst the butt-end rested somewhere near the hip. At the command, "Aim!" we slowly brought our rifles into shooting position, grasped them firmly, pressed the plate of the butt-end against the shoulder and, with our cheek on the butt-end, we clung convulsively to the neck of the rifle. Our right forefinger was on the trigger, the sergeant gave us about half a minute for aiming before commanding, "Fire!"
Even to-day I cannot say whether our victim fell dead on the spot or how many of the six bullets hit him. I ran about all day long like a drunken man, and reproached myself most bitterly with having played the executioner. For a long time I avoided speaking about it with fellow-soldiers, for I felt guilty. And yet what else could we soldiers do but obey the order?
Already in the preceding night there had been encounters at Bertrix between the German military and the population. Houses were burning in every part of the town. In the market place there was a great heap of guns and revolvers of all makes. At the clergyman's house they had found a French machine-gun and ammunition, whereupon the clergyman and his female cook had been arrested and, I suppose, placed immediately before a court-martial.
Under those conditions we were very glad to get out of Bertrix again. We marched on in the afternoon. After a march of some 3 miles we halted, and received food from the field kitchen. But this time we felt no appetite. The recollection of the incidents of the morning made all of us feel so depressed that the meal turned out a real funeral repast. Silently we set in motion again, and camped in the open in the evening, as we were too tired to erect tents.
It was there that all discipline went to pieces for the first time. The officers' orders to put up tents were not heeded in the slightest degree. The men were dog-tired, and suffered the officers to command and chatter as much as they liked. Every one wrapped himself up in his cloak, lay down where he was, and as soon as one had laid down one was asleep. The officers ran about like mad shouting with redoubled energy their commands at the exhausted soldiers; in vain. The officers, of course had gone through the whole performance on horseback and, apparently, did not feel sufficiently tired to go to sleep. When their calling and shouting had no effect they had to recourse to personal physical exertion and began to shake us up. But as soon as one of us was awake the one before had gone to sleep again. Thus for a while we heard the exhortation, "I say, you! Get up! Fall in line for putting up tents!" Whereupon one turned contentedly on the other side and snoozed on. They tried to shake me awake, too, but after having sent some vigorous curses after the lieutenant---there was no lack of cursing on either side that evening---I continued to sleep the sleep of the just.
For the first time blind discipline had failed. The human body was so exhausted that it was simply unable to play any longer the rôle of the obedient dog.