The Belgian population under German occupation, 1914-1918
“In the Turmoil of the World War” 
The causes of the First World War and its military development per se are of no
concern to us here. Germany was faced with the politically self-inflicted
dilemma of a war on two fronts. The plan drawn up at the beginning of the
century by the then Chief of Staff, von Schlieffen, envisaged a quick, decisive
strike again France from the north via neutral Belgium, in order to overthrow
France using the blitzkrieg method and then strike Russia with the full force
of the army.
After Luxembourg had been taken by German troops overnight from 1st
to 2nd August, German soldiers marched into Belgium in the early
hours of 4th August. The border was initially breached in Gemmenich,
near the quadripoint  and close to Aachen, with the bulk of the 25th
Aachen Infantry Regiment (Lützow) following twenty cavalry. Most of the Belgian
military was still assembled at the Meuse river, so the astonished Belgian
customs officers had no other choice but to defiantly point out, "C'est la Belgique ici" (“This is
“No quarter will be given” 
Although contact with the enemy was infrequent, attacks on civilians soon
started. More than 6000 completely innocent people  would lose their lives in
these attacks over the next four weeks . As early as 6th August a
bachelor, Joseph Beuven, was shot and killed in Gemmenich and his house was
razed to the ground. The German troops marching into the area had been provoked
by the ostentatious spectacle of the Belgian flag ! On the evening of 7th
August at Garnstock, just a few metres from the Prussian border near Eupen, members
of a Hanover regiment forced their way into a monastery, claiming that somebody
had shot at them from inside the building. Were it not for an orderly from
nearby Eupen, who happened to be passing by and vouched for the monks as being
completely harmless, even the fact that they were German nationals would not
have saved them from being shot . In the night of 8th-9th
August seventeen civilians were shot and killed in Overoth and Baelen, just two
kilometres from the aforementioned monastery. The victims included a 13-year-old
girl, two women aged 24 and 62 and thirteen men aged between 30 and 68 .
The uncontrollable, marauding German soldiers continued to carry out
these ferociously violent attacks on the civilian population throughout August and
into September. Mass executions of civilians were the order of the day:
villages and towns such as Battice, Herve, Visé, Andenne, Tamines and Aerschot
were devastated. The most well-known event was in Leuven. Between 25th
and 28th August, not only were 209 members of the public killed, but
the world-famous university library was set on fire 
The worst German war crime committed in Belgium during the First World
War was probably in Dinant, close to the French border, where 671 of the town’s
6000 inhabitants were killed by German soldiers in the final week of August 1914.
Among the dead were babies and elderly people. Several hundred more people were
forcibly removed to a camp at Kassel .
Francs-tireurs and snipers
What, then was the reason for this completely unjustified behaviour towards
Belgian civilians, particularly during the first few weeks of the war? As early
as the beginning of August, when Liege had just been captured, the censored
German press told of appalling attacks on German soldiers by Belgian civilians.
According to newspaper reports, devious Belgians had readily offered
accommodation to German soldiers and had then murdered and brutally mutilated them
during the night. But the perfidiousness of the Belgians did not end there, according
to the newspapers. It was also claimed that non-uniformed individuals had shot
at German soldiers from inside houses and from behind hedges. Even German
businessmen and German holidaymakers in Belgian cities and coastal resorts had
been assaulted by enraged mobs and, in some cases, even murdered, according to
the German press .
In fact, the German troops’ advance into Belgium in early August did mean that
the Schlieffen Plan had been implemented successfully. While the Belgian army
did not meet the Germans in open battle, the Germans were confronted by small,
fast mobile Belgian units – often equipped with bicycles – who managed to
weaken the German army via an extremely successful series of small but harmful
actions, which delayed the German advance considerably. Such attacks were often
carried out at dusk or at night, when it was difficult for the German soldiers to
spot the enemy. Sometimes advancing German units shot at each other due to their
unfamiliarity with the terrain and the poor visibility conditions
Among the soldiers marching into Belgium there was, in fact, widespread
fear of partisan attacks, a concern that was only intensified by the aforementioned
press reports. Perhaps some soldiers, consumed by a certain sense of guilt,
could imagine that the citizens of this small, neutral country that had been
ambushed might attack the more powerful aggressor in a despair-driven rage. After
all, it was no different to what Andreas Hof had done to the French in Tyrol in
1809 and he was celebrated as a national hero in Germany! Moreover, in the
Franco-German war of 1870-1871 after Napoleon was defeated and the army of the
Republic was set up, units known as francs-tireurs
led guerrilla warfare behind the German lines . They often wore plain clothes
and were not identifiable as fighters.
In Belgium in 1914, civilians
were blamed if shots were claimed to have been fired by an unseen enemy. Gunfire
was often heard even when no guns had actually been fired, as was the case at
the Garnstock monastery near Eupen . And the above-mentioned massacre in Overoth/Baelen
was apparently triggered by a ladder being knocked over, which made a loud
crash as it hit the floor !
Massacres of this kind were,
to a certain extent, carried out by the German military leadership and were as
brutal as possible in order to intimidate the locals and dissuade them from
taking an oppositional stance against the troops. Almost every soldier was
needed to implement the plan of attack, so few were able to stay behind. This
is why there were often attacks in places that were already behind the lines in
the Etappe, such as Visé. This town
was captured on the first day of the war but was not set ablaze until 15th
August ! The francs-tireurs
propaganda also influenced the German people living in the border regions. For
example, in Eupen on 18th August 1914 a rumour spread like wildfire:
it was said that 5,000 (! H. R.) Belgian francs-tireurs
had gathered in nearby Hertogenwald, on the Belgian side of the border, and
were about to attack Eupen, from which most of the German soldiers had departed
. Panic swept through the town  and even the town’s major was not
immune. Soldiers were immediately redeployed from Aachen and the nearby border
station of Herbesthal to Eupen. That night, the gas lamps went out and around
midnight the alarm was sounded, but there was no sign of the (non-existent) francs-tireurs!
The Eupen inhabitants’ state
of fear seems understandable, since they had first-hand experience of the
incidents that had played out almost on their own doorstep, whether they had
witnessed the events themselves or heard other people’s accounts. In addition,
the smear campaign by the German press seemed to have worked. Perhaps people
even felt somewhat guilty, which only served to heighten their fear of
The attacks on Belgium’s civilian population not only led to furious
protests from those countries waging war against Germany, but also triggered an
outpouring of indignation from neutral countries, particularly the USA. Germany
was denied the right to continue to consider itself a cultural nation and high-level
committees were set up to provide aid to Belgium’s civilians, such as the Commission
for Relief in Belgium, founded by Herbert C. Hoover, who would later become
President of the USA
In 1915 the government of the German Reich, put on the defensive before
the global public, tried to substantiate its guerrilla warfare theory by
publishing a white paper that mainly contained witness accounts by German
soldiers in Leuven, Dinant, Tamines and Aarschot. During the Weimar Republic
and especially during the National-Socialist period this theory was clung to,
the official view being that an admission of guilt by Germany would be an
additional obstacle to the desired revision of the Treaty of Versailles 
It was not until 1956 that a commission made up of well-known Belgian
and German academics concluded that the German white paper and, consequently, the
semi-official German works from the interwar period that were based on it
should not be considered credible sources, "because it is untenable in
terms of its basic theories, and many of the witness accounts which constitute
it are demonstrably questionable and were systematically falsified" .
On the other hand, the horrific acts perpetrated by Germany offered the Allies
an easy way to justify a propaganda campaign against their enemy in 1914-15.
For example, both during and after the war cheap, mass-produced brochures were
used not so much to inform people as to stir up feelings of hatred towards the
enemy . On 5th December 1914 the French weekly broadsheet
newspaper L' Illustration published a
caricature by FM Roganeau in its centrefold. It showed a completely devastated
Belgian town, with fires still burning, a pile of corpses in the middle of the
scene and, above it all, an avenging angel draped in a Belgian flag. It bore
the slogan L'Holocauste (The
Further repression of civilians and mass departure
From the first day of the war, the brutal attacks by German soldiers on
the civilian population led to a mass exodus over the border to the
Netherlands. Following the fall of Antwerp in October 1914, there were, at one point,
one million Belgians in the Netherlands. The General Governorate in Brussels,
which was instituted on 25th August 1914, tried with all its might
to prevent people from leaving the country illegally. The border was closely
guarded by third-class infantry. It was not just the old and frail going to the
Netherlands to be interned there; many young men also travelled there because
they wanted to carry on towards the front in Flanders. The neutral Netherlands
were also a convenient destination for spies, career smugglers, prisoners of
war and German deserters.
In 1914 an electric fence had already been installed along the German
side of a section of the Swiss border, in order to prevent young Alsatians completely
lacking in German patriotism from fleeing into the neighbouring country. At the
beginning of 1915 the General Governorate in Belgium decided to erect a similar
barrier along the Belgian-Dutch border . Construction began in April 1915
and on 23rd August the first eighteen-kilometre stretch from Aachen towards
the Meuse river was completed. A few weeks later the whole facility was up and
running. Conservative estimates put the number of people killed by the fence,
whose voltage ranged from 500 and 2000 volts, at 3000. This figure does not
include those escapees who were caught alive as they crossed the border and were
then executed elsewhere . Records show that during the period from January
1916 to September 1918 eighteen people were killed in the border district of
Gemmenich, including sixteen Russian prisoners of war , who had worked
under the most horrific conditions to build the rail line from Aachen via
Gemmenich and Visé to Tongeren, a route of vital strategic importance .
During the years that followed, the regime of occupation was extremely
tough for the people of Belgium . In autumn 1914 a contribution of 40
million francs was already imposed on the country. This was illegal under
international law. The contribution was increased in November 1916 to 50 million
and finally to 60 million in May 1917 . When the German authorities did not
manage to find a sufficient number of voluntary workers to move from Belgium to
Germany, they proceeded to force workers to move from October 1916 onwards .
Until February 1917 approximately 60,000 Belgians were transported to Germany,
often in unheated cattle wagons. On arrival they were taken to so-called ‘distribution
points’, which were affiliated to camps for prisoners of war or civilian
prisoners, although the responsible authorities attached great importance to
making sure that these camps were not described as concentration camps in
public . In Belgium these measures made people even more furious and the
courageous Primate of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier  did not refrain from
making his views on this matter very clear to the occupying power. Eventually, virulent
protest, particularly from neutral foreign countries, led to the discontinuation
of deportations from the General Governatorate in February 1917, but deportations
continued from the Etappengebiet (the
area behind the lines) in East Flanders, which was controlled directly by the
army, and the area around the front in West Flanders.
Flemish groups who spoke out in favour of breaking away from Belgium
enjoyed favourable treatment by the occupying power. These collaborators were earmarked
by Germany as allies for a political post-war solution.
 Im Schlachtgetümmel des
Weltkriegs (‘In the Turmoil of the World War’) is the title of a book by
Georg Geliert, Berlin (n.d., approx. 1915). It was a “publication by the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Verbreitung guter
Jugendschriften und Bücher (‘German Society for the Dissemination of Good Works
and Books for Young People’)”, whose honorary president was Chancellor Fürst
von Bülow. The military actions of 1914 are structured around a framework plot,
the main aim of which is to evoke public support for Germany’s brutal actions
in Belgium. Hence, the Hellwig family in Belgium witnesses atrocious attacks on
defenceless German civilians and soldiers by an out-of-control mob. This
propaganda treatise culminates with a description of the shooting of a Belgian aristocrat
who is seeking to kill unwitting German soldiers. In the end, thanks to German magnanimity,
a plan to burn down the stately home is stopped so that the young (and now,
orphaned) daughter can hold on to her inheritance.
 The quadripoint near Aachen was where the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and
the area of Neutral-Moresnet – which existed until the Treaty of Versailles
came into force – converged; on the history of the quadripoint see e.g. Ruland,
Herbert: “Arbeiterbewegung im Gebiet von Neutral-Moresnet (Altenberg, Kelmis-La
Calamine)”, in: idem.: “Zum Segen für uns Alle. Obrigkeit, Arbeiterinnen und
Arbeiter im deutsch-belgischen Grenzland (1871-1914)”, Eupen 2000, particularly
p. 225-238 and p. 315-318.
 See Vanneste, Alex: “Kroniek van een dorp in oorlog. Neerpelt 1914-1918.
Het dagelijks leven, de Spionage en de elektische draadversperring aan de
Belgisch-Nederlandse grens tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog”, Deel 1: 1914-1915,
Deurne 1998, p.14
 Kaiser Wilhelm II in his infamous ‘Hun Speech’ as he bid farewell to the
German Expeditionary Force to China (who were going to fight the so-called
Boxer Rebellion) on 27.7.1900.
 See Petri, Franz/ Schöller, Peter: “Zur Bereinigung des Franktireurproblems
vom August 1914”, in: Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Heft 9, 1961, p. 234.
 For the most detailed contemporary account, which appears to list all of
the places where civilians were attacked in August and September 1914, see:
Cuvelier, Joseph: La Belgique et la guerre, Part II: L'invasion Allemande.
Preface de Henri Pirenne, recteur de l'universite de Gand, Brussels 1921. For a
list that is detailed but does not mention all of the places where German soldiers
killed Belgian civilians during the 1914-1918 occupation, see: Lyr, Rene: Nos
Héros. Morts pour la patrie. L'épopée belge de 1914 à 1918 (Histoire et Documentation).
Tableau d'honneur des officiers, sous-officiers, soldats, marins et civils
tombés pour la défence des foyers belges, extended issue, Brussels 1930,
quatrième partie (part 4), p. 1-35.
 Verbal information provided by Mrs Netty Drooghaag-Bütz to the author.
 See Hermanns, Leo: Die Eucharistiner vom Garnstock, in: Geschichtliches
Eupen, Eupen 27. Jg. 1994, Sölf. A Prussian citizen, a joiner by the name of
Jean Dadt, also died in the massacre mentioned in note 10. The wife and
daughter of the farmer Joseph Miessen, who was also shot and whose body was
only found 14 days later in his burnt-out house, were taken to Eupen hospital
with serious injuries, since they were also Prussian citizens. See idem.: Eupen
im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Geschichtliches Eupen, 33. Jg. 1999, here p. 59.
 See Massenaux, Guillaume: Baelen-sur-Vesdre. Village aux marches de la
Francité. Témoignages de son évolution au cours du dernier siècle. L'expansion
de la langue française, suite aux deux guerres, Baelen 1981, p. 55-59.
 On the events in Leuven see Schivelbusch, Wolfgang: Die Bibliothek von
Löwen. Eine Episode aus der Zeit der
Weltkriege, Munich, Vienna 1988.
i.a. Dietrich: Die Belgier, op. cit., p.258-261; Donat, Helmut: Wer sich uns in
den Weg stellt...- Aus einem dunklen Kapitel deutscher Geschichte: der Überfall
auf Belgien im August 1914, in: Donat, Helmut/Strohmeyer, Arn (Ed.): Befreiung
von der Wehrmacht? Dokumentation der Auseinandersetzung um die Ausstellung
Vernichtungskrieg - Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944 in Bremen 1996/97,
Bremen 1997, p. 93.
 Reports of this kind can be found in all German daily newspapers from the
first weeks of August 1914. Almost all of the articles were based on censored
reports by the semi-official news agency WTB, so at first the same communiqués were
reproduced in almost all newspapers. Only when the censor was relaxed and war
reporters were permitted at the end of August did the reporting become more
varied, though it was still far from truthful. In the Eupen local press, which
was studied here, there were particularly harrowing accounts by unnamed people
allegedly living in Eupen who experienced the outbreak of war in Belgium. The
destruction of towns and villages close to the border and civilian massacres
were also reported, though the journalists believed that those affected only
had themselves to blame due to their underhand behaviour towards the German
 e.g.: Lindner: op. cit., particularly p.102f.
 Hermanns: Erster Weltkrieg, op. cit.
 See e.g. Cuvelier: L'Invasion Allemande, op. cit., p. 82-86.
 See Kreuer, Hubert: Eupen beim Einzug der Deutschen nach Belgien,
in: Vom Krieg und von Daheim, special edition of the Eupener Nachrichten, no.5
of 24.12.1914, p. 33f, partly reproduced in Hermanns, Leo: Eupen im Ersten
Weltkrieg, op. cit., p. 61-63.
 “'The Belgians are plotting their revenge!' they said, “They
organise gangs of francs-tireurs, who
are only waiting for the right moment to pounce on us", went the rumours /.../
And the most fearful inhabitants waited in trepidation. What will become of us?
To be attacked by francs-tireurs – how
awful! Mutilated, defiled, murdered, the houses set on fire! Oh God, how will
this end? And our poor children!. Some families are packing feverishly so that
they can flee as quickly as possible...", Kreuer, ibid., p. 33.
 See Wieland, Lothar: Belgien 1914. Die Frage des belgischen Franktireurkrieges
und die deutsche öffentliche Meinung von 1914 bis 1936, Frankfurt/Main, Bern, New
 Quoted in Donat: Wer sich uns.., op. cit., p. 100.
 See e.g.: D'Ars, C.M.L.: La Fureur Boche à Namur, Antwerp, n.d.;
Prouvaire, Jean: Sac et massacres de Louvain, Antwerp, n.d.
 L’Illustration, Journal Universel, 72. Jg. 1914, Nr. 3744 of 5.12.,
 Although the construction of the electric fence on the Belgian-Dutch
border was another significant event in the lives of the inhabitants of the occupied
country and likely claimed the lives of several thousand people, there is
almost no memory of it now. Strangely enough, even specialised Belgian literature
from between the wars, which tried to paint as dramatic a picture as possible
of the occupation, usually only mentioned the fence in passing or in the footnotes.
In German publications from this period the fence, if mentioned at all, is
usually only depicted as the location of tense clashes between allied spies and
German counter-spies e.g. see Binder, Heinrich: Spionagezentrale Brüssel. Der
Kampf der deutschen Armee mit der belgisch-englischen Spionage und der
Meisterspionin Gabriele Petit, Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, 1929; Vanneste: Een
Dorp, op. cit., Parts I and II. Pages 287-292 in Part I contain the facsimile of
an original map that shows the course of the fence from Aachen to the Scheide river;
Herzog, Martin/Rösseler, Marko: Der große Zaun. Ein bizarres Kapitel aus der
Terrorgeschichte des deutschen Militärs im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Die Zeit, 16.4.1998,
p. 82. The author of this text also examines the effects of this border fence on
the lives of the inhabitants of the Meuse-Rhine Euregio in more detail. See
Ruland: Die tödliche Elektrofalle. Der 2000-Volt-Zaun zwischen Belgien und
Holland fing in Aachen an, in: Aachener Nachrichten, 10.8.1999, Euregio
 Vanneste cited in Herzog/Rösseler, ibid.
 See Emunds, Paul: Rauchfahnen, Streikfahnen, Staubfahnen auf Rothe Erde
über Eilendorf, Forst und Nirm, Beiträge zur Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte
einer Arbeiterwohngemeinde, Schriftenreihe Band 2, Aachen 1989, p. 145-147.
 The actual line from Germany to Antwerp, which branches off to southern
Belgium and northern France, ran through the Dutch province of Limburg and since
this country was neutral, it was not available to Germany during the First
World War. Around 1000 Russians are believed to have been deployed for the
construction of the new line. See Bovy, Armand: La Ligne 24.
Tongres-Vise-Gemmenich, n.p., 1998, p. 65-67,144 and 180. Excavation work on a
former Russian encampment in Moresnet strongly supports the theory that Russians
were forced to work here, too. The author will examine this.
 An informative account of everyday life during the occupation: Rency,
Georges: La vie materielle de la Belgique durant la guerre mondiale. La
Belgique et la guerre, Vol. l, Brussels,1920.
 See Dietrich, op. cit., p. 262 on this and for a summary of what
 In particular see Thiel, Jens: Belgische Zwangsarbeiter in Deutschland im Ersten
Weltkrieg, (unpublished Magister
degree thesis), Humboldt University, Berlin 1997.
 The October 1916 communication by the Prussian war ministry referring to
this read, “Actual concentration camps for forcibly transferred Belgian workers
are not to be set up, and the expression ‘camp’ is to be avoided. Instead the
term ‘accommodation sites’ shall be used for industrial workers”, ibid., p. 106.
 On the role of the Primate of Belgium in the First World War, see Meseburg-Haubold,
Ilse: Der Widerstand Kardinal Merciers gegen die deutsche Besetzung Belgiens
1914-1918. Ein Beitrag zur politischen Rolle des Katholizismus im 1. Weltkrieg,
Frankfurt/Main, Bern 1982.
 See Wieland: Belgien, op. cit., particularly p.95-105; Donat: Wer sich uns
in den Weg stellt, op. cit., p. 98-101.
 In Eupen- Malmedy, in contrast to other areas where the Treaty of Versailles
prescribed referenda, there was no plebiscite under the most neutral possible control,
i.e. the League of Nations, but rather a ‘consultation of the people’ under
Belgian supervision, with a predictable result. In both of the main towns
registers were made available. Anyone who wished to remain part of the German
state was required to add their name to a register. The rural population, in
particular, had great difficulty travelling into the towns. Many people who
went to the polling stations found them closed or they were prevented from
signing. In a state of panic, often heightened by pro-Belgian propaganda, most
of those affected feared that if they voiced their sympathies for the Reich
they would be cast out of their ancestral home, lose their property and be
unable to change their German money – which was rapidly becoming more worthless
as inflation increased – into Belgian francs. Many industrial workers were also
worried that the so-called ‘trilingual stamp’ in their passport would be
deleted. It was this stamp that allowed them to work over the border in nearby
Germany, given the dearth of employment options where they lived. In addition,
the Belgian government did not tell the people that a referendum on which
country the region should belong to was happening, and the severely censored
newspapers could only report what was permitted by General Baltia’s special
administration, which had its headquarters in Malmedy and was furnished with
dictatorial powers. For a long time the people were not fully aware of the
result of the referendum, either. In the end just 271 individuals put their
names to the protest list, most of them civil servants who moved to Germany
with their families in order to keep their status. See observations in Doepgen,
Heinz: Die Abtretung des Gebietes von Eupen-Malmedy an Belgien im Jahre 1920,
Rheinisches Archiv. Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Geschichtliche
Landeskunde der Rheinlande an der Universität Bonn, Bonn 1966.
 See e.g. Dietrich: Die Belgier, op. cit., p. 294-339 on developments
in Belgium between the wars.