Terrorized civilians fleeing by the thousands

Special to The Great War Project

Refugees from the fighting in World War One. Date and place unknown

Refugees from the fighting in World War One. Date and place unknown

(16-17 August) Civilians are fleeing the war zones – thousands of them on every front by the third week of the war.

Historian Martin Gilbert quotes one French officer: “We were in contact for the first time with the Great Panic. These were the vanguard of a terrified uprooted population, running before some ghastly terror that killed and destroyed and burned all it met.”

On the Eastern Front, the Austrians are faring poorly on two battlegrounds. The Russians are advancing in the province known as Eastern Galicia, which sits south of Poland and west of Ukraine.

And in Serbia, the Austrians are taking a beating they had not expected. The Serb goal is to force the Austrians out of Serbia altogether, and they are doing a good job of it.

In what now is becoming a murderous pattern, the battered Austrians, as they pull back on these days a century ago, are taking out their frustrations on the civilian population of Serbia.

Refugees in World War One, date and place unknown

Refugees in World War One, date and place unknown

In the Serb town of Lesnica, the Austrians execute 150 peasants. Some are forced to kneel on a river embankment and are shot. Others are tied up and bayoneted. Some of the dead bodies are mutilated.

Others are hung.

In a diary he kept of these days, one Austrian soldier writes: “The hatred for us is boundless, and everyone is our enemy. The population is so deceitful that I must always anticipate being shot down by a child or an old woman, though to our faces, they appear servile.

“We are not fighting against an army of 300,000 but against a whole nation.”

And then in an observation that echoes sharply today a century later in other parts of the world, “This seems a war driven by religious fervor. The priests are the worst agitators and monasteries the main centers of agitation.”

Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, two full Russian armies begin a push into German East Prussia, a province of Germany close to the Russian border.

The push does not go well for the Russians. They engage the Germans. The Germans take 3,000 Russian prisoners. Then the Germans retreat.

On the Western Front, the German army is scoring successes in Belgium, whose losses are considerable.

And on this day, 17 August, precisely one hundred years ago, a young man, 25-year-old Adolph Hitler, volunteers for military service in the German army.