War Crimes

US newspaper highlighting Germany’s ‘Rape of Belgium’

Rumours that German soldiers were raping women and children, hacking off limbs and breasts, and indiscriminately killing and torturing civilians were seized on by the British press. For the large part it was just that – rumour. News reporting was severely censored and war reporters were barred from the front. The Tribunal, a pacifist newspaper, was shut down. Thus, speculation and rumour made up for what fact lacked. A million Russian troops had landed in Scotland and were marching through England – you could see the snow on their boots; the corpses of German soldiers were being used by the Germans to make candles and boot polish; and later, in 1915, stories of a Canadian soldier crucified to a barn door were readily accepted as truth.

Anti-German feeling ran high, and Germans living in Britain or Britons of German descent were interned on the Isle of Man. Shops with Germanic-sounding names were attacked and dachshunds, according to popular legend, kicked in the street. On 8 August, four days after Britain’s entry into the war, the government passed the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), which used emergency powers to censor letters from military personnel and contain press freedom. It imposed restrictions on activities that, from the outside, seemed trivial, such as kite flying – which they deemed might be a signal to enemy aircraft. The German spy, Karl Lody, was arrested under DORA. Lody, who spoke perfect English with an American accent, reported back to Berlin on Britain’s naval and air defences. He was the first of eleven German spies to be executed by the British during the war, shot by firing squad on 6 November 1914.

In France, thousands of pre-war German-produced posters across the country advertising Bouillon Kub, a German soup, were suspected of containing coded messages for the invading German armies. The posters were hastily removed.

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