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THREE UNKNOWN HEROES
THE Belgian government published last year a Reply to the German White Book of 10 May 1915.
This reply gives peremptory and categorical denials to all the allegations in the White Book on the subject of francs-tireurs, of attacks by civilians and of the Belgian women's cruelty to the German prisoners and wounded. It contains a body of authentic and overwhelming evidence upon the massacres at Andenne, Dinant, Louvain and Aerschot which enables history here and now to pronounce its verdict with even greater certainty than the most scrupulous jury of a criminal court.
Among the most frightful incidents reported in these accounts by eye-witnesses, I would linger to-day upon only two of those which marked the sack of Aerschot; not that they are more odious or cruel than the others -- on the contrary, beside the unprovoked murders and wholesale executions at Andenne, Dinant and Louvain, which are of unsurpassable horror, they seem almost kindly -- but I select them for the very reason that they display more clearly than in its most violent excesses what we may call the normal mentality of the German army and the abominable things which it did when it believed itself to be acting with justice, moderation and humanity. I select them above all because they show us the admirable and touching state of mind, as displayed amidst a terrible ordeal, of a little Belgian city, the most innocent of all the victims of this war, and offer for our contemplation instances of simple and heroic self-sacrifice which have escaped notice and which it is well to bring to light, for they are as beautiful as the most splendid examples in the fairest pages of Plutarch.
Aerschot is a humble and happy little town in Flemish Brabant, one of those modest unknown clusters of habitations which, like Dinant, for ever to be regretted and buried in the past, nobody used to visit, because they contained no buildings of note, but which retained and represented all the more, in the depths of their silence and their placid isolation, Flemish life in its most special, intimate, intense, traditional, suave and peaceable aspect. In these half-rustic little cities we find hardly any industries, at most a malt-kiln or two, a corn-mill, an oil-works, a chicory-factory. Their life is almost agricultural; and the well-to-do inhabitants live on the produce or the rents of their fields, their meadows and their woods. The houses in the church-square are substantial-looking, more or less cubical in shape and painted virgin white; their carriage-gates are adorned with glittering brasses. All through the week the square is almost deserted and wakens into life only on market-days and on Sunday mornings, at the hour of high mass. In a word, it is a picture of tranquillity, of placid waiting for meals and repose, of drowsy, easy existence and perhaps of happiness, if happiness consists in being happy in a half-slumber free of remote ambitions, exaggerated passions or over-eager dreams.
It was here, in this peaceful sojourn of immemorial restfulness, which not even the war had hitherto disturbed below the surface, that, on the 19th of August, 1914, at nine o'clock in the morning, after the retreat of the last Belgian soldiers, the square was suddenly invaded by a dense and endless stream of German troops. The burgomaster's son, a lad of fifteen, hurried to close the Venetian shutters of his father's house and was wounded in the leg by one of the bullets which the victors fired at random through the windows.
At ten o'clock, the German officer in command sent for the burgomaster, M. Tielemans, to appear at the Town-hall. He was received with insults, hustled and abused for a Schweinhund, or pig-dog, a species of animal which appears to be indigenous to Germany.
Next, Colonel Stenger, commanding the 8th infantry brigade, and his two aides-de-camp took up their quarters in the burgomaster's house in the church-square and, I may add in passing, forthwith broke open all the drawers in their rooms, after which they went to the balcony and watched the march-past of their troops.
At four o'clock in the afternoon, obsessed by the delusion of francs-tireurs, some soldiers, seized with panic, began to fire shots in the streets. The colonel, standing on the balcony, was hit by a German bullet and fell. One of the aides-de-camp rushed downstairs shouting:
"The colonel is dead! I want the burgomaster!"
M. Tielemans felt that his time was come:
"This is a serious matter for me," he said to his wife.
She squeezed his hand and urged him to keep courage. The burgomaster was arrested and ill-treated by the soldiers. In vain his wife remarked to the captain that her husband and son could not have fired, since they possessed no weapons.
"That makes no difference," replied the bully in uniform; "he's responsible. Also," he added, "I want your son."
This son was the boy of fifteen who had been wounded in the leg. As he had a difficulty in walking, because of his wound, he was brutally jostled before his mother's eyes and escorted with kicks to the Town-hall, there to join his father.
Meanwhile this same captain, persisting in his contention that his men had been fired upon, compelled Madame Tielemans to go through the house with him, from cellar to attic. He was obliged to observe that all the rooms were empty and all the windows closed. Throughout this inspection, he threatened the poor woman with his revolver. Her daughter placed herself between her mother and their sinister visitor, who did not understand. When they returned to the hall downstairs, the mother asked him:
"What is to become of us?" Coldly, he replied:
"You will be shot; so will your daughter and your servants."
The pillage and the methodical setting on fire of the town now began. All the houses on the right-hand side of the square were in flames. From time to time, the soldiers apostrophized the women, shouting:
"You're going to be shot, you're going to be shot!"
"At that moment," says Madame Tielemans, in her sworn deposition, "the soldiers were leaving our house, their arms filled with bottles of wine. They opened the windows and removed all the contents of our rooms. I turned away so as not to behold the pillage. By the lurid light of the burning houses, my eyes fell upon my husband, my son and my brother-in-law, accompanied by some other gentlemen who were being led to execution. Never shall I forget the sight nor the look on the face of my husband seeking his house for the last time and asking himself what had befallen his wife and daughter, while I, lest I should sap his courage, could not call out, 'I am here!' "
The hours passed. The women were driven out of the town and led like a herd of cattle, along a road strewn with corpses, to a distant meadow, where they were penned until morning. The men were arrested and their hands tied behind their backs with copper wire so cruelly tightened as to draw blood. They were gathered into groups and made to lie down so that their heads touched the ground and they were unable to make any movement. The night was spent in this way, with the town burning and the pillage and orgy continuing.
Between five and six in the morning, the military authorities decided that the executions should begin and that one of the largest groups of prisoners, composed of about a hundred civilians, should be present at the death of the burgomaster, his son and his brother. An officer informed the burgomaster that his hour had come. On hearing these words, a citizen of Aerschot, Claes van Nuffel by name, went up to the officer, begged him to spare the chief magistrate's life and offered to die in his stead. He added that he was the burgomaster's political adversary, but that he considered that, at this moment, M. Tielemans was essential to the town.
"No," replied the officer, harshly, "we must have the burgomaster."
M. Tielemans stood up, thanked M. van Nuffel and said that he would die with an easy mind, as he had spent his existence doing all the good in his power, and that he would not beg for mercy. He entreated, however, that the lives of his fellow-citizens and of his son, a boy of fifteen and his mother's last consolation, might be spared. The officer grinned and made no reply. The burgomaster's brother next asked for mercy, not for himself but for his brother and his nephew. His request fell on deaf ears. The lad then got up and took his place between his father and his uncle. Six soldiers took aim at ten yards' distance; the officer lowered his sword; and, as the widow of the heroic burgomaster says, "the best man in this world had ceased to exist."
I will now quote from the evidence of M. Gustave Nys, an eye-witness of the horrible drama which nearly numbered him among its victims:
"The other civilians were thereupon placed in rows of three. The third in each row was to leave it and fall out behind the dead bodies, in order to be shot. All the civilians had their hands tied behind their backs. My brother and I stood next to each other: I was number two; my brother Omer, twenty years of age, was number three. I asked the officer, 'May I change places with my brother? It makes no difference to you who falls under your bullets; but it does to my mother, who is a widow, for my brother has finished his studies and is more useful to her than I am.' Once again he refused to listen to my prayer. 'Fall out, number three!' My brother and I embraced; and he joined the others. There were thirty of them, drawn up in line. Then a horrible scene took place: the German soldiers, walking slowly along the row, killed three at each discharge of their rifles, waiting between the volleys for the officer's word of command."
Incidents such as these would pass unperceived if one did not take the trouble to seek them out and to collect them piously amid the huge mass of tragedies which for more than four years upset and ravaged the unhappy country tortured by its invaders. Had they occurred in the history of Greece or Rome, they would have found a place among the great deeds that honour our earth and deserve to live for ever in the memory of man. It is our duty to make them known for a moment and to engrave in our recollection the names of those who were their heroes. Thus set down, simply and plainly, as befits historic truth, in depositions sworn under oath before a nameless registrar who has stripped them of any literary or sentimental embellishment, they give at first but a very faint idea of the intensity of the tragedy and the value of the sacrifice. There is here no question of a glorious death faced amid the excitement of the fighting, on a vast field of battle. Nor are we considering an indefinite or overhanging menace, or an uncertain, remote and perhaps avoidable danger. We have to do with an obscure, solitary, horrible and imminent death in a ditch; and the six rifle-barrels are there, aimed almost point-blank, ready, upon a sign of the officer who accepts your offer, to change you, in a second, into a heap of bleeding flesh and to send you to the unknown, terrible region which man dreads all the more when he is still full of strength and life. There is not a moment's interval nor a gleam of hope between question and answer, between existence with all its joys and death with all its horrors. There is no encouragement, no word or gesture of stimulation or support, no reward; in an instant, all is given in exchange for nothing; it is sheer self-sacrifice standing naked and so pure that we are surprised that not even Germans were conquered by its beauty.
There was but one manner in which they could have extricated themselves without dishonour and that was to pardon the two victims; or else, supposing the thing which was not, which never is the case, that a death was absolutely necessary, there was a second solution, which was to accept the offer and to kill the martyr whom they ought to have worshipped on their knees. In this way they would only have acted as the worst of savages. But they discovered a third, which doubtless, before them, the Carthaginians alone would have invented and adopted. For that matter, they exceeded the fiercest savagery and equalled the abominable Punic morality in another case which brings to mind that of Regulus and which will be the third instance of heroism that I intend to recall.
A few days after the events which I have narrated, on the 23rd of August, 1914, Dinant became the scene of wholesale massacres which involved exactly six hundred and six victims, including eleven children under five years old, twenty-eight of ages between ten and fifteen and seventy-one women.
Nothing can give an idea of the horror and infamy of these massacres, which form one of the most disgraceful and terrible pages in the long and monstrous history of Teuton shame. But it is not my purpose to speak of this for the moment. There would be too much to tell. I wish to-day only to separate from the mass an episode in which the hero of Dinant-la-Wallone is worthy of a place beside his two brethren of Aerschot in Flanders.
Just outside Dinant, near the famous Roche à Bayard, the legendary glory of the fair and smiling little township, the Germans occupied the right bank of the Meuse and were beginning to build a bridge of boats. The French, hidden in the bushes and the windings of the left bank, were firing on the engineers. Their fire was not very well-sustained; and the Germans, without the least justification, drew the conclusion that it was due to francs-tireurs, who, for that matter, throughout this Belgian campaign, never existed except in their imagination. At that moment, eighty hostages, taken from among the inhabitants of Dinant, were collected and kept in sight at the foot of the rock. The German officer sent one of them, M. Bourdon, a clerk attached to the law-courts, to the left bank, to inform the enemy that, if the firing continued, all the hostages would be instantly shot. M. Bourdon crossed the Meuse, fulfilled his mission and pluckily returned to reconstitute himself a prisoner. He assured the officer that he had convinced himself that there were no francs-tireurs and that only French soldiers of the regular army were taking part in the defence of the other bank. A few more bullets fell; and the officer caused the eighty hostages to be shot, beginning, that he might be punished as he deserved for his heroic faithfulness to his pledged word, with the poor clerk, his wife, his daughter and his two sons, one of whom was a mere child of fifteen.Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.