Current History, Vol. VIII, No. 3, June 1918 online

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out to get bread from Belgian civilians. The state in which they
returned was the worst sight I have seen in my life. Their clothes
were ragged, they were half shaven, verminous, suffering from skin
diseases, and were half savage with hunger and bad treatment. After
their arrival the commandant in the camp issued an order (which I
saw) that no more of these parties should be taken through the main
street of the town, but should go by the byways on account of the
feeling that had been caused among the population. I am told that
the population showed a great deal of sympathy, tears, &c.

About May 1, 1917, about 300 prisoners of all nationalities were
brought from behind the western lines. I spoke to those who came
into the lazaret. All were starving, and had been kept there until
they collapsed from overwork. Fifteen Russians died as soon as they
were brought in. One man told me that on a march of eleven
kilometers a man fell out ill, the guard gave him so many minutes to
fall in again, and told him he would shoot him if he was not up by
then; he could not go on, and the guard shot him.

From a third camp:

I knew two of our men who had been working behind the German lines
in the west for five months. One was 29 years old, the other 25. The
first weighed 180 pounds when captured. He left the firing line too
weak to walk, and weighed 110 pounds. He was badly treated and
knocked about. When I saw him in camp he was black and blue. The
other man had the same treatment. They were both starved, and both
were gray-headed with the five months' treatment. These men said our
men were dying there every day through hardship and exposure. The
food behind the lines was about half the camp rations.

"Worked to the Bone"

From a fourth camp:

In September, 1917, seventy-five noncommissioned officers, who had
been behind the lines, were brought into our camp. They were in a
bad physical condition, hungry, lousy, and worked out. One month
after, a large body, all privates from behind the lines, captured
since May, came in. They were in a terrible condition, famished
beyond words. They had been worked to the bone, and were in a filthy
condition. They made our camp lousy. The camp doctor said they were
the worst cases he had seen, and said they could stay in bed for a
week. They were so famished that two died of eating the food we gave
them. They had been working on the Hindenburg line, and the railway
Cambrai to Lille, and repairing it under fire. They said they were
on very small rations and compelled to work. They told us that
Frenchwomen who out of compassion gave them any trifling gift of
fruit were knocked down by the sentries.

From the same camp:

I spoke to men who had been kept at work behind the German lines on
the western front. The majority of these were there about twelve
months, and they came into camp about the end of November or the
beginning of December, 1917. They told me that they had been
employed close up to the lines. They had been employed cutting
trees, and had been under our own shellfire. They were half starved
and in a terrible condition. On one occasion about 300 came in,
about forty of whom had British clothes, the rest being dressed in
odds and ends of French and German clothing - in fact, anything they
could get hold of. We collected bread for them and cut it up in
readiness for their arrival so as to save all possible time, but
their hunger was so great they could not help raiding us and
fighting for it. It was terrible to see them. I do not think many of
them had been wounded, but their condition was so terrible that I
cannot describe it.

They were absolutely the worst bunch of men I had ever seen. They
were terribly thin and weak, and fell down as soon as they started
to eat, as they were in an absolutely exhausted state. Their
underclothing was in a dreadful state, and they were covered with
vermin, and had been like that for about twelve months. This is the
party which I mentioned as coming to the camp about the end of
November or the beginning of December, 1917. About a fortnight after
their arrival, and after their clothes had been fumigated and they
had baths two or three times a week, they picked up wonderfully.

From a fifth camp:

In March, 1917, I saw fifty English prisoners come in to camp who
had been working behind the lines near Cambrai digging trenches;
they had been there three or four months. All of them were in a
shocking condition, absolutely starved, with boils and sores all
over them. We used to share our parcels with these men. During the
whole time I was in camp - that is, up to December last - men were
drifting in who had been working behind the lines on the western
front; they always arrived in the same shocking condition. I
remember particularly one, in November, 1917, coming back from
Cambrai district. He was very bad and starved; he told me they had
been very badly treated; all huddled together in barns, no sanitary
arrangements, no blankets, and he said he had seen a native woman
shot for giving them food; that they were well within range of guns,
and within six kilometers of the lines, shells frequently falling
about them, and that he had seen many of his own comrades wounded
while working, that they were knocked about by their guards, and,
generally, his account of their treatment was appalling. To my
knowledge from conversation with them, men were coming in who had
been working close up behind the lines right down to the time I left
Germany in December, 1917.

From an army Chaplain:

On Feb. 16, 1917, there arrived in Minden Hospital sixteen men who
had been working behind the western front, attached to Camp E.K. 5.
The thermometer registered 10 degrees, Fahrenheit, below zero. They
had walked seven kilometers from the station. Their clothing
consisted of tunic, trousers, and thin shirt, boots and socks, and
an old hat - no coat and no underclothes. They had been two days and
two nights in the cold train with very little to eat. * * * Two of
these men died later of consumption in Minden. They had all been
captured in November (this was February) and their relatives did not
know that they were even alive. These men report, too, that they are
brutally treated; human life is not worth so much as horseflesh,
because the latter can be eaten. They are worked until they either
die or so completely collapse that they are useless. I believe this
was the first party that arrived from the western front. I had the
names of the men in a notebook, but it was taken from me. They said
it was nothing to wake up in the morning and find the man sleeping
beside you dead. I got the names of several who had died, and wrote
to their people to inform them.

Lives Made Unbearable

The committee close these statements with the following striking
extract from the evidence of a young wounded British officer who was
placed in a ward in a German hospital in France, filled with
prisoners of all nationalities:

The German in charge of the ward was a
university professor, and, seeing several of our men, also Russians
and Rumanians, come on to the hospital in an emaciated condition, I
asked him the cause, and where they came from, when, without giving
me details, he told me they came from working camps behind the
lines. There, he said, the conditions were frightful, so much so
that he himself was ashamed of them - the men were overworked, under
shellfire, very much underfed, had not much clothing, and slept in
sheds and shelters in the snow under filthy conditions. I
ascertained from him and from some of our own men that many died
behind the lines; all were thoroughly ill-treated by the Germans,
and the lives of those who did not die were made quite unbearable.

I am sure the German who informed me had no personal grounds which
made him complain against the system, it was merely on humanitarian
grounds that he told me he was shocked; and the independent stories
I received from our own soldiers simply bore out the fact that the
Germans were ill-treating their prisoners behind the lines at this
time. While I was in hospital the German I have mentioned above did
his best to get the men from the hospital marked unfit for work
behind the lines; and I must in fairness add that as a result very
few, if any, went back to work there once they had been sent to
hospital, and they seemed to be marked for camps in Germany

The report concludes: "The committee in their survey of the evidence
dealt with in this report have failed to find a trace even of lip
service either to the obligations so solemnly undertaken by the
German Government in time of peace for regulating their conduct in
time of war or to these principles from their War Book which that
Government professed as their own. Further comment appears to the
committee to be superfluous. The facts speak for themselves."

American Prisoners Exploited

_A correspondent sent the following from The Hague, April 20, 1918,
regarding the German treatment of American prisoners:_

From irrefutable evidence obtained by your correspondent, it is
impossible to close one's eyes to what is going on in the hospitals and
prisoners' camps in Germany. It is a mistake to believe that the
treatment of prisoners and wounded in Germany has improved. On the
contrary, it is as bad as it ever was, even worse.

The punishments inflicted are cruel and inhuman. As is well known,
prisoners are absolutely dependent upon parcels for food and clothing. A
favorite punishment is to withhold these from a whole camp or from large
bodies of prisoners. It has been established beyond doubt that prisoners
are employed behind the front and are under shellfire, in defiance of
The Hague agreement of 1917.

Some prisoners never reach a camp in Germany for six months, meanwhile
receiving no parcels of food. Their condition on arrival at camp, broken
down and starving, is pitiable.

The evidence doesn't tend to show that American prisoners are receiving
any preferential treatment. It is reported that the first American
prisoners taken were hawked about the country, presumably to show them
off to the populace. At Giessen, where, it would seem, American
prisoners were kept on two separate occasions, they were prohibited any
intercourse, even by sign language, with other prisoners and were not
allowed to receive parcels or gifts from them.

British prisoners at Giessen asked if they could give parcels to
Americans, and finally received permission to do so the following day.
But the next day the American prisoners were moved away early in the

British prisoners were able to detect Americans who had been captured
any length of time by their appearance and by the state of their
clothes. Until parcels for them arrived from Berne their state was

A British noncommissioned officer recently obtained the signatures of
the first ten Americans captured and talked with them. These men signed
the scrap of paper in the hope that some news of them would reach the
outside world. They were in poor physical health and somewhat

A few recent examples from a large amount of sworn evidence follow:

In February, 1918, 4,000 men were sent from a Westphalian camp to within
thirty kilometers behind the front. Their guards ran away to escape the
British shrapnel fire.

The state of prisoners coming from the big Somme battle in the first
week of the present month was deplorable. Their wounds had not been
dressed in many cases for more than ten days. Owing to the lack of
dressing, British comrades bandaged their wounds with old towels and

It was formally announced by the German authorities in Camp Bonn on
April 13 last that two British soldiers, R. and B., had been shot near
Minden for not stopping talking when ordered to do so.

In November, 1917, men were brought into the hospital at M. continually,
having been wounded by shrapnel from behind the lines. Wounded men lay
for three or four weeks unattended and grossly neglected.

Much of the sworn evidence is so repugnant that it could not be
published. There has been talk of reprisals on American prisoners, and
even foreigners born in America are included in these threatened

Total Destruction of Rheims

By G. H. Perris

_With the French Armies, April 20, 1918_

The great fire at Rheims has nearly burned itself out. Having thrown in
a week 50,000 explosive and an unknown number of incendiary and gas
shells, the German gunners ceased as suddenly and inexplicably as they
had begun, and when I entered the city this morning the silence of death
brooded over it.

The written word is powerless to describe such a spectacle, and it is no
more adequate for being unmeasured. But when men of faith, men who love
the old and beautiful, write under the fresh, stunning impression of
such a sight, is it strange that some loose phrases escape them?

I am very familiar with the ruins of Rheims. From the first bombardment,
which destroyed the exquisite sculptures of the north tower and the
façade of the cathedral three and a half years ago, I have been able to
watch the mischief extending step by cruel step. At first, with normal
British reluctance to credit the outrageous or incomprehensible, one was
chiefly concerned to find out whether, after all, there was not some
sort of military excuse. I severely cross-examined every one who could
be supposed to know anything about the matter. There never was any
shadow of excuse.

It remained only to record from time to time the progress of a crime as
deliberate as any in the annals of the war, and in its own kind
particularly damnable - a blackhearted crime such as a Comanche chief or
a Congo cannibal would not have had the wickedness to conceive.

And if there be still any rationalist obstinate enough to ask for the
reason why of this last outburst of vandalism, I can only hazard the
guess that it may have been planned, like the long-distance bombardments
of Paris, as a terroristic accompaniment of the Hindenburg offensive. It
may have been supposed that the tales of the refugees would help to
demoralize Paris and the rest of the country. So little after these
terrible years has the boche learned of the people he set out to

Well, the Cathedral of St. Louis is not falling. Wonderful was the work
of the builders. More buttresses, pinnacles, gargoyles, and stone
railings have been shattered, more statues chipped, and rain, entering
freely by a large rent in the roof, has worked invisible damage since my
last visit in November. The cathedral has been struck again. The
uplifted sword of Joan of Arc in the bronze equestrian statue before the
cathedral has been cut in half.

If this were all, we should have after the war at least a worthy
memorial to leave to posterity. It is said that it would now cost a
million sterling to restore the finest Gothic fane in France. I hope
nothing of the kind will be attempted, nothing more, that is, than the
construction of a new roof, new windows, doors, and furnishings, and the
necessary strengthening of the structure.

For as it stands, gashed and discolored, the vast shell has a strange
magnificence and a piteous loveliness like that of some of the broken
splendors that remain to us from the ancient world. Let Rheims speak to
the future generations as the ruins of the Acropolis and the Forum have
spoken to our fathers and us.

But the city itself raises a different and a more difficult problem. It
is now no exaggeration to say that as a whole it is destroyed beyond
hope. Till a fortnight ago large parts of it were not beyond the
possibility of repair. Remember that Rheims was not a small town like
Ypres or Arras, but a wealthy and dignified community of 120,000 souls,
occupying a space equal to one-fifth of that of Paris.

There is now from end to end probably not a single house whose walls are
not more or less broken. The northern and eastern quarters were already
in ruins. Now the centre of the city is gutted. Of the public buildings
the central squares built in the time or after the Counts of Champagne,
the cloth warehouses and workshops, the private residences, bazaars and
shops, nothing stands but rows of smoking walls, half buried in fallen
rafters and masonry.

The Abomination of Desolation

An Episode in France

_Dr. Norman Maclean, an eminent Scottish scholar, whose articles from
the front have appeared in The Scotsman of Edinburgh, penned this
touching picture of the war-devastated Somme region a few days before
the Germans again swept over it in March, 1918:_

They stood side by side on a heap of rubbish inside the door of the
ruined church in the midst of the ruined town - a man and woman garbed in
humble, rusty black. The survivors of the erstwhile population were
being brought back as shelters were prepared and work provided for them;
these had obviously just returned, and had come straight to the church.
When they fled before the flood of death, the church stood scatheless,
built immovably upon the rock of the centuries. It was a shrine of
beauty and a haunt of peace. But as they now stood on the mound of
fallen masonwork inside the west door, what they saw was this - the roof
lying in an undulating ridge piled on the floor, the sacred pictures
torn and tattered; the pillars shattered; the altar buried under a great
mass of débris, and a figure of the Christ, uninjured, looking out
through the broken arches on the dead town, and on the land beyond,
where the white crosses gleam o'er the multitudinous dead.

The man stood motionless, with a face like a mask. But in a moment the
woman shook as if stricken by an ague. She turned and stumbled toward
the doorway, where there is no door, the tears coursing down her cheeks
and a sob in her throat. The man turned and followed her. He took her
hand in his, and they walked away with bowed heads in silence. It is
strange how the human heart is moved. It was the tremulous face of that
black-robed woman, and the lifting of her hands as if to hide the
abomination of desolation from her sight, and the stumbling flight from
a scene intolerable, that made me feel the horror spread before me. For
I saw it with her eyes.

What she saw was infinitely more than what I could see. She had
experienced in her own soul that this was holy ground. In happy days of
childhood heaven seemed to lie here; she had come hither to be received,
in white, into the holy fellowship; hither to be married; hither to
dedicate her children at the sacred font. And when the burden of life
was heavier than could be borne, how often had she come hither; and as
she fell on her knees at the elevation of the Host, the very God seemed
to fold her in the Eternal Embrace, and her troubles fled as morning
mists before the sun.

And when the war came, and the men went forth, and with them her sons,
how often did she come softly to this sanctuary and dip her hand in the
holy water at the door and cross herself, and bow toward the altar, and
kneel and pray that they might be saved. In and out all day they came
then, men and women, and they prayed for their own, and for France, and
their prayers were as the moaning of the winds. * * * And now this!
Nothing is left. Home and town and children and sanctuary are all
overwhelmed in the one flood. And the Christ from the broken pillar
gazes upon a perishing world. It is with her as with those of old, who
fell under the heel of the oppressor and who cried: "Zion is a
wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation; our holy and our beautiful house
where our fathers praised Thee is burned with fire, and all our pleasant
things are laid waste."

There is that in man which enables him to meet every blow of fate with
unblanched face - save one. When the blow is aimed at his soul, then he
shrivels. It was in her soul that this woman was smitten, as she saw the
house of her God thus. And that is why there in the land of death the
churches and cathedrals are all in ruins. To make the altars of Arras
gaze on the clouds and the stars, and make the winds wail through the
colonnades of Rheims, was deemed the surest and swiftest way of
spreading terror and affright. So the devotées of Odin declared war upon
God. For a little while the tribal deity and the belligerent dynast
reign supreme. The homeless and bereft, the great multitude who are as
those standing on the rubble-heap, are verily left with nothing but
their eyes to weep with.

It is amazing how soon one gets assimilated to the most horrifying
environment. In a few days one can walk through a town which has been
turned into heaps without even a shock of wonder, just as at home one
reads the war news and the list of the dead without any realization. In
these days we need to be stung broad awake now and then. A city in ruins
becomes deadly monotonous - until one is wakened.

One day, when the sun broke forth heralding the Spring, the promise of
green on a clump of tangled rose bushes tempted me to turn into the
garden of a shattered villa. It was as thousands of others: the
hearthstones looked upward to the clouds, and the household goods lay
piled tier on tier of rotting lumber as floor fell on floor. In the
centre of the green a shell hole took my eye, and I picked my way toward
it. Out of the earth at the bottom of the hole there obtruded the bones
of a man's arm. In haste, the dead had been thrown into the shell hole
and lightly covered. And the rains had washed so much of the earth away.
And that bone brought the realization that I stood in the midst of one
vast cemetery.

Everywhere and all around under the feet are the nameless dead - men,
women, and little children. These last are the nightmare of this horror.
Formerly nations recovered from war swiftly; the cradles filled up the
gaps. But here the children are dead. To the eye of faith the Star of
the East shines still with splendor over every spot where a babe lies.
But that Star has been extinguished in this region of doom. The altar is
buried, the hearthstone is in the rain, and amid the welter of rubbish
you can see the children's cots twisted and rusting and woeful. A woman
breaking into sobs inside a ruined church door; a body in a shell hole
in a garden, a child's cot rusting on a rubbish heap - these open the
eyes and make them see.

These things did not come by the arbitrament of war. It wasn't shrapnel
and high explosives that wrought the desolation. From the battlements of
the old citadel one can see the dead town lie spread, and the houses hit
by shells are few and far between. The houses destroyed wantonly by the
enemy ere they retreated are easily recognized, for the walls fell
outward by the internal explosions. Ninety-five per cent. have fallen
outward, and the wall of the church is likewise. This ancient sanctuary
was wantonly destroyed by the retreating enemy. What amazes one is the
appalling stupidity of such a crime. If the Germans destroyed the town,
that was their right, the might of the sword, and their act could
perhaps be justified. But to destroy the church is to destroy what even
Attila spared, and so outrage the conscience and instinct of the world.
There is never an excuse to seek when an outrage is perpetrated by the
enemy. A hospital ship is sunk - but, of course, it is carrying
munitions! A church is turned into a ruin, but its towers are used as
observation posts! Poor little towers in a land of airplanes and captive
balloons! If the churches had been spared, as they were spared in the
world's darkest ages, humanity would know that the German soul was still
alive. But now the world knows that it is up against an enemy that
threatens body and soul alike - an enemy that not only kills the body,
but destroys the soul! What an amazing stupidity! - but it is through
such stupidity that God lays up judgment against the day of wrath.

Online LibraryVariousCurrent History, Vol. VIII, No. 3, June 1918 → online text (page 18 of 30)