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Category: Hugh Gibson

Not how to win a modern war

“After a hasty lunch we made off to Dinant, still following the Meuse. The thin line of houses down the course of the river were thinner than they were a few months ago, and there were signs of suffering and distress everywhere. I had never been to Dinant before, but had seen pictures of it and thought I had an idea of what we were going to see. But the pictures did not give a hint of the horror of the place. The little town, which must have been a gem, nestled at the foot of a huge gray cliff, crowned with the obsolete fort, which was not used or attacked. The town is gone. Part of the church is standing, and the walls of a number of buildings, but for the most part, there is nothing but a mess of scattered bricks to show where the houses had stood. And why it was done, we were not able to learn, for everybody there says that there was no fighting in the town itself. We heard stories, too, and such stories that they can hardly be put on paper. Our three guests were more and more impressed as we went on. The bridge was blown up and had fallen into the river, and as we had little time to make the rest of our day’s journey, we did not wait to cross by the emergency bridge farther up the river. While we were standing talking to a schoolmaster and his father by the destroyed bridge, seven big huskies with rifles and fixed bayonets came through, leading an old man and a woman who had been found with a camera in their possession. At first there was no objection raised to the taking of photographs, but now our friends are getting a little touchy about it, and lock up anybody silly enough to get caught with kodaks or cameras.

“According to what we were told, the Germans entered the town from the direction of Ciney, on the evening of August 21st, and began firing into the windows of the houses. The Germans admit this, but say that there were French troops in the town and this was the only way they could get them out. A few people were killed, but there was nothing that evening in the nature of a general massacre. Although the next day was comparatively quiet, a good part of the population took refuge in the surrounding hills.

“On Sunday morning, the 23rd, the German troops set out to pillage and shoot. They drove the people into the street, and set fire to their houses. Those who tried to run away were shot down in their tracks. The congregation was taken from the church, and fifty of the men were shot. All the civilians who could be rounded up were driven into the big square and kept there until evening. About six o’clock the women were lined up on one side of the square and kept in line by soldiers. On the other side, the men were lined up along a wall, in two rows, the first kneeling. Then, under command of an officer, two volleys were fired into them. The dead and wounded were left together until the Germans got round to burying them, when practically all were dead. This was only one of several wholesale executions. The Germans do not seem to contradict the essential facts, but merely put forward the plea that most of the damage was incidental to the fighting which took place between the armed forces. Altogether more than eight hundred people were killed. Six hundred and twelve have been identified and given burial. Others were not recognisable. I have one of the lists which are still to be had, although the Germans have ordered all copies returned to them. Those killed ranged in age from Félix Fivet, aged three weeks, to an old woman named Jadot, who was eighty. But then Félix probably fired on the German troops.”

– Hugh Gibson, December 6, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium (emphasis in original)

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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)

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Pragmatism in action

“Marshal Langhorne came in to-day from The Hague to effect formal delivery of the first bargeload of food, and had weird tales to tell of his adventures by the way. Thank goodness, the first of the food has arrived in time, and if the flow can be kept up, the worst of our troubles will he averted. With this first consignment of food came the story of how it was got through in such record time. Hoover is one of these people who is inclined to get things done and attend later to such details as getting formal permission, etc. With Shaler’s forty thousand pounds and promises of five hundred-thousand dollars more, he went to work and placed orders for twenty thousand tons of food, costing two million dollars a week. This he did on the theory that money would come along later, when the need was realised, but that the Belgian stomachs would not wait until collections had been made. He purchased the food, got it transported to the docks, and loaded on vessels that he had contrived to charter, while all the world was fighting for tonnage, got them loaded and the hatches closed. When everything was ready, Hoover went to the proper authority and asked for permission to ship the food, announcing that unless he could get four shiploads of food into Belgium by the end of the week, the people would begin to starve. The functionary was sympathetic, but regretted that in the circumstances, he could not help. It was out of the question to purchase food. The railways were choked with troops, munitions and supplies. Ships were not to be had for love or money. And above all, the Channel was closed to commerce. Hoover heard him patiently to the end. ‘I have attended to all this,’ he said. ‘The ships are already loaded and ready to sail. All I need from you is clearance papers. You can let me have them, and everything will be all right.’ The high official could hardly believe his ears: ‘Young man,’ he gasped, ‘perhaps you don’t realise what you have done. Men have been sent to the Tower for less. If it were for any other cause, I hesitate to think what would happen to you. But as it is, I can only congratulate you on some very good work.’ And that’s how we got our food in time.” – Hugh Gibson, November 5, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium

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King and Queen of the immense nation of Sorrow

“As soon as we had got through, I had to start back for my audience of the Queen. W.—– took me out to la Panne, where we found the Villa on the sand dunes, a little way back of the lines. There were a couple of gendarmes on duty, the King’s Secretary, and the Countess de Caraman-Chimay, the one Lady-in-Waiting. I had just got inside when the door opened and the King came in. He had heard I was coming to see the Queen and had motored down from Furnes. I was able to satisfy him in a few minutes on the points he had wanted to see me about and then he questioned me about friends in Brussels. I suggested to him that it would probably help our committee in raising funds if he would write an appeal for help from America. He fell in with the idea at once, and together we got out an appeal that is to be sent across the water. Where we sat we could see the British ships shelling the Germans, and the windows of the dining-room were rattling steadily. The King stood beside the table with his finger tips resting on the cloth, watching the stuff ground out word by word. I looked up at him once, but could not bear to do it again—it was the saddest face one can imagine, but not a word of complaint was breathed.

“Just as we were finishing, the Queen came and bade us in to tea. She was supposed to wait for her Lady-in-Waiting to bring me, but didn’t. The King stayed only a minute or two and then said he must be getting back to Headquarters, where he would see me later.

“I suggested to the Queen that she, too, make an appeal to the women of America, to which she agreed. Another appeal was prepared for her, and it, too, will be sent to America by the first post.

“The Queen had wanted to see me about the subject of surgeons for the Belgian army. The Belgian surgeons in the Brussels hospitals have been replaced by Germans, and have nothing to do, although they are desperately needed here. The Queen was terribly depressed about the condition of the wounded. There are so few surgeons, and such tremendous numbers of wounded, that they cannot by any possibility be properly cared for. Legs and arms are being ruthlessly amputated in hundreds of cases where they could be saved by a careful operation. Careful operations are, of course, out of the question, with the wounded being dumped in every minute by the score. In these little frontier towns there are no hospital facilities to speak of, and the poor devils are lucky if they get a bed of straw under any sort of roof, and medical attendance, within twenty-four hours. We went to see one hospital in a near-by Villa, and I hope I shall never again have to go through such an ordeal. Such suffering and such lack of comforts I have never seen, but I take off my hat to the nerve of the wounded, and the nurses, most of them the best class of Belgian women, used to every luxury and getting none.

“The Queen gave me tea, and one of her small supply of cigarettes, and we talked until after dark. The monitors off shore had been joined by a battleship, and the row was terrific and rendered conversation difficult.

“The Queen was still full of courage and said that as long as there was one square foot of Belgian soil free of Germans, she would be on it. She said it simply, in answer to a question from me, but there was a big force of courage and determination behind it. As I was not dismissed, I finally took it on myself to go, and the Queen came with me to the door and sent me on my way. She stood in the lighted doorway until I reached the motor, and then turned slowly and went in—a delicate little woman with a lion’s heart.”

– Hugh Gibson, October 29, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium

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Don’t think they wouldn’t do it

“In the course of a visit to General von Lüttwitz to-day, one of the colleagues remarked that the Germans must keep the Belgians alive, and could not allow them to starve. Lüttwitz was not at all of that mind, for he said with some show of feeling: ‘The allies are at liberty to feed the Belgians. If they don’t, they are responsible for anything that may happen. If there are bread riots, the natural thing would be for us to drive the whole civil population into some restricted area, like the Province of Luxembourg, build a barbed wire fence around them, and leave them to starve in accordance with the policy of their allies.’ And as the German policy is more or less frankly stated as a determination to wipe out as many of the enemy as possible without regard to what is or has been considered as permissible, it is quite within the realm of possibility that they would be prepared to let the Belgian people starve. In any event, you can’t gamble with the lives of seven millions of people when all you have to go on is the belief that Germany will be guided by the dictates of humanity.” – Hugh Gibson, October 14, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium

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Lads thirsty for blood of all types

“The way the German army cleaned out the wine of the country was a revelation to everybody. They would not take what they needed for the day’s drinking but would clear out whole cellars at a time and load what was not drunk onto carts to be carried away. The result was that people who had a little warning had recourse to all sorts of ingenious tricks to save some of their store. There was one bright man in the province of Namur who removed his stock of wine–all except a few thousand bottles of new wine–and deposited them in the ornamental pond near his château. The Germans arrived a few hours afterward and raised a great fog because they were not satisfied with the amount of wine they found. The owner of the château had discreetly slipped away to Brussels and they could not do anything to him. However, they tapped all the walls for secret hiding places and went over the park to see if anything had been buried–all in vain. The next morning, however, the pond was covered with labels which had soaked off and floated to the surface, and after draining the pond the whole stock was carted away.” – Hugh Gibson, September 8, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium

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And we thought they fought only for beer and slaughter

“Count and Countess de X—– had an interesting story to tell of their experiences when the first armies went through. When the war broke out they were at their château and were caught by the first onrush of troops. Their fine cellars were emptied for the benefit of the invader, but nothing more serious happened to them until the second wave came along. Then there was a demand for more wine. As all the wine had been carried away they could not comply. The Germans were convinced that they were being fooled, and searched the place very carefully. Finally they imprisoned the X—–‘s for three days in the cellar and then brought them forth and stood them up before a firing squad and threatened to shoot them unless they told where the wine was hidden. At the critical moment a big gray military car rolled up, and to their considerable relief they saw that one of the occupants was a German princeling, who had formerly been their guest on several occasions. They called out to him, and by his orders were immediately released. After expressing their thanks to him they went into the château to find that soldiers were engaged in packing up their fine collections of enamels and porcelains to ship them to Germany. Another appeal to the Prince, who was most sympathetic. He was a practical and resourceful man, and said:

“‘Of course I’ll stop this, but you will understand that our men would like to keep some little souvenir of the war in Belgium. That would be hard to prevent. But I would suggest that you pick out all the pieces that you value most and pack them away in that large wardrobe. Then I’ll do the rest.’

“Madame de X—– was, of course, delighted with this, and scurried about gathering together the finest pieces and packing them carefully into the big wardrobe. She kept it up as long as there was a nook or cranny where odd pieces could be put, and then reported progress to the Prince.

“‘Are you sure that all the best pieces are there?’ says he.

“‘All that could be packed there,’ answers Madame de X.

“‘Good,’ says the Prince, and then turning to his orderly: “Have that wardrobe sent to Berlin for me.’”

– Hugh Gibson, September 8, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium

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And dead they remain to this day

“When I got back to the Legation, I found a nice Belgian who had no request to make of us, but wanted to tell his story to somebody, and a terrible story it was, too. He had fitted up his château near Mons as a Red Cross hospital. During the battle there a week ago, 102 British wounded had been brought in. The Germans found the château a hindrance in their operations, so got it out of the way by battering down the walls with artillery, and then throwing grenades into the building to set it on fire. There was great difficulty in getting the wounded out and hiding them in such shelter as was to be found. One man, at least, was burned alive in his bed. It seems incredible that Red Cross hospitals should be attacked, but stories come in from every side, tending to show that they are.

“Beside this man’s property there is a railway crossing. When a troop train passed over it day before yesterday, there was an explosion like the report of a rifle. The train was immediately stopped. The officer in command announced that civilians had fired upon his train, and ordered all the men in the vicinity taken prisoners. Then, refusing to listen to explanation or discussion, he had them all stood up against a wall and shot. When it was all over, he listened to explanations and learned that the report was that of a cap placed in the switch by the German railway men as a signal to stop the train before reaching the next station. By way of reparation, he then graciously admitted that the civilians were innocent. But, as my caller said: ‘The civilians were also dead.’”

– Hugh Gibson, September 1, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium

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Modern war comes to old town

“The boulevards were deserted save for the troops coming back into the town [Louvain]. New houses were burning that had been intact in the afternoon. After passing the Porte de Tirlemont, we began to see people again—little groups that had come out into the streets through a craving for company, and stood huddled together listening to the fighting in the lower part of the town. In harmony with the policy of terrorising the population, the Germans have trained them to throw up their hands as soon as any one comes in sight, in order to prove that they are unarmed and defenseless. And the way they do it, the abject fear that is evident, shows that failure to comply with the rule is not lightly punished. Our worst experience of this was when in coming around a corner we came upon a little girl of about seven, carrying a canary in a cage. As soon as she saw us, she threw up her hands and cried out something we did not understand. Thinking that she wanted to stop us with a warning of some sort, we put on the brakes and drew up beside her. Then she burst out crying with fear, and we saw that she was in terror of her life. We called out to reassure her, but she turned and ran like a hunted animal. It was hard to see the fear of others—townspeople, peasants, priests, and feeble old nuns who dropped their bundles and threw up their hands, their eyes starting with fear. The whole thing was a nightmare.” – Hugh Gibson, August 27, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium

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The end of the old world

“I stopped at the Palace to sign the King’s book, and ran into General Jungbluth, who was just starting off with the Queen. She came down the stairs and stopped just long enough to greet me, and then went her way; she is a brave little woman and deserves a better fate than she has had. Inglebleek, the King’s Secretary, heard that I was there signing the book, and came out to see me. He said that the Queen was anxious I should see what had been done by the bombs of the night before. He wanted me to go right into the houses and see the horrid details. I did not want to do this, but there was no getting out of it under the circumstances.

“We drove first to the Place du Poids Publique and went into one of the houses which had been partially wrecked by one of the smaller bombs. Everything in the place had been left as it was until the police magistrate could make his examination and report. We climbed to the first floor, and I shall never forget the horrible sight that awaited us. A poor policeman and his wife had been blown to fragments, and the pieces were all over the walls and ceiling. Blood was everywhere. Other details are too terrible even to think of. I could not stand any more than this one room. There were others which Inglebleek wanted to show me, but I could not think of it. And this was only one of a number of houses where peaceful men and women had been so brutally killed while they slept.

“And where is the military advantage of this? If the bombs were dropped near the fortifications, it would be easy to understand, but in this instance it is hard to explain upon any ground, except the hope of terrifying the population to the point where they will demand that the Government surrender the town and the fortifications. Judging from the temper they were in yesterday at Antwerp, they are more likely to demand that the place be held at all costs rather than risk falling under the rule of a conqueror brutal enough to murder innocent people in their beds.”

– Hugh Gibson, August 27, 1914, A Journal from Our Legation in Belgium

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