The Full Meaning of Our Position in the Lusitania Case
By Paul van Dyke
(Professor of History, Princeton University)
[The New York Times/Current History, May 1916]
Two questions in regard to the present war have been much debated. The first is why the opposed ambitions, interests, and jealousies of eleven European nations and their extra European allies resulted at this time in war, when similar crises of these passions had previously been passed through peacefully. The second is, has Germany's conduct of the war been in accord with the law of war and the spirit of it which is the growing sentiment of humanity?
In regard to both of these questions there is quite a considerable body of evidence in regard to facts. But the evidence bearing on the first question differs in a general way from the evidence bearing upon the second question. Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy have printed over 800 diplomatic documents relating to the outbreak of the war. The evidence furnished by this mass of material is, of course, not complete. Probably no one of the Governments concerned has printed all the documents in its possession relating to the question. Practically the entire correspondence between Austria and Germany is still unpublished. Perhaps within twenty or thirty years the publication of memoirs may throw additional light upon the occasion of this war just as the writings and speeches of Bismarck before his death threw additional light upon the occasion of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. On some points these documents are more or less opposed to each other. But they agree in enough points to furnish a reasonable mass of data to serve as a basis of discussion.
When we come to the second question, however, the case is different. Documents have been published by the French, Belgian, English, and German Governments which are in irreconcilable contradiction to each other. For instance, the Bryce report concludes on the basis of the evidence which it has collected "that there were in many parts of Belgium deliberate massacres of the civil population;…that in the conduct of the war generally, innocent civilians both men and women were murdered in large numbers," etc. The German report on the conduct of the war in Belgium concludes on the basis of evidence collected by their commission that "the stories of refugees strung together by the Belgian Commission bear in themselves the marks of untrustworthiness, if not of malignant distortion;" that "these complaints against the German Army are, therefore, nothing else than the basest slanders, which, without further discussion, are deprived of all force by the first-hand evidence laid before the reader in the accompanying documents;" that "the Imperial German Government believes that by the publication of this original material it has made evident in the most convincing manner that the behavior of the German troops with regard to the Belgian civil population was imperatively called for by the guerrilla warfare which they waged against all international law, and forced by the necessity of war."
This contradiction exists not only in the conclusions of these reports but also in parts of the detailed evidence on which these conclusions are based. For instance, the Bryce report calls what took place on Aug. 20 in the little city of Andenne "a massacre of the inhabitants" who were "slaughtered for over two hours in the afternoon and intermittently during the night by the German Army."
The German report calls the affair of Andenne on Aug. 20 a "street fight" provoked by the "inhumanities" of the inhabitants, who treacherously poured out "from all sides a hail of fire upon the unprotected troops in an incomparably devilish piece of business."
The Bryce report supports its conclusion in regard to what happened at Andenne on the 20th of August by the depositions of three Belgians who were present. The German Commission supports its conclusion by the report of the General in command of the troops, confirmed by the affidavits of one of his Majors and a non-commissioned officer and the report of a Lieutenant sent to investigate the occurrence by the Military Governor of the province some four months later. He examined eleven burghers of the town, who all denied that they were able to give any good information about the facts of the case. Most of them said they had been hidden in their cellars during the whole affair.
Now here we have a sharp contradiction of facts which, according to the existing evidence, can hardly be authoritatively resolved. If it were possible to call into a neutral court a score of the surviving leading citizens of Andenne and a score of the soldiers and officers of the troops concerned, with full liberty to cross-examine them, we should probably be able to decide how the case of Andenne bears upon the statement of the German Government that the action of the German troops in Belgium was forced upon them by the guerrilla warfare waged by the Belgian civil population and compelled by the necessities of war.
The case of Andenne has of course been deliberately chosen, because it is a prerogative instance, a marked example of contradiction. But it is an exaggerated instance which plainly suggests the difficulties that affect this discussion. The facts to be discussed are not agreed upon by both sides and therefore the discussion has constantly tended to resolve itself into mutual recriminations of slander and falsehood.
The writer of this article, being desirous of discussing the second of the questions suggested by this war, wishes to exclude from the discussion all questions of disputed facts. He proposes, therefore, to use no facts except those set forth in documents written by Germans. He hopes in this way to make the issue so plain that every reader may decide without the smallest room for doubt what the doctrine of the German military authorities is and decide for himself whether that doctrine and the practice arising from it does or does not coincide with his ideas.
The question is not, as is sometimes asserted, a vague and unreal one concerning matters of no interest except to theorists who conduct abstract discussions in regard to things as they might be, or as they ought to be. It concerns things which the military authorities of the United States, and, indeed, the military authorities of the civilized world, have officially accepted as realities. The existence of the laws of war and the spirit of humanity underlying them is officially asserted by the United States in the Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field:
Military necessity as understood by modern civilized nations consists in the necessity of those measures which are indispensable for securing the ends of the war and which are lawful according to the modern law and usages of war. * * * As martial law is executed by military force, it is incumbent upon those who administer it to be strictly guided by the principles of justice, honor, and humanity virtues adorning a soldier even more than other men for the very reason that he possesses the power of his arms against the unarmed.
This position of the United States has been explicitly indorsed by every one of the belligerents in the present war by their signatures in 1907 to "The Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land."
The discussion here proposed is not only about realities, but it is one about which every intelligent American citizen is in duty bound to make up his mind. Because, unless he understands the doctrine of the German military authorities concerning the relation of military necessity to the laws of war and to the spirit of humanity, he does not really understand the position taken by his own Government, which has brought us to the verge of breaking off relations with Germany.
That doctrine is set forth in "The Usages of War on Land," issued by the Great General Staff of the German Army:
"A war conducted with energy cannot be directed merely against the combatants of the enemy State and the positions they occupy. But it will and must in like manner seek to destroy the total intellectual and material resources of the latter. Humanitarian claims, such as the protection of men and their goods, can only be taken into consideration in so far as the nature and objects of the war permit.
"Consequently 'the argument of war' permits every belligerent State to have recourse to all means which enable it to attain the object of the war; still, practice has taught the advisability of allowing in one's own interest the introduction of a limitation in the use of certain methods of war and the total renunciation of the use of others. Chivalrous feelings, Christian thought, higher civilization, and by no means least of all the recognition of one's own advantage have led to a voluntary and self-imposed limitation the necessity of which is today tacitly recognized by all States and their armies….
"In the modern usages of war one can no longer regard merely the traditional inheritance of the ancient etiquette of the profession of arms and the professional outlook accompanying it, but there is also the deposit of the currents of thought which agitate our time. But since the tendency of thought of the last century was dominated chiefly by humanitarian considerations which not infrequently degenerated into sentimentality and flabby emotion, there have not been wanting attempts to influence the development of the usages of war in a way which was in fundamental contradiction with the nature of war and its objects. Attempts of this kind will also not be wanting in the future; the more so as these agitations have found a kind of moral recognition in some provisions of the Geneva Convention and the Brussels and Hague Conferences.
"Moreover, the officer is a child of his time; he is subject to the intellectual tendencies which influence his own nation; the more educated he is, the more this will be the case. The danger that, in this way, he will arrive at false views about the essential character of war must not be lost sight of. The danger can only be met by a thorough study of war itself. By steeping himself in military history an officer will be able to guard himself against excessive humanitarian notions ; it will teach him that certain severities are indispensable to war, nay, more, that the only true humanity very often lies in a ruthless application of them. It will also teach him how the rules of belligerent intercourse in war have developed, how in the course of time they have solidified into general usages of war, and, finally, it will teach him whether the governing usages of war are justified or not, whether they are to be modified, whether they are to be observed."
Of such modifications of the usages of war the German War-book suggests an example in the following citation of its statement in regard to hostages:
"Their provision has been less usual in recent wars, as a result of which some professors of the law of nations have wrongly decided that the taking of hostages has disappeared from the practice of civilized nations….
"A new application of hostage right was practiced by the German Staff in the war of 1870 when it compelled leading citizens from French towns and villages to accompany trains and locomotives in order to protect the railway communications which were threatened by the people. Since the lives of peaceable inhabitants were, without any fault on their part, thereby exposed to grave danger, every writer outside Germany has stigmatized this measure as contrary to the law of nations and as unjustified toward the inhabitants of the country."
The book then proceeds to give reasons for justifying this procedure, "which was also recognized on the German side as harsh and cruel," and concludes: "To protect one's self against attacks and injuries from the inhabitants and to employ ruthlessly the necessary means of defense and intimidation, is obviously not only a right, but indeed a duty of the staff of the army."
The way in which this general doctrine of the relation of the necessities of war to the spirit of humanity in its special application to the case of hostages, was actually used by German commanders in Belgium, is sufficiently indicated by the following citations from the report of the German Commission which has already been quoted:
Staff Physician Dr. Petrenz deposes under oath that at 10 o'clock in the evening of Aug. 23 he approached Les Rivages, a suburb of Dinant. On the banks of the Maas between the water and a garden wall he saw on the left of the pontoon bridge a heap of executed civilians. "I don't know who shot them, but I was told that they were executed by the 101st Regiment." There were some dead women among them. "I also found in the heap a 10-year-old girl wounded " and buried under the heap "a little girl of about 5, unwounded."
The report to which this and eighty-six other depositions were attached explains how that heap of dead men, women, and children came to be there.
When the 101st Grenadier Regiment reached Les Rivages in the late afternoon of Aug. 23 they found everything quiet, ("the village seemed dead,") and it remained so. ("Meantime in Les Rivages all was quiet."). "The commander of the 101st Grenadiers took out of the nearest houses a good number of persons to serve as hostages in case of hostile action on the part of the population." "I was made clear to them that they must answer with their lives for the safety of the troops." The men were placed against a garden wall to the left of the place of crossing the river. The women and children who had come out of the houses with them were put away somewhat down-stream. The building of the pontoon bridge went on. "When it was built out into the stream some forty meters, fire was suddenly opened on the pioneers from the houses of Les Rivages and the rocky cliffs beyond." In consequence of this, "the male hostages assembled along the garden wall were shot." That was where the heap of dead men, women, and children that Dr. Petrenz saw came from.
The comment of the Governmental report on this recital of facts is as follows: "The tactical object of the Twelfth Corps was the rapid crossing of the Maas and the clearing of the enemy from its left bank. The rapid overcoming of the opposition to attaining this end was a necessity of war and to be reached by every possible means…. Therefore, the shooting of hostages carried out in several places was in accord with right."
That this was no isolated case but the fixed and deliberate policy of the German Army appears from the following extract from a proclamation posted in the City of Rheims on the 12th of September, 1914. I quote and translate passages from a photographic facsimile: "In order to secure sufficiently the safety of the troops and the calm of the population of Rheims the persons named below have been seized as hostages by the Commander of the German Army. These hostages will be hanged at the least attempt at disorder. On the other hand, if the city keeps itself absolutely calm and tranquil, the hostages and inhabitants will be taken under the protection of the German Army." There followed a list of names such as the Mayor of the city, the Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, President of the Co-operative Society, and about eighty others. The policy adopted by the German Army authorities of executing hostages who could not have been guilty of hostile acts, appears again in the following extracts from a proclamation of Baron von der Goltz which was posted at Brussels on the 5th of October, 1914. "In future the localities nearest to the place where destruction of railroads and of telegraphic lines has taken place (it makes no difference whether they were guilty of the acts or not) will be punished without pity. For that purpose hostages have been taken from all the localities near the railroads which are threatened by such attacks, and at the first attempt to destroy the lines of the railroad, telegraph lines, or the lines of the telephones, they will be immediately shot."
That this and similar threats were no empty words is shown by the following extract from the pamphlet in which Professor Bedier has reprinted facsimiles of leaves from the diaries taken from a number of dead or captured German soldiers. In the diary of a soldier of the Thirty-second Infantry of Reserves appears this paragraph:
"Third of September. Creil. Somebody has blown up the iron bridge. For this reason the streets were burned by us and some civilians shot."
When these acts in violation of the rules of The Hague Convention, (signed by Germany,) which forbids the inflicting of collective punishment, whether of money or other sort, upon communities for the deeds of individuals, began to rouse violent protests, the Commanding General of the Seventh Army Corps issued in the beginning of September the following proclamation: "I learn that a newspaper has declared that the severe measures of our military commanders against reprehensible franc-tireur operations in Belgium were dictated by a feeling of revenge and desire for retaliation. This article, against which I have taken the measures demanded by my duty, gives me occasion to address an explanatory word to the inhabitants in the district occupied by the Seventh Army Corps. The secret, treacherous attacks which have been made by a hostile population in many places against our brave troops and which still persist in places, make it the absolute duty of our commanders to proceed against such atrocious crimes with ruthless and iron severity. To show weakness here would be to betray our own army. Not a hair of the peaceful inhabitants of the country will be touched. The discipline of our troops, known to the whole world, is a guarantee for this. They fight as soldiers against soldiers in honorable battle. If, however, the brave sons of our people who go out to the field to meet hardship and death for the Fatherland, if wounded surgeons and others who care for the wounded are miserably murdered by a misled, mad populace; if the safety of the army is threatened by the attacks of guerrillas from the rear, it becomes a law of self-preservation and a sacred duty of the military commanders to proceed against these crimes immediately with the most extreme measures. The innocent must then suffer with the guilty. The commanders of our army have in repeated proclamations made it plain that human lives cannot be regarded in suppressing such shameful crimes. That some houses, even villages and whole cities have to be destroyed in this process, is certainly to be regretted, but it must not give occasion for unjustifiable mental perturbation. These houses, villages, and cities cannot be worth so much to us as the life of a single soldier. This is self-evident and hardly needs to be said. To show compassion here would be a sinful weakness; the blood of the innocent is upon the heads of the inciters of these shameful attacks. There can be no talk of revenge and retaliation such as was contained in the newspaper article of which I have spoken an article which I fail to understand. Our commanders, to repeat it once more, are simply doing their duty and they will continue to do this duty until the glorious end of the war. They will protect our soldiers from murderers in the most ruthless manner and at any cost. Whoever talks here of barbarism speaks wantonly. The iron performance of one's duty is a proof of the highest culture, and the population of the hostile countries cannot but learn this from our army."
What this meant in actual practice is illustrated again by a leaf from another diary of a German soldier:
"In the same way we destroyed eight houses with their inhabitants. In one of them two men with their wives and an eighteen-year-old girl were run through with bayonets. The young girl made me feel sorry because she looked at me with such an innocent look." Doubtless the men who have issued these proclamations, though I like to think not all the men who have been obliged to obey them, would indorse the words of Major Gen. Von Ditfurth in the Hamburger Nachrichten:
"It is incompatible with the dignity of the German Empire and with the proud traditions of the Prussian Army to defend our courageous soldiers from the accusations hurled against them in foreign and neutral countries. We owe no explanation to any one. There is nothing for us to justify and nothing to explain away. Every act, of whatever nature, committed by our troops for the purpose of discouraging, defeating, and destroying our enemies is a brave act and a good deed and is fully justified.
"There is no reason whatever why we should trouble ourselves about the notions concerning us in other countries. Certainly we should not worry about the opinions and feelings held in neutral countries. Germany stands as the supreme arbiter of her own methods, which, in the time of war, must be dictated to the world."
This position has since been officially indorsed by the German Government in its Baralong note. Great Britain proposed to refer to a court composed of American naval officers the charge that the British gunboat Baralong had shot the crew of a German submarine swimming from their sunken boat, together with the similar charge that the officers of a German destroyer had shot the crew of an English submarine swimming from their boat on fire and aground on the Danish coast. Rejecting this proposal, the German note said: "The German Government…takes the standpoint that charges against members of the German forces must be investigated by its own competent authorities and that the persons accused be given every surety of an unprejudiced verdict with just punishment if necessary."
Let us add to the report on Dinant two other instances of investigation by German military authorities of charges against their officers. Noncommissioned Officer Kleint of the First Company of the 154th Regiment of Infantry wrote to the Tageblatt of the little town of Javer, in Silesia, a letter describing a recent battle in which he shows that he and his comrades acted with the approval of the " company leader " and with a perfect good conscience about the righteousness of their action. I translate some extracts from it, taken from a facsimile of the newspaper. It tells how at the beginning of an attack the German soldiers suffered severely without knowing where the balls came from. Finally they discovered that a number of French sharpshooters had climbed up into trees. It goes on:
"We shot them down from the trees like squirrels, and we received them warmly with blows of musket butts and of bayonets. They had no more need of doctors. We weren't fighting any more loyal enemies, but perfidious brigands. We passed through the thickets in leaps. We arrived at a little hollow in the ground. The red pantaloons lay there, dead or wounded, in crowds. We smashed or stabbed the wounded because we know that those scoundrels when we have passed fire at us in the back. There lies, stretched out his full length, a Frenchman, his face against the earth, but he is only pretending to be dead. A kick of the foot of a stout rifleman shows him that we are there. Turning, he demands quarter (using a brutal phrase better left out)…but we pin him to the ground with a bayonet. Beside me I hear some singular sounds they are the blows of the butt of his gun which a soldier of the 154th brings down vigorously upon the bald head of a Frenchman. Very wisely he employs for this work a French gun for fear of breaking his own. The men of sensitive feelings do the kindness to the French wounded to end them with a ball, but the others hit and stick as best they can. Our adversaries fought bravely; they were choice troops which we had had before us. They had let us approach up to thirty, and even up to ten yards too close. Knapsacks and arms thrown away in heaps proved that they wanted to run, but at the sight of the gray phantoms fear paralyzed their feet, and on the narrow paths which they took the German balls brought to them the order to halt. At the door of their shelters of branches there they were lying groaning and whimpering for quarter. But whether they are lightly or seriously wounded the brave fusiliers save their country the expensive care which she would have been compelled to give to many enemies."
In order to assure his friends at home that he was telling the truth the writer of this tale of battle had gotten his officer to put at the end of his communication these words: "The above statements are confirmed. De Niem, Lieutenant and Company Leader." And over the signatures of a noncommissioned officer and a commissioned officer of the German Army this account was published by a German newspaper under this headline: "A Day of Honor for Our Regiment."
The reply to the publication of this facsimile of a copy of the Javer Tageblatt makes it evident that there was an official investigation of this case. The writer says "the investigation brought out the fact that our troops in that action stood in a particularly difficult position," and the sworn utterance of the writer of this article shrinks to the following statement: "Wounded Frenchmen fired on us from behind. They were then made harmless. Aside from this I did not see firing by our people on Frenchmen no longer able to fight. I did see a turned over Frenchman that pretended to be dead who held his gun in his hand under him."
Three things are noticeable about this result of a German military investigation as reported by a German writer and put forward to the world as satisfactory:
(1) Under-officer Kleint confesses that he falsely bragged that his regiment had killed all the enemies wounded;
(2) his sworn deposition is ambiguous in its correction of his first newspaper account so far as concerns most of the wounded he said at first were massacred. He swears he "did not see firing by our people" (geschossen worden ist) on helpless Frenchmen. He had written in his newspaper article that only men with sensitive souls shot the French wounded. He said the bulk of them were killed by butts and bayonets. Was he cross-examined on this point?
(3) a commissioned officer of the German Army certified the correctness of this account of the actions of his men and authorized its publication in a newspaper. Were the writer, the indorser, and the publisher of this article under the title "A Day of Honor for Our Regiment" put on trial for an offense against the honor of the German Army? The official reply gives no sign of any indignation in the matter.
Let us take still another case of investigation by the German military authorities of the relation to the exigencies of warfare of the principle that the "only true humanity very often lies in the ruthless application of certain severities incident to war." Professor Bedier in the work already quoted cites the deposition of a French Captain of the 288th Regiment of Infantry. The reader is asked not to jump to the conclusion that I am abandoning my purpose to use none but German testimony about German principles and deeds because I quote this French deposition. I quote it only in order to show the German comment upon it which follows. The deposition of the French officer reads:
"The evening of the 22d I learned of the presence in the woods—at 150 meters to the north of the square formed by the meeting of the great trench of Calonne with the road of Vaux-les-Palameix to Saint Remy—of the corpses of French soldiers shot by the Germans. I went there and I saw about thirty soldiers jammed together in a little space, for the most part lying flat some of them, however, on their knees, and all having the same wound—that is a shot from a rifle in the ear. A single one, very severely wounded in the lower part of his body, was able to speak and told me that the Germans, before leaving, had ordered them to lie down and then had killed them by a ball in the head, that he himself, wounded, had obtained quarter by saying that he was the father of three little children. The skulls of all these unfortunates had been smashed to pieces and scattered around. Rifles with their stocks broken off were scattered around here and there and the blood had spouted over the thicket to such an extent that in leaving the wood the forward part of my coat was all spotted with it. It was really a slaughter house."
The facts given by the French Captain demanded an investigation by the German military authorities, for their manual says: "That prisoners should be killed only in the event of extreme necessity...is today universally admitted." Here is the result of the investigation given in the official reply to Mr. Bedier:
"You print the report of a French Captain. According to that report German soldiers ordered about thirty Frenchmen to lie down and then put them to death by a shot behind the ear. That is indeed a horrible story!
"Therefore, this case was examined by our military authorities. What was the result of the examination? A German regiment advanced in a charge along the road Saint Remy-Mouilly. It had opposed to it an entire division of the enemy. It could not hold its position on the place of assembly which was heavily shelled by the enemy's artillery. Therefore, retreat was ordered. A Lieutenant was, after the completion of a reconnaissance, in danger of being cut off with his section from the already retiring regiment. The thirty or forty Frenchmen were prisoners. They had lain down on the ground, as our own men had done, to protect themselves from the heavy fire, and as some of them stood up again they were ordered to stay flat because their red trousers, visible at a great distance, offered a good mark, so that our men were put in danger even from German fire. In order not to delay rejoining the regiment our soldiers were obliged to run one by one across the forks of the road which was swept by the enemy's artillery. When the French prisoners were ordered to stand up and follow they refused to do it. To leave them behind would have been questionable because they could have secured for themselves weapons from the fallen men who were lying around, and, as has often happened, could shoot upon our retreating men from behind, and besides could betray to the advancing and powerful enemy what weak forces we had on our side. In this position of military necessity the Lieutenant determined to order a defensive fire upon the recalcitrant prisoners, and he succeeded in spite of the dangerous circumstances in bringing his section back to the regiment with only the loss of a single man. If all the prisoners had the same death wound close behind the ear, that was only chance."
Of course the men who formed this conclusion and the men who publish it as satisfactory overlook three things: (1) The fact that the sworn testimony which it was supposed to investigate asserted that the guns near the dead men were found broken off at the stocks and therefore unusable; (2) that the chances of such a defensive fire as is here described killing all of these men stone dead except one who had been severely wounded and who was untouched by the defensive fire are about a thousand to one; (3) that the chances of all these men killed by this defensive fire, being killed by precisely the same wound close behind the ear, are about a million to one, unless this "defensive fire" means the blowing out of each man's brains one by one.
Further examples of action toward prisoners and wounded are recorded in the following leaves published in facsimile from the diaries of German soldiers. Under-officer Göttsche of the Eighty-fifth Regiment of Infantry of the Ninth Army Corps wrote as follows:
"Oct. 6, 1914. We would have liked to capture the fort at once, but we had to take up quarters in the village of Kessel. The Captain called us to him and said, 'In the fort that is to be taken, there are probably Englishmen. I don't want to see, however, a single English prisoner in my company.' A general bravo of agreement was the answer."
A leaf from the journal of the soldier Fahlenstein of the Thirty-fourth Fusiliers of the Second Army Corps records:
"Aug. 28. The Frenchmen lay in heaps of eight or ten wounded or dead, one on top of the other. Those who were still able to walk were made prisoners and taken away with us. Those who were severely wounded, with a wound in the head or in the lungs, and couldn't stand on their feet, received another ball which put an end to their life. We were given orders to do this."
I do not know whether there has been any investigation of the conduct of these last two officers or not, but the results put forward in the Dinant report and the investigations of the affairs of the Remy-Mouilly Road and the Javer Tageblatt letter suggest with great plainness that German officers inspired by a proclamation like that quoted near the beginning of this article would not feel that their superiors would be too rigid in defining the limit set by what our instructions call the "principles of justice, honor, and humanity," and what the German War Book calls "certain severities indispensable to war in whose ruthless application very often lies the only true humanity."
One other illustration of the practical application by German officers of the theory of the German General Staff about the relation of the only true humanity to the nature of war and its objects. An Over-lieutenant of Bavarian infantry wrote a letter signed by his name which was published in the Muenchener Neueste Nachrichten on Oct. 7, 1914. This letter describes the occupation of the town of Saint Dié by the German Army in the end of August. I condense and then quote entire from a facsimile reproduction. He entered Saint Dié at the head of some fifty men. Marching through the empty streets he suddenly came around a corner to find the red trousers behind the barricades, and nine of his men went down at the first volley. Some forty survivors took refuge in the corner house, the Café de l'Univers, which was at once invested by Alpine chasseurs and French infantry. Let him describe what follows:
"In this situation, entirely cut off from our brigade, we were holding out for what might have been two hours, when there burst suddenly through an open window the window sill is very low two elegantly dressed women waving white cloths in their hands and throwing themselves at my feet. The situation seemed to me I hope I shall be forgiven the expression exceedingly dramatic. One of the ladies speaks German that is, she stammers out some scattered words that I manage to put together. Her mother and sister are taken prisoner by the Germans. She herself must find the Mayor of Saint Dié and bring him back. If she doesn't, both will be shot as hostages. The General had given them a half hour. While they are on this search they get under our artillery and infantry fire and have fled to our house over the corpses of our men. I had them taken down into the bomb-proof wine cellar—quieting assurances—I will speak later myself with the General, etc. Besides this, I knew some time ago that the Mayor with all his other officials had skipped out.
"But we have arrested three civilians, and suddenly a good idea comes to me. They are placed on chairs, and a spot in the middle of the street, where they must sit on these chairs, is pointed out to them. Wringing of hands and supplications on one side, some blows of rifle butts on the other side. One becomes gradually awfully severe. Then they take their places sitting outside in the street. How many prayers they sobbed out I do not know, but their hands were the entire time folded together in a convulsive way.
"I feel sorry for them, but the expedient is of immediate use.
"The fire from the houses dies down at once. We are able now to seize the house that lay opposite, becoming in consequence the masters of the chief street. Anything that shows itself after this on the street is shot down. The artillery also has meantime worked very effectively, and as in the neighborhood of 7 o'clock the brigade rushes forward in the charge in order to set us free, I can make the announcement ' Saint Dié is free from opponents.
"As I later found out, the flank reserve regiment which broke into Saint Dié from the north had very similar experiences to those which we had. Their four civilians whom they also put in the same way in the street were, however, shot by the Frenchmen. I saw them myself lying near the hospital in the middle of the street.
"Let me give another episode from this day which proves what a spirit rules among our soldiers even in such a critical situation. The very moment in which no one of us would have given a rush for his life, our trumpeter stepped forward—he is the very type of a Bavarian reserve soldier—in his hand a glass of beer. 'Will you have some beer, Herr Lieutenant?' He had in perfect calmness and quiet climbed behind the buffet, tapped a little cask of beer, and was offering everybody a glass, also to many for whom this would be the last drink. Yes, yes, life moves in contraries, especially in war."
Now, the doctrine in regard to the relation of the usages and necessities of war to the spirit of humanity thus defined and illustrated is opposed both to the theory and the practice of the army of the United States.
The writer repudiates at the outset the idea that he is making this remark in any Pharisaic spirit. It does not enter into his mind to claim that cruel things have never been done by men wearing the uniform of the United States. He is discussing at the present moment an intellectual proposition and trying to make plain to every one of his readers the unquestionable fact that there does exist in the minds of the German General Staff a doctrine and that there has been deduced from it by some German officers a practice which differs radically from the doctrine and the practice of the officers of the army of the United States. He is not pleading any brief for his own nation, and if the reader will have patience to follow this article to the end he will see that he is not transgressing the maxim of Burke and drawing any indictment against the German Nation. He is simply endeavoring to point out the fact that this difference in doctrine and practice does exist.
As a matter of fact no American officer would dare to print in any American newspaper letters of the character which have been cited. As a matter of fact, an American officer giving such orders as have been recorded in the cited diaries of German soldiers or permitting such actions as those whose recital in the Javer Tageblatt was indorsed for newspaper publication by a German Lieutenant would be confronted by Article 71 of our Instructions for Armies in the Field:
"Whoever intentionally inflicts additional wounds on an enemy wholly disabled or kills such an enemy or orders or encourages soldiers to do so, shall suffer death if duly convicted whether he belongs to the army of the United States or is an enemy captured after having committed this misdeed."
As a matter of fact, the report of a military commission recording and approving things similar to those recorded and approved in the report of the military commission on the occurrences at Dinant would, if any one dared to publish it, be overwhelmingly repudiated by American public opinion, and the men who were responsible for the shooting of hostages it approves would undoubtedly be court-martialed.
In order to see how true this is let us look, in the light of the foregoing German recitals of the theory and practices of the German military authorities, at some more items of the theory in regard to the nature and objects of war put forward by our military authorities in the Instructions for Armies in the Field:
28. Retaliation (reprisals) will therefore never be resorted to as a measure of mere revenge, but only as a means of protective retribution, and, moreover, cautiously and unavoidably; that is to say, retaliation shall only be resorted to after careful inquiry into the real occurrence and the character of the misdeeds which may demand retribution.
54. A hostage is a person accepted as a pledge for the fulfillment of an agreement concluded between belligerents during the war or in consequence of the war. Hostages are rare in the present age.
55. If a hostage is accepted he is treated like a prisoner of war according to rank and condition, as circumstances may admit.
56. A prisoner of war is subject to no punishment for being a public enemy, nor is any revenge wreaked upon him by the intentional inflicting of any suffering or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity. [This is all that is said about hostages.]
Now let us look at the practice of the officers of the United States. On April 22, 1914, the following proclamation was posted in the City of Vera Cruz, Mexico:
It has become necessary for the naval forces of the United States of America now at Vera Cruz to land and to assume military control of the customs wharves of Vera Cruz. Your co-operation is requested to preserve order and to prevent loss of life…. It is enjoined upon all inhabitants and property owners to prevent firing by individuals from the shelter of the houses upon United States forces or upon any one else. Such firing by irregulars, not members of an organized military force, is contrary to the laws of war. If it persists again it will call for severe measures.
R. S. FLETCHER,
Rear Admiral of the United States.
The occupation of Vera Cruz cost our forces, according to the report of the Admiral, seventeen killed, three fatally wounded, two seriously wounded, and a large number of less seriously wounded. The sniping by nonuniformed citizens of which this proclamation speaks had already been going on for twenty-four hours. It continued for twenty-four hours later, and our chief casualties were due to this kind of irregular warfare. Our naval guns shelled the houses from which the firing took place, and our forces proceeded in each individual case to kill or capture those who were in them. But the idea of a general destruction and burning of the City of Vera Cruz, or the idea of arresting as was done at Rheims the Mayor and eighty leading citizens to be hung or shot if this irregular warfare did not stop was never for one moment entertained by any of the American officers. Nor did it occur to any American officer at Vera Cruz to seat four civilians on chairs in the street to protect his men from crossfire in street fighting.
So far as this last idea is concerned, it must be noted in this connection that the article in answer to Professor Bedier's pamphlet (an article which, according to its own statement, had the co-operation of the German military authorities) said that it was a pity Professor Bedier had not reproduced in facsimile more than a single column of the newspaper letter of the Bavarian Over-lieutenant because "so long as the context is lacking it is not possible to know whether the affair was a matter of regular or irregular warfare. In a war of francs-tireurs it might be useful and perfectly legitimate to place in the street some civilians upon whom their friends and neighbors would not dare to fire, while in regular warfare it would be a crime." So that, under the circumstances at Vera Cruz, any American officer who in order to protect his own men had seated the Mayor or any Mexican civilians in the streets to be shot by their own countrymen would have the indorsement of the German military authorities. (Two things may be added: First, Mr. Bedier, thus challenged, reproduced in facsimile all of the article in question, from which it appeared that the German writer described himself as fighting French infantry and Alpine Chasseurs; and, secondly, if the officer who wrote this account of his actions and the actions of his superior and brother officers has been court-martialed for an affair which has become a matter of the widest international discussion, I have failed to see any announcement of it.)
This being the official doctrine of the United States and the practice of its officers in regard to hostages and retaliation (reprisal) it is to be expected that the doctrine of the German General Staff in regard to "the only true humanity" illustrated by the above-cited practices of some German officers should, when it met the American Government face to face, be repudiated by it. It did meet us face to face. It is more exact to say that it was fairly flung into our teeth by the deliberate application of it to our own citizens after our most solemn warnings not to apply it to our citizens.
The way that came about is as follows: On Feb. 4 Germany announced to the nations of the world that she intended to sink, without scruple for the lives of their crew and passengers, every enemy merchant ship which was found in the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland; and she further warned all neutral ships to steer clear of those waters, because it might be impossible to distinguish them from enemy ships. She said she was forced to do this as a retaliation for England's violations of international law upon the water, by abolishing the distinction between absolute and conditional contraband, by seizing German property and German subjects of military age on neutral ships, and by declaring the waters of the North Sea to be the seat of war, thus rendering all navigation on the waters between Scotland and Norway exceedingly dangerous, "so that they have in a way established a blockade of neutral coasts and ports, which is contrary to the elementary principles of international law": measures "to reduce the German people by famine." We replied by warning the German Government in the most explicit terms not to destroy any merchant vessel of the United States and not to cause the death of American citizens.
On the 7th of May, under direct orders, deliberately given by the military authorities, a German submarine sank the Lusitania with over a thousand passengers on board, drowning a large number of men, women, and children, among them more than a hundred Americans. We immediately contended that this act was "unlawful, inhumane, and a violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity." We refused to accept the palliations put forward by Germany for the deed and we based our protest on very distinct grounds. We said we were "contending for something much greater than any rights of property or privileges of commerce. The Government of the United States is contending for nothing less high and sacred than the rights of humanity…. It is upon this principle of humanity as well as upon the law founded upon the principle that the United States must stand."
In taking our stand upon this principle of humanity the United States was also standing by two things: First, her own position, expressed originally more than fifty years ago in the following articles of the "Instructions to Armies in the Field":
Article IV. It is incumbent upon those who administer martial law to be strictly guided by the principles of justice, honor, and humanity—virtues adorning a soldier even more than other men.
Article XXVIII. Unjust or inconsiderate retaliation (reprisal) removes the belligerents further and further from the mitigating rules of regular war and by rapid steps leads them nearer to the internecine wars of savages.
Second, the United States was standing upon a principle approved also by Germany, through her signature to The Hague Convention in 1907, and also by all the belligerents in this war through their signatures to that convention:
The high contracting parties clearly do not intend that an unforeseen case should in the absence of a written undertaking be left to the arbitrary judgment of military commanders.
Until a more complete code of the laws of war has been issued the high contracting parties deem it expedient to declare that, in cases not included in the regulations adopted by them, the inhabitants and the belligerents remain under the protection and the rule of the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized people from the laws of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience.
The question as to whether the sinking of the Lusitania was or was not a violation of the principle that "unjust or inconsiderate retaliation leads the belligerents by rapid steps nearer to the internecine wars of savages," (American "Instructions,") the question whether the sinking of the Lusitania was or was not "against the laws of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience," is a question every man must decide for himself. The facts of the case are not in dispute.
But in doing his duty as a citizen by forming his own opinion as to whether the stand taken last July by the Government of the Republic on "the high and sacred rights of humanity" was right or wrong, it is proper for every American to take into account what lies behind the Lusitania case.
For it is evident that, in the Lusitania case, this nation was confronted, to reverse the famous saying of President Cleveland, "not with a situation alone, but with a theory" a theory of the German military authorities which the writer has placed plainly before the reader in their own words and their own practices described by themselves.
That this is the theory of the German military authorities is unavoidably plain both from what they have said and what they have done. But the writer does not believe that this theory is the theory of the German people. In holding this opinion he takes into account certain things which ought to be assumed by any intelligent and sympathetic observer. It is just as true today as it was in the days of Lincoln that "you cannot swap horses when you are crossing a stream." The German people, fighting as they are with heroic courage for their Fatherland, are not in the mood to listen to any criticism of their military authorities who are commanding that tremendous struggle. They will naturally regard all such criticisms as deliberate and malignant slanders by their enemies based on perjured testimony or exaggerated facts. They do not scrutinize the reports of their military authorities nor the utterances of highly placed professors of international law who assure them that the sinking of the Lusitania was legal and humane.
But it is possible to get the judgment of a large portion of the German people upon this same theory and its application, not in time of war but in time of peace, when they were able to look at it, to understand it and to criticise it themselves, because it was not then part of their national defense in a great crisis, nor the object of the unlimited attacks of those whom they had good reason to regard as their very bitter enemies.
Precisely the same attitude which underlies the utterances and acts in time of war on the part of the German military authorities which this article has described in German words, underlies the famous Zabern incident which occurred shortly before the outbreak of the war. Both proceed from a certain abnormal caste consciousness, a certain exaltation of all military persons above all civil persons, a certain deification of armed forces as the incarnation of the greatest human qualities and the highest potential of patriotism, which makes the gains of war seem like the smile of God.
In December, 1913, there was great difficulty between the garrison of the Alsatian town of Zabern and the inhabitants. In the course of this difficulty a certain Lieutenant of the regiment in garrison wounded severely with his sabre a lame schoolmaster who had made to him what he considered an insulting remark. The Lieutenant and his two superior officers for he claimed to have acted in the spirit of orders given to them in regard to their attitude toward the civil population were court-martialed, but ultimately acquitted by the military authorities. The affair created an extraordinary excitement in Germany. The leading papers, with few exceptions, condemned the action of the Government, which supported the military authority.
The Berliner Tageblatt reported on Dec. 4, 1913: "The Bavarian press of all party tendencies is full of indignation over the attitude of the Chancellor."
The Kolnische Zeitung of Dec. 4, said: "We come to the attitude of the Chancellor and we see with great regret that the military view has found support in him…. All Germany listened today to hear from Berlin, out of the mouth of the Government, a reassuring reply to the fundamental question whether there was in the State or the empire a power outside the realm of law which can break down the rights and liberties of citizens and can daringly assume to treat the laws which are the common foundations of our political joint life as if they had no existence for it."
The Vorwaerts said: "This decisive utterance of Colonel von Reuter (it would be a good thing if some civilian blood flowed in Alsace) is typical of his mediaeval ideas of justice…. In his opinion neither law nor order, but only military force, exists. The commands of a military autocrat outweigh in his esteem the dictates of conscience and law."
One of the well-known German comic journals published a cartoon representing a boy and his father looking at some toy soldiers with the background of a Christmas tree:
Boy—Civil is the opposite of military, is it not, father?
Father—Yes, my son, and civilization is the opposite of militarism.
But the action of the representative assembly of Germany was even more significant. When General von Falkenhayn, defending the army before the Reichstag, said "the incident had been maliciously exaggerated by a press given to agitation," " a great roar of dissent and indignation arose from the house. General von Falkenhayn stood as still as a statue for five minutes while the President tried to quiet the pandemonium by ringing the bell."
After his speech and that of von Bethmann Hollweg, the present Chancellor, the Reichstag passed 293 to 54, with forty-nine absent and one blank ballot, a vote of lack of confidence, which would have brought about the fall of a responsible Ministry. This attitude of the German people at the close of 1913 in repudiating the spirit shown by her military authorities in the affair of Zabern causes the writer to cling to the pious hope that some day Germany will be able to see that her military authorities are using her armies now in the spirit of the Zabern affair, with all the terrible enlargements and exaggerations resulting from the change from a state of peace to a state of war. When Germany has rejected in war, as she did in peace, this theory and its resulting practice, which is in itself entirely alien to the true genius and character of the ancient German people, and has returned "to her old good sense and her old good humor," she will again take her place among the sisterhood of nations a sisterhood all of whose members will be purified by terrible suffering borne with heroic self-sacrifice and continue those great contributions she has made in the past to the spiritual treasures of mankind.
Awaiting that time, the American Republic owes it to herself, to the world, and to the German people to stand by her own principles and the principles of humanity, and to assert them without compromise against any attempt in the past or the future, on the part of the German military authorities, to apply to our citizens their principle that "excessive humanitarian notions should not limit the only true humanity, which very often lies in a ruthless application of certain severities indispensable to war." For this Republic to do anything else would be to eat her own words, stain her own honor, and turn her back on the "high and sacred principles of humanity" as whose champion she rode forward last July into the lists of the world.
The passage of the resolution proposed in Congress ordering Americans off belligerent ships would have been as shocking a repudiation of duty as can be found in any nation's history. As the President wrote to Senator Stone: "To forbid our people to exercise their rights for fear we might be called upon to vindicate them would be a deep humiliation indeed. It would be an implicit, all but an explicit, acquiescence in the violations of the rights of man everywhere. It would be a deliberate abdication of our hitherto proud position as spokesman, even among the turmoil of war, for the law and the right."
In these words the President drew the line on a vital question. Every citizen who understands the facts and approves of the principles here suggested, even though he may have been inclined in the past to criticise the action of the State Department in the Lusitania case as lacking in energy, ought to rally to that line against an opposition which appeals to the motley support of pseudo- Americans, of honestly mistaken pacifists, of a vast mass of people who can be misled about the situation or remain indifferent to it, only because they do not understand the facts in the case.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald