Belgium 1914

German troops invade Belgium. At home, people organize aid programs.

[Rhineland and Belgium, summer and autumn 1914] Matthias had been away for a few weeks. Still, the Bonn newspapers were enthusiastic about the large number of volunteers. Hundreds and thousands went to the front to fight for the fatherland. Warnings to “our warriors on the western front” were published, such as ambushes in French houses, trap doors in basements, things hidden behind walls and absinth bottles – all this should prove the “perfidious nature of the French”.

“Come home safely”

On August 2, Germany troops had crossed the border into Luxemburg, on August 4 the border into Belgium. Every victory was met with cheering: August 9 Liege, August 20 Brussels, August 25 Namur. Already a large part of Belgium and the northeastern part of France were occupied. All this sounded certain of victory, as if the enemies would soon be defeated and the war would be won.

Lottie also tried to persuade herself that the war would soon be over, but deep down, she did not believe it. She was glad that she had full days from early in the morning to late in the night. In her letters to Matthias, she did her best to sound confident.

“Here at home, all are doing their best,” she wrote, “it is all well organized, so help quickly gets to where it is most needed. Many volunteers are helping with the soup kitchens, providing one or more meals a day for people in need. We’re running a soup-kitchen in the ‘Stübchen’ too, and Susan is still managing to cook a halfway nutritious dish from almost nothing. Kathi and Walter are helping by ladling the soup or the stew and handing bread to the guests.

The soup-kitchen are also information centers. Jacob is giving encouragement and information as best he can. A lot of letters are being brought to the ‘Stübchen’, and Kathi is delivering them in the villages around. So far old Mr. Schulz is driving her, but soon she will get an emergency driver’s license herself.

Little Walter is a big help on the vineyard. We are now growing all sorts of vegetables on every free sport of soil, above all potatoes. Moreover, he is helping at the collection point to pack the gifts for the soldiers: tobacco, bags for cigarettes, matches, chocolate, gingerbread, hard smoked sausage, woolen stockings, pulse warmers, ear protectors, stationery and whatever we can find for you out there at the front. All these gifts are then loaded onto motor vehicles and brought to Aachen from there there are transported to the front. After school, Walter is helping loading the cars. That’s a man’s work’, the little fellow has told the ladies of the Help Committee. My darling, you would be immensely proud of our children. Come home safely.”

German advance halted at the Marne

The German troops occupied a large part of Belgium and the North East of France and hoped for a quick victory. But in the Battle of the Marne (September 6-9, 1914), French and British forces stopped the invading German army. The Germans were utterly exhausted, and their military leaders had underestimated the spirit of the French troops.

A grueling war of attrition began. Millions of strained and exhausted soldiers on both sides dug into trenches. Most military leaders believed in offensives and ordered frontal assaults, yet machine guns and rapid-firing artillery, used in combination with trenches and barbed wire emplacements gave a crucial advantage to the defense. Huge numbers of soldiers were killed in frontal assaults.

At first, Matthias’s letters had been cautiously confident. After the battle of the Marne, they seemed Matthias’ [] Out of consideration for his family, he did not go into details, yet Lottie could sense his thoughts.

“We have entrenched ourselves. Artillery fire for hours, many wounded and dead. You always hear their screams and you would like so much to help, but that would be certain death, and you can only lie down on the ground and pray that it will soon be over. Only the thought of you gives me strength.”

Casualty lists came in, reserve troops were brought to the front. At the end of September, the bad news reached Bonn: painter August Macke had been killed in France. The first wounded soldiers from the Western front arrived at Bonn and were well taken care of in the hospitals. Hotels and large houses had been turned into makeshift hospitals, also in the hotel on top of Mount Petersberg and the big concert hall Beethovenhalle.

[Belgium and Britain, summer and autumn 1914]

Rape of Belgium

The violation of Belgium’s neutrality triggered Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.
Soon terrifying reports of the brutal actions by the Germans spread. For fear of irregular fighters, the Franc-tireurs, the German troops had killed thousands of civilians. In the old university town of Leuven, they had killed more than 200 people and deliberately set the university library on fire. Large parts of Belgium were devastated, one and a half million Belgians were on the run, and more than 100,000 Belgians were forced to work for the German army. One spoke of the “Rape of Belgium”. British newspapers published stories on German atrocities, propaganda posters about Germans raging “like the Huns” were printed.

The photo is from the German Wikipedia, public domain section.

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