Killing the Wounded
By William J. Robinson
[The Independent; May 29, 1916]
[Mr. Robinson is a young Bostonian who enlisted in the British army in August, 1914, for a term of one year, or until the war should end. He was in active service in Belgium and in France, was made a Sergeant-Major and voluntarily resumed the rank of private because the unpromoted Tommies under him made things so mighty unpleasant. He was wounded once. After "Fourteen Months at the Front," graphically described in his book of that title, he came back to America convinced that "the worst imaginings of war are totally inadequate before its reality." His story is neither theory nor generalities, but the straightforward record of actual experience. —THE EDITOR.]
I was with the troops who were acting as supports to the Canadians in a certain engagement in the spring of 1915. The French Algerian troops who were holding a part of the line on our left were surprised by a heavy gas attack, and with their eyes streaming, their lungs torn by the knife-like stabs which accompanied every effort to breathe, they retired. They left the British flank unprotected, for the Germans advanced two miles before they stopped. The men on the staff, about 1500 in all, were rushed up to try and hold the Germans until more troops arrived.
The troops sent for were the Canadians, who were just out from England, never having been in action as yet. Dawn was beginning to break when they arrived. Their advance was not preceded by a bombardment. They did not even stop for breath. They fixed bayonets and went straight over us at the Germans.
The suddenness of their advance surprised the Germans, and they gave ground with very little resistance at first. Trench after trench the Canadians took, and we acted as their supports all the way. It was not until we had advanced nearly half a mile that the enemy got their machine guns into action. After that it was harder, and our losses were heavy. The men were carried away with their enthusiasm, however, and nothing could stop them. Trench after trench, trench after trench they took. If there were any Germans left in them they died quickly, for Canada was showing her fighting spirit, and it was a case of hack, stab, shoot, club,, anyway to get the "Huns" back where they belonged.
When we had regained about half the ground the Algerians had lost, the enemy brought up reinforcements and made a final attempt to break up our counter attack. Swarms of them appeared as if from the bowels of the earth, and they rolled upon us like a great tidal wave. They forced us back and back until it looked as tho we would soon be back where we started from. But the cost to the Germans was tremendous.
Soon our boys rallied and again we went at them. Their fearful losses seemed to have taken the heart out of them, for this time it was even easier than before. On and on we went, and soon some of our men were cheering, because we had recovered the four pieces of artillery which had been lost.
Bear in mind the fact that the Germans had driven us back after our counter attack was well started. When we retreated we left many killed and wounded on the ground we gave over. When we advanced again we found the wounded we had left had all been killed. They had either been finished with the bayonet or had had their skulls crushed in by a blow from the butt of a rifle. This, of course, drove the men mad, but there was yet worse to be found.
A sergeant was found crucified to a barn door.
There were several bayonets thru his body, and when he was found by his comrades he was still alive! Picture, if you can, the horror of it!
The men had been under a terrible strain anyway. It was their first time in action, and is it any wonder that this ghastly deed should turn them into raving savages? Under circumstances such as these are there any of the pacifists who can truthfully say that they should have "turned the other cheek?" God forbid!
I saw this poor man about two hours after he had been taken down. He was dead then, but I saw the holes in his body; the jagged blood-soaked rents in his uniform, and the sight of it drove me as near mad as anything ever has done.
If there was a German left alive on the ground recovered from the "Huns" it was truly because the devil cares for his own.
There is, to my knowledge, no official report of the incident to corroborate what I say, but any soldier who was in the vicinity of Ypres during the spring of 1915 will vouch for the truth of this statement. This was the beginning of the awful practise, rumors of which have even reached the neutral countries. It has been, and still is carried on even to the present time, and so bad has it become that I am safe in saying that a very large per cent of the soldiers of the allied armies shoot themselves rather than be taken prisoner when wounded. Reports have been circulated that neither side is taking prisoners, and that they are killing wounded rather than make them prisoners. That the Allies have ceased to take prisoners is absolutely untrue. Prisoners are taken just as they were before the engagement I am describing.
Many say, '"Oh, well, this might have happened once, but it probably stopped there." The pity of it is that it did not stop there. It has gone on and on, and will go on to the end of the war. I will not cite cases I have heard about. I am only telling what I have seen.
After a sharp engagement near Hooge last summer I saw it happen again. It was just coming daylight, and the affair lasted only a short time. When it was over there were many dead and wounded left on the ground which separated our trenches from the Germans. As the sun came up and it commenced to get hot many of the poor fellows tried to drag themselves back to our trenches.
The German sharpshooters made it their business to shoot every man who moved, and many a poor devil who would have made our trenches and been cared for, was foully murdered because he tried to save himself for his loved ones at home.
Would it be natural for men to stand all day and see this happen to their comrades without, retaliating? Our fellows did the same thing, and they did right! A few of our boys lived thru the broiling hot day with sun pouring down on them, heaps of dead around them, the stink of decaying flesh in their nostrils and their throats parched with thirst. Yes, a few of them lived, but, oh, it was a pitiful few!
In the afternoon I saw one poor fellow who had been worming his way in inch by inch. He probably went mad, for he suddenly staggered to his feet, faced the German trenches and started shrieking curses at the top of his voice. The words died in his throat and he went down riddled with bullets. During the day many of them managed to get a weapon in their hands and did the deed themselves.
I think of all this when people tell me about the "good feeling" that exists between the English "Tommy" and the German "Fritz." I saw another incident later which will show how "good" the feeling is. A party of prisoners was being escorted to the rear by a squad of men who had watched their own wounded die in the way I have described. A sergeant, in charge of the party, swung along in front, a pipe in his mouth and his rifle slung on his shoulder. He was a very short man and was probably sensitive about it. Directly behind him was a great big hulking German about six feet four. As the party passed us we smiled at the contrast. The German saw us, and he grinned and made a gesture as much as to say: "Look at the little, sawed-off!" I don't know how this sergeant saw him, but he rapped out the order: "Party, halt!" He calmly put his pipe in his pocket, clubbed his rifle, and smashed in the head of the big German before he knew what was happening. He looked at the body and snarled: "Now laugh, you————!" Then he lit his pipe and the party moved on. That is typical of the "good feeling."
Who began the practise of doing away with the wounded? The Germans began it. I could go on and on and tell many more such cases, but it is unnecessary, I have told what I have seen. This is war as it is today.
New York City
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald