US Report on German Atrocities in Belgium Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In August 1914, German forces invaded neutral Belgium on their way to capture France. Anticipating a two-front war with France and Russia, the Germans adopted a strategy based on the Schlieffen Plan, in which the German Army intended to quickly defeat the French to the west before concentrating forces in the east against the Russians. The strategy relied on the rapid capitulation of the Belgian Army so that German forces could hook through Belgium and invade France from the north. The small Belgian Army put up significant resistance, however, delaying the German invasion for nearly a month. The frustrated German Army retaliated against the civilian population that they suspected of continued resistance and sabotage, and more than five thousand Belgian civilians were executed during the German occupation. Reports of atrocities committed by the German Army reached England and galvanized support for the war there and in the United States, which remained neutral until April 1917. Five months after the United States entered into the war, this report was sent from the US minister to Belgium, Brand Whitlock, to the US secretary of state and then widely published. Like earlier reports, this outraged the American people and bolstered support of the war effort.

Summary Overview

In August 1914, German forces invaded neutral Belgium on their way to capture France. Anticipating a two-front war with France and Russia, the Germans adopted a strategy based on the Schlieffen Plan, in which the German Army intended to quickly defeat the French to the west before concentrating forces in the east against the Russians. The strategy relied on the rapid capitulation of the Belgian Army so that German forces could hook through Belgium and invade France from the north. The small Belgian Army put up significant resistance, however, delaying the German invasion for nearly a month. The frustrated German Army retaliated against the civilian population that they suspected of continued resistance and sabotage, and more than five thousand Belgian civilians were executed during the German occupation. Reports of atrocities committed by the German Army reached England and galvanized support for the war there and in the United States, which remained neutral until April 1917. Five months after the United States entered into the war, this report was sent from the US minister to Belgium, Brand Whitlock, to the US secretary of state and then widely published. Like earlier reports, this outraged the American people and bolstered support of the war effort.

Defining Moment

The German Army invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914, and was met with significant resistance. Even after most of Belgium was under German control, there were widespread rumors that Belgian civilians were attacking German soldiers. Generally feared as saboteurs and franc-tireurs (snipers), Belgian civilians were also alleged to have mutilated German corpses, tortured injured soldiers, and utilized such unexpected weapons as boiling water flung at passing soldiers. Belgian civilians were subjected to fierce and widespread violence from the first days of the German invasion, as the German forces attempted to terrorize the country into submission as quickly as possible. The Germans burned towns thought to be sheltering snipers, and many Belgian civilians, even those who took no part in any violence against German soldiers, were executed.

The German Army targeted landmarks, particularly religious structures and accused priests of fomenting rebellion. In one case, in the village of Leuven, German troops in retreat thought that Belgian civilians were firing on them. In retaliation, Leuven was ransacked and burned, and its significant buildings destroyed, including a university library, resulting in the destruction of more than three hundred thousand medieval books and manuscripts. German soldiers massacred more than two hundred people in Leuven, shooting some as they fled their burning houses. In the city of Dinant, German soldiers executed more than six hundred people, including women and children, in the town square. Though the initial reports of German atrocities were certainly exaggerated, the damage done to the Belgian population was immense; more than five thousand civilians were killed, more than half a million Belgians were displaced, and more than one hundred thousand were deported to Germany as forced labor.

As refugees from Belgium poured into France and the Netherlands, British prime minister H. H. Asquith appointed Viscount James Bryce to compile a report on the alleged atrocities. The subsequent “Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages,” also known as the Bryce Report, cataloged a number of allegations of war crimes committed by the German Army. This report was widely circulated, and forty-one thousand copies were immediately shipped to the United States. The Bryce Report began to turn American public opinion against Germany. The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly published a refutation of the alleged atrocities, known as the White Book, in which Germany described attacks committed by the Belgian civilians, arguing that these civilian attacks were in violation of the Hague Convention. Passages from the White Book were published in the New York Times in June 1915 and also widely circulated, but it did little to change public opinion, though the United States remained officially neutral for two more years.

When the United States joined the war against Germany in 1917, it was after a prolonged period of strict neutrality. Though the American people were generally sympathetic to the Allies, the US government needed to bolster support among a population that had long been ambivalent about joining the war in Europe. Whitlock’s report confirmed for the American people what the Bryce Report had described. The German treatment of Belgian civilians demonstrated the brutality of their army and provided the United States with the moral imperative to go to war.

Author Biography

Brand Whitlock was born in Urbana, Ohio, on March 4, 1869. Whitlock did not attend college, focusing instead on a career in journalism, working first for the Toledo Blade and then the Chicago Herald. Whitlock passed the bar in 1894 and established a successful law practice in Toledo, Ohio. He served four terms as mayor of Toledo between 1906 and 1914. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the position of minister to Belgium. When World War I began, he worked in Germany to ensure that food donations were allocated to Belgian civilians and not to the German occupation forces, and he was widely praised for his integrity. When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Whitlock escorted other Americans out of Belgium via neutral Switzerland.

Whitlock continued to advocate for the defense of Belgium, and after the war, he became the first ambassador to that nation when the United States established an embassy in Brussels in 1919. Whitlock was also known for his extensive writing, publishing numerous works of fiction and nonfiction throughout his life. He died on May 24, 1934, in Cannes, France, at the age of sixty-five.

Document Analysis

Whitlock’s report focuses on the allegations of atrocities committed by German soldiers against Belgian civilians in the first month of the invasion. Whitlock lists the villages familiar by then to anyone who had read the Bryce Report. He contrasts the peaceful agricultural character of the region with “deeds of such ruthless cruelty and unspeakable outrage.” Whitlock begins with a summary of the fate of the towns that lay in the path of the German army, describing widespread instances of arson, looting, and civilian executions.

Whitlock’s report, like the Bryce Report before it, highlights crimes against noncombatant civilians, particularly infants, women, the elderly, and clergy members. In particular, the report emphasizes the mutilation and murder of children, to counter the German argument that adult civilians were actively engaged in violent resistance. Whitlock lists the names and ages of infants and small children killed near Dinant, as well as other instances in which children were directly targeted by German forces. In several cases, Whitlock gives a total number of a town’s inhabitants who were killed and then points out how many are women, generally a small percentage of the total, but still a significant number, since they were assumed to be innocent.

Shortly after the Bryce Report and the German White Book were published in 1915, many people thought that the reports of German atrocities were exaggerated, and it was true that some of the stories circulated were enhanced and sometimes wholly fabricated for propaganda purposes. Whitlock addresses this in his report, noting that the stories were “difficult at first to believe,” but he finds his proof in the “detail” and “authority” with which they were told. The story of the Belgian baby with his hands cut off was another rumor that circulated in the popular press, which turned what was likely an isolated incident into a perceived common German practice. Whitlock addresses the skepticism surrounding this story directly and sets himself apart from the sensationalist media. These lurid details are not at issue to Whitlock. “Whether their hands were cut off or not, whether they were impaled on bayonets or not,” Whitlock asserts, innocent children were killed by German soldiers “in cold blood.” Whitlock acknowledges that the Germans were most likely genuinely afraid of being fired on, but he argues that the Germans repeatedly used that fear as an excuse to terrorize the civilian population. When Germans claimed to have been “boiled” by water or to have had tar flung at them, Whitlock says that even if this were so, there was not enough boiling water in all of Belgium to justify the atrocities committed against the Belgian people.

Whitlock’s report stands as a far more factual record of the suffering of Belgium in August 1914 than most other reports of the time. This is not to say that Whitlock maintains a cool detachment in this report. He describes an incident in which a town was shelled at close range, causing the deaths of civilians of all ages, as “never surpassed in cruelty by any band of savages.”

Essential Themes

The “rape of Belgium,” as the incidents of the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 would come to be known, was crucial in setting the tone of wartime propaganda. Early reports galvanized the war effort in Britain and France, and when the United States entered the war in 1917, these incidents were reported again to emphasize the moral imperative of the war effort. The Germans were depicted as bestial, savage, and unwilling to follow international laws of war. While avoiding the incendiary and sensationalist tone of other reports, Whitlock clearly felt that the treatment of Belgian civilians was proof of the depravity of the German army and the necessity of its defeat.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Allport, Alan, and Gilles Boué. “Louvain, Destruction of (25–30 August 1914).” World War I: A Student Encyclopedia. Ed. Spencer Tucker and Priscilla Mary Roberts. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Print.
  • Bennett, E. N., trans. The German Army in Belgium: The White Book of May 1915. London: Swarthmore, 1921. Print.
  • De Schaepdrijver, Sophie. “The ‘German Atrocities’ of 1914.” British Library. British Library Board, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
  • Lipkes, Jeff. Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914. Leuven, Belg.: Leuven UP, 2007. Print.
  • Zuckerman, Larry. The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I. New York: New York UP, 2004. Print.
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