And then the Germans invaded Belgium

The list of Belgian martyr cities is long. German invaders displayed brutalities against both Flemings and French speakers, without distinction. The list includes the cities or municipalities of Visé, Andenne, Liège, Tamines, Leuven, Aarschot and Dendermonde among others. This first part highlights the atrocities in the Walloon cities - they were the first victims as the Germans invaded Belgium from the east. 4 August marks the official start of the Great War in Belgium, as German troops crossed the border in eastern Belgium.

Belgium did not want to become involved in the First World War and keep a neutral position as a small player, but could do nothing but defend itself against the German aggression. The Belgian population became the victim of German atrocities soon after the German troops had invaded the country. These were not isolated incidents, as the Germans apparently tried to deter civilians with a system of terror and fear.

Prussian troops and their German allies had defeated the French during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871. Apart from the French troops, they had been bothered most by armed resistance groups made up of French civilians, called francs-tireurs (from French 'franc' = free and 'tireur' = shooter). They were notorious for their attacks against the German occupants.

Military leaders in Germany were afraid this type of resistance acts could emerge again, and were determined to avoid this. That is why they adopted a strategy of terror. The fact that innocent civilians would also be the victim of this, was apparently considered as "collateral damage".

Collectie SPAARNESTAD PHOTO/Het Leven/Fotograaf onbekend

It started in Visé

Visé, a city at the borders of the River Meuse not far from Liège, was the first to be confronted with atrocities. After two state police officers of the "gendarmerie" had fired on German troops marching in, the invaders took revenge. This was on 4 August. A second wave of atrocities came on 15 August, when hundreds of people were executed without any kind of trial. 118 men, women and children were rushed into a meadow like cattle in a field in Soumagne. They were next shot or stabbed to death with bayonets.

It's only one of the examples of the first atrocities. The Germans hoped rumour would spread fast and deter civilians in the villages and cities to come. Visé was set on fire on 15 and 16 August. Over 600 houses were completely destroyed. Hundreds of local residents were captured and sent to Germany as hostages to be locked up in camps.

Walloon cities fall like domino stones

19 August, 3 days after the fall of the city of Liège, saw the German invaders reach Andenne along the River Meuse. At least 225 men, women and children were killed and a large part of the city was destroyed. Next were Namur and Dinant (2 bottom photos). The latter is now a quiet, touristic city along the River Meuse, but became one of the martyr cities at the end of August 1914. 

Dinant pays a high price

The German advance was stopped in Dinant as Belgium was helped by French soldiers. The Germans were even defeated in a first battle near Dinant, suffering many casualties. However, after the French retreated to the left banks of the River Meuse for tactical reasons, the Germans were able to get hold of Dinant after all. Their revenge was cruel. 674 local residents were executed and almost the complete city was burnt down. People were even shot inside the Leffe abbey.

The Big Retreat

Allied troops next started "la Grande Retraite" or "the Big Retreat" towards France, pulling back all the way behind the River Marne. The Germans meanwhile steamrolled through to the west (Hainaut province) and the south (Champagne region in France). In Flanders, they also moved towards the west, getting hold of Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent.

Brutalities in Tamines

With the Germans charging towards the west of Francophone Belgium more (isolated) incidents came. 384 civilians were killed in Tamines, a town near Charleroi that is situated along the River Sambre. The brutalities started on a Friday 21 August and continued a whole weekend. The town had some 5,000 inhabitants early 1914, but was almost completely devastated and empty when the Germans had left. Not all victims had a "decent dead" through bullets: many died in agony and were brutally killed by other means.

No legal charges

Resistance was completely broken after the Battle of Mons on 23 August, only 3 weeks after the invasion. The German troops would never have to account for war crimes and crimes against humanity after World War I, contrary to the Second World War.