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When the Germans came to town

“The Burgomaster came into the restaurant to find us, and offered to go on with us to Visé, to show us the town, and we were glad to have him, as he knows the place like the palm of his hand. I had been through Visé twice, and had marvelled at the completeness of the destruction, but had really had no idea of what it was. It was a town of about forty-five hundred souls, built on the side of a pretty hill overlooking the Meuse. There are only two or three houses left. We saw one old man, two children and a cat in the place. Where the others are, nobody knows. The old man was well over sixty, and had that afternoon been put off a train from Germany, where he had been as a prisoner of war since the middle of August. He had KRIEGSGEFANGENER MUNSTER stencilled on his coat, front and back, so that there could be no doubt as to who he was. He was standing in the street with the tears rolling down his cheeks and did not know where to go; he had spent the day wandering about the neighbouring villages trying to find news of his wife, and had just learned that she had died a month or more ago. It was getting dark, and to see this poor old chap standing in the midst of this welter of ruin without a chick or child or place to lay his head…. It caught our companions hard, and they loaded the old man up with bank-notes, which was about all that anybody could do for him and then we went our way. We wandered through street after street of ruined houses, sometimes whole blocks together where there were not enough walls left to make even temporary shelters. Near the station we were shown a shallow grave dug just in front of a house. We were told who filled the grave—an old chap of over sixty. He had been made to dig his own grave, and then was tied to a young tree and shot. The bullets cut the tree in two just a little above the height of his waist, and the low wall behind was full of bullet holes. As nearly as we can learn, the Germans appear to have come through the town on their way toward Liège. Nothing was supposed to have happened then, but on the 15th, 16th and 17th, troops came back from Liège and systematically reduced the place to ruins and dispersed the population. It was clear that the fires were all set, and there were no evidence of street fighting. It is said that some two hundred civilians were shot, and seven hundred men bundled aboard trains and sent back to Germany as prisoners of war—harmless people like the old chap we saw.” – Hugh Gibson, December 6, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium (ellipsis in original)

Published inHugh GibsonLit & CritThe Great War

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