‘Bandits! Cowards! Arsonists! Murderers!’
Hippoliet van Bladel, Belgian priest, August 1914
People living in the path of invading armies immediately became victims of war.
The German Army’s massacre of over 6,000 Belgian and French civilians, in the heart of ‘civilised’ Europe, was shocking. German troops also shelled and set fire to famous cultural sites. Where armies advanced, panicking civilians fled before them.
Why were ordinary people targeted?
The Germans needed a quick victory. Their nervy soldiers feared attacks by local people. They murdered them to stamp out possible resistance.
The world was appalled that Germany, once so admired as a nation of great culture, had ignored international agreements intended to prevent such brutality. For Britain and France, this was now a war to defend civilisation itself.
‘Big Bertha’ was the nickname given to a powerful German siege mortar, the world’s heaviest gun.
German victory depended on a swift advance through Belgium, but concrete fortresses at Liège and Namur barred the way. Massive siege mortars were used to smash these fortresses.
In Germany, people went wild with enthusiasm over the success of these new ‘wonder weapons’. A wide range of souvenirs was produced to celebrate their achievements.
The ruined centre of Louvain photo
The German Army’s destruction of cultural sites caused international outrage.
This photograph shows the ruined centre of Louvain, Belgium, where panicking German troops, suspecting they had been fired upon by inhabitants of Louvain, beat, bayoneted and shot 248 of the town’s citizens. They also burnt down the world-famous university library, destroying irreplaceable medieval books and manuscripts.
These documents record interviews with Belgian refugees and troops about German atrocities. 'Tales of war crimes committed against civilians by invading armies spread panic. Terrified people took to the roads to escape. Over 1.5 million Belgian refugees crossed into France and the Netherlands to flee the German advance. 200,000 of them went on to find sanctuary in Britain.
Stained glass fragment and watch
This stained glass fragment and watch are souvenirs of the German bombardment of Reims cathedral in France. The cathedral, where France’s kings were once crowned, was being used as a makeshift hospital by the French Army. The watch was taken from a German soldier killed in the shelling. He had been treated for his wounds by French medics at the cathedral.
Watch lent by Her Majesty The Queen
These photographs show some of the 262 inhabitants of the Belgian town of Andenne murdered by German soldiers on 21 August 1914.
The town’s population was accused of attacking German troops in a ‘treacherous fashion’. An eyewitness described, ‘The corpses of …many civilians lying on the ground…In the square, desperate looking men, women and children, more dead than alive, half-clothed ... Everywhere terror and brutality’.
Moneybox, poster and paperknife
The German public celebrated ‘Big Berthas’ as symbols of military power and technological achievement. This moneybox and poster each depict an image of a ‘Big Bertha shell. The paperknife was made from a fragment of a shell fired at a Belgian fort at Namur.
This 42cm shell was the type fired by the huge Big Bertha siege mortars to smash Belgian and French fortresses. Célestin Demblon, a Belgian politician, described the ‘frightful explosion’ of one being fired, ‘The crowd was flung back, the earth shook like an earthquake and all the window panes in the vicinity were shattered’.
Belgian refugees on the road near Ypres, 1914
Refugees flee the Russian advance in Galicia, Eastern Europe, 1914
The ruins of the Fort de Loncin at Liège after its destruction by German siege mortars
Most people in Britain put aside their differences to support the war effort. They were united by a sense of patriotism, duty and the shock of war.
Hundreds of thousands of men across Britain and the Empire volunteered to fight. Millions of people at home volunteered their time and money to support the troops. They feared what might happen if Germany won. Their fear was expressed in an outpouring of hatred against the enemy.
People not swept away by war fever were in the minority. Most Britons needed little persuading to play their part in their country’s cause.
Lord Kitchener was hero-worshipped by the public and received hundreds of fan letters. People looked to him for reassurance and inspiration.
This letter containing a marriage proposal was addressed to him at the War Office. The sender suggests that Kitchener should signal any interest in the offer by identifying himself as ‘Lonely’ in the personal columns of the Daily Mail newspaper.
Alfie Knight’s letter
Children were also caught up in war fever. Many wanted to join the Army.
Nine-year-old Dublin boy Alfie Knight wrote a letter to Lord Kitchener, volunteering his services as a bicycle messenger at the Front.
A reply from the War Office turned down Alfie, who was nine years short of the official age for enlistment.
Field Marshal Herbert Horatio Kitchener, the victor of colonial wars in the Sudan and South Africa, was a national hero.
Kitchener was appointed war minister on 5 August 1914. According to one commentator, ‘The nation felt … that Lord Kitchener was holding its hand confidently… while with the other he had the whole race of politicians firmly by the scruff’.
Two days later newspapers published his appeal for men ‘who have the safety of our Empire at heart’ to join the Army.
The design for this Kitchener recruitment poster was first seen on 5 September 1914 as a cover for a popular magazine, the ‘London Opinion’, where it bore the words ‘Your Country Needs You’.
The striking image of Kitchener was drawn by illustrator and cartoonist Alfred Leete. We often think of it as the most powerful government recruiting tool of the war. Yet the poster was unofficial and was probably not circulated beyond London.
A Parliamentary Recruiting Committee was set up ‘to give a powerful impetus to recruiting’. It produced 12.5 million recruiting posters in over 160 different designs appealing for volunteers. Posters were displayed on street hoardings and buildings across the country. Music hall entertainers, catchy popular songs, touring marching bands and church sermons reinforced the campaign’s message.
Patriotic souvenirs brought Kitchener's reassuring presence into homes, on everything from soap to dolls.
His government colleagues found him less appealing. Kitchener feuded with any politician he thought was trying to interfere with his mission to expand and supply the Army. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith needed Kitchener as a public figurehead, but found his ‘bull in a china shop manners and methods’ frustrating.