Devastated Poland

By Frederick Walcott

[The National Geographic Magazine, May 1917]

I want to impress upon you two things—what the Prussian system stands for, and what that system is costing the world in innocent victims.

You are all familiar, more or less, with the story of Belgium. You can never appreciate what that tragedy means until you have seen it. I want to stop just a moment in Belgium to give you two or three figures to take away with you, and pay a tribute to an organization that has been supreme there ever since the war began.

You must remember that in Belgium nearly five millions of people for many months, now have been completely destitute and are getting their one meager meal per day, consisting of approximately three hundred grams of bread—a piece of bread about as big as my fist—and a half-liter of soup—approximately a pint of soup in 24 hours; a nation, in other words, whose sole living is obtained by going up and standing in line from one to three or four or five hours a day, to wait, without shelter from the weather, for one meager meal a day given to them by charity.

That undertaking has cost approximately fifteen millions of dollars per month in cash for more than two years. Ninety-five per cent of that money is being contributed by the English and French governments.

It takes between 50,000 and 60,000 people, most of them volunteer Belgians and French in Belgium and in that occupied territory of northern France, to distribute this food; and that great undertaking is being supervised by a small group of loyal Americans, who have been working from the beginning without pay under the leadership of an inspired genius, Mr. Herbert C. Hoover.


I went into Belgium to investigate conditions, and while there I had opportunities to talk with the leading German officials. Among others I had a talk one day with Governor-General von Bissing, who died three or four weeks ago, a man 72 or 73 years old, a man steeped in the "system," born and bred to the hardening of the heart which that philosophy develops. There ought to be some new word coined for the process that a man's heart undergoes when it becomes steeped in that system.

I said to him, "Governor, what are you going to do if England and France, stop giving these people money to purchase food?"

He said, "We have got that all worked out and have had it worked out for weeks, because we have expected this system to break down at any time."

He went on to say, "Starvation will grip these people in 30 to 60 days. Starvation is a compelling force, and we would use that force to compel the Belgian workingmen, many of them very skilled, to go into Germany to replace the Germans, so that they could go to the front and fight against the English and the French.

"As fast as our railway transportation could carry them, we would transport thousands of others that would be fit for agricultural work, across Europe down into southeastern Europe, into Mesopotamia, where we have huge, splendid irrigation works. All that land needs is water and it will blossom like the rose."


"The weak remaining, the old and the young, we would concentrate opposite the firing line, and put firing squads back of them, and force them through that line, so that the English and French could take care of their own people."

t was a perfectly simple, direct, frank reasoning. It meant that the German Government would use any force in the destruction of any people not its own to further its own ends.

had never thought in such terms. I had read von Bernhardi and others, but I did not believe them, and the whole point of view was new; but gradually the truth of it all began to dawn upon me.

After that some German officials asked if I would not go to Poland, because there the situation had gotten the best of them. There some three millions of people would die of starvation and exposure if not fed between then, a year ago, and the next crop, last October. They said, "If that thing goes on and on, it will demoralize our troops." Again that practical reasoning.

I hurried into Poland under the guidance and always in the company of German officers, many of them very high officers, men on the general staff. I want briefly to give you a word picture, of what I saw there, and again drive home the point of what that system stands for. Picture Poland, that country between Russia and East Prussia, looking like a man's foot, with the foot pointed toward East Prussia.

In the fall of 1914 the Russian offensive had successfully driven the Germans back almost to East Prussia. There they dug themselves in for the winter, two and one-half millions of Russians and two and one-half millions of Germans, in a north and south line nearly 300 miles long, from East Prussia to the north and down to Galicia.


It took ten months for the Germans to prepare the greatest offensive that has ever been known in military times, under General von Hindenburg. They anticipated that in the retreat that might follow every railroad bridge would be destroyed, the railroads would be torn up, the highways and culverts and everything would be gone, and they must make a supreme effort to be ready for all these contingencies. That started in August, 1915.

By the collapse of their great fortification at Lodz, the "Verdun" of the Russian line, about 50 miles west of Warsaw, which stood there as a bulwark supporting Russia and Poland against any inroads by the Prussians, the situation was changed.

That fortification had been built eight or ten years back by money which the Russians had borrowed from the French Government. I spent the entire day out there. It took only five shots from the huge howitzer, "Fat Bertha," named for Miss Bertha Krupp, that throws a shell weighing 1,900 pounds, with an effective range of 22 miles, to completely demolish that magnificent fortification.

The gun was located on a concrete foundation 13 miles away from one of the principal forts—the one that contained the most munitions. They knew twenty millions of marks worth of provisions were in that warehouse. They knew exactly how much ammunition was in each one of the twenty-six forts in a semi-circle facing Prussia, and they picked out the one that contained the greatest quantity. Then they fired four shots, each one of which went astray.

Each one made a crater in that field, a place 150 feet in diameter and 30 or 35 feet deep.


The fifth, getting this range by aëroplane, struck the center of that fortification, and the combined-explosion of that shell with the explosion of the ammunition in the firing pits, detonated by the explosion of the shell, threw chunks of concrete one-fourth the size of a big room out into the field as if they were paper, turned over those six- and eight-inch guns, mounted on their heavy carriages, with 15-inch steel turrets over them, and dumped them out in the field as if they were nothing.

I went around through some of the firing pits that were more or less intact, and there the German officer pointed out to me the forms of men against the concrete.

He said 450 men were killed instantly; that in some of the firing pits they were plastered up against the wall and flattened as flies would be against a window-pane, so that they had to spade the bodies off.

The whole Russian line collapsed with the surrender of that fortification. The commandant of the Russians telephoned to the German commander and said, "We will surrender the fortification if you will stop firing."

"No/," he said, "not until you have surrendered all your men; and if you burn that warehouse we will not take your men alive."

"It is all yours." And it was all over with the Russians in Russian Poland. That Russian line, 300 miles long, swept across Russian Poland and clear into Russia before it stopped, trying every now and then to resist,' but failing, continued its retreat.

That gray mass of men traversed three great military highways, fighting along the southern road commencing 30 miles west of Warsaw and going 230 miles toward Moscow, clear into Russia, covering an area three times the size of New York State and nearly three times the size of New England, excepting Maine, containing fifteen millions of Poles.


I motored along those roads, the two running toward Petrograd and the one toward Moscow. They are all in very much the same condition. The German officers and the Poles who were with me, with whom I consulted, agreed in this estimate, that in about six weeks time, a year ago last fall, approximately one million people along that southern road were made homeless by the burning of their dwellings, and of this one million people at least four hundred thousand died in the flight along that one road.

Of the balance approximately half were saved and gathered by the Germans later into refugee camps, and today, according to the Central Relief Committee of Poland, approximately seven hundred and fifty thousand of those miserable refugees who escaped with the Russian army are now in Russia, many of them in Siberia, and more dead than alive.


It is those people whom the committee has been trying to relieve, because nobody has been able to get food or help into Russian Poland proper, with the exception of one undertaking of the Rockefeller Foundation.

As I motored along that road, only a few weeks after that terrible retreat, I began to realize something of what had happened. Both sides of the road were completely lined for the whole 230 miles with mud-covered and rain-soaked clothing. The bones had been cleaned by the crows, which are in that country by countless thousands. It is a rich alluvial country. Three-quarters of the people are agriculturists and one-quarter industrial. The Prussians had come along and gathered up the larger bones, because they were useful to them as phosphates and fertilizer. The little finger bones and toe bones were still there with the rags of clothing.

The little wicker baby baskets, that hold the baby as he swings by a rope or chain from the rafters of the peasant's cottage, were there by hundreds upon hundreds. I started counting them for the first mile or two and gave up in despair, because there were so many.

We began to investigate the conditions of those who were still alive, those refugees who were homeless. We saw no buildings in that whole 230 miles. Everything had been destroyed; nothing but the bare chimney, black and charred, was standing; no live stock, no farm implements, in all that vast area.

I saw with my own eyes between fifty and sixty thousand of the six or seven hundred thousand of those refugees who had been gathered together, about a thousand to a building, in rude, hardly weather-proof barracks hurriedly put up by the Germans.


There they were, lying on the ground in broken families, getting one starvation ration a day, dying of disease and hunger and exposure. The buttons from their clothing were gone; their clothes had to be sewed on.

When I saw them they had not had their clothes oil for weeks. There were no conveniences of life. They were in a state of bodily filth that is indescribable. Going back to the cities, where the destruction was not so awful, we saw little people and, grown people, mothers and children, sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against a building, sometimes covered with snow or rain-soaked, too weak to lift their hands to take the money or bread that we might offer them.

All the wealthy people of Poland were giving everything they owned to save their nation.

One day one of the Poles, the head of the great Central Relief Committee of Poland, a wonderful man, wealthy before the war, but who has given everything he possessed to save his people, showed me a proclamation and translated it for me. It was written in Polish and I could not read it. It was signed by the German Governor-General, and the significance of it was this: It was made a misdemeanor for any Pole having food to give it to any other able-bodied Pole who would refuse to go into Germany to work.

That meant that this "system" had put it up to the head of any of the various families to go into voluntary slavery in Germany, knowing that he could not hear from his family or communicate with them, knowing that he would be back of a barbed-wire barricade with an armed guard to keep him from escaping, with one blanket to sleep in on the factory floor at night; knowing that the money he earned would be taken for the food he ate, leaving his family in starvation.


I took this matter up with the Governor-General and asked him what it meant.

He said, "I do not know; I have to sign so many of those things; but," he continued, "go to the Governor-General of the Warsaw district and he will tell you the whole story."

I went there in a rage, and when he told me that those were the facts, I got up and said: "General, I cannot discuss this thing with you; it is worse than anything I ever heard of. I did not suppose any civilized nation would be guilty of such a thing as this"; and I started to walk out.

He said, "Wait a minute: I want to explain this thing to you. We do not look at it as you do. Starvation, is a great force, and if we can use that to the advantage of the German Government we are going to use it.

"Furthermore, this is a rich alluvial country. We have wanted it and needed it for a long time, and if these people die off through starvation, perhaps a lot of German people will overflow into this country and settle here; and after the war, if we have to give up Poland, the question of the liberty of Poland will be solved forever, because it will be a German province."


Still the reasoning of that "system!" As I walked out, General von Bernhardi came into the room, an expert artilleryman, a professor in one of their war colleges. I met him the next morning, and he asked me if I had read his book, "Germany in the Next War."

I said I had. He said, "Do you know, my friends nearly ran me out of the country for that. They said, "You have let the cat out of the bag," I said, 'No, I have not, because nobody will believe it. What did you think of it?"

I said, "General, I did not believe a word of it when I read it, but I now feel that you did not tell the whole truth;" and the old general looked actually pleased.

What is true in Poland, is true, in Serbia and in Roumania. In Serbia approximately three-quarters of a million people have died miserably. A German captain who had been there three months, in that campaign through Serbia, told me that he saw the Bulgarian soldiers killing innocent men and women and children along the road with their bayonets; that it got too much even for him, and he could not stand it and came back. He said they had typhus in every city he visited in Poland.

In Roumania practically six hundred thousand people have been murdered in cold blood by the Turks. All the armed forces in that country are officered by Germans, so they are in a sense guilty of that, too; they are parties to it.


There is a wild dog, a mad dog, loose. That system has become so ingrown that it threatens to involve the German people themselves. I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, it is worth while, if it costs everything in the world, to stop that system!

Ever since the signing of the Declaration of Independence we have welcomed people who have come to these shores to get away from religious and political persecution. They have come here to enjoy life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hope and we all hope that these shores always will welcome those people.

The people that came here, particularly the Germans that came in 1848 and the two or three years following, and in 1872 and thereafter, knew why they came, and now we know why they came. For two years we have been suspicious of the hyphen, but it behooves us, as a free, liberty-loving people, to get over that suspicion, to dispel from our hearts rancor and hatred, because the fire of Americanism has fused that hyphen in an incredibly short time, and we must assume that the German-American today is one with us, and that free America, with all its citizenship, is going in whole-heartedly, with money and with men, to fight for a free world.


What is that going to cost us? We must not count the cost, though that cost will be terrific. It has already overwhelmed the nations of Europe. The blood and the travail of Europe thus far, terrible as it has been, may be justified by the birth of a great nation, the United States of Russia, and I pray God devoutly that the last stages of this war, terrible as they are going to be, awful as will be the cost, may be justified by the birth of another great nation, the United States of Germany!

It devolves upon this great organization, the American Red Cross, first to heal the suffering of the combatants, first to look after our soldiers and to help the soldiers of our allies.

But after that, do not let us forget our duty to the innocent victims in this war, because after this war the nations that have been belligerents and engaged in the war are going to be so seriously crippled that they will have to give all their strength to recuperation. They cannot give to their people.

It is going to devolve upon this nation to go in there, remembering our duty, remembering the fate of Belgium and Poland, to resuscitate those people and give them hope and prove to them that there is a God in Heaven, and that liberty is worth any price!

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury