Soldier Calls German Behavior ‘Bestiality.’

Special to The Great War Project

(17-18 December) The German treatment of wounded prisoners is sparking outrage in Britain and France.

Canadian POWs, date and place uncertain.

Canadian POWs, date and place uncertain.

More and more stories emerge of the killing of the wounded.

“The savagery of the conflict,” writes historian Martin Gilbert “was to arouse great indignation when details of German treatment of wounded men, after they had been captured became known in the Allied capitals.”

And the testimony does not come from the Allies only. French troops discover a German soldier’s diary, and it contains incendiary information. “The sight of the trenches,” the soldier reports on these days a century ago, “and…

…the fury, not to mention bestiality of our men in beating to death the wounded English…

…affected me so much that for the rest of the day, I was fit for nothing.”

The French share the diary with the British, who publish these excerpts in their own frontline news reports.

One story in particular enrages British troops. British soldiers mount an attack on the French town of Givenchy, but on December 18th it comes up short. British troops report they were “unable to fire because most of their rifles had become clogged with mud, and were then captured by the Germans.”

The British counterattack in what the unit’s official historian calls “a not very happily conceived enterprise” during which half the battalion is killed or wounded.  The historian cites the British failure to factor in adequately the state of the ground, the German placements of modern rifles, machine-guns, and barbed wire. Plus poor intelligence about where German units are deployed.

The British capture several German trenches, then promptly lose them a few days later in fighting that includes hand-to-hand combat.

Then a story emerges from the fighting at Givenchy that stiffens the British resistance.

“There was anger in the British lines,” reports Gilbert, “when news spread of how a wounded British soldier, crawling painfully back, was then shot twice in the thighs by the Germans, and then deliberately killed, as he reached the British parapet.”

Turkish Victims of cholera epidemic, date and place uncertain.

Mass graves for Turkish Victims of cholera epidemic, date and place uncertain.

Death comes from unexpected sources. On the Eastern Front in the Austrian province of Galicia (today’s western Ukraine) the Austrian troops are decimated not only by the Russian guns, but by a growing cholera epidemic.

“Cholera spread rapidly through Galicia,” writes historian Max Hastings, causing more than 3600 deaths in a single month. The Austrians manage this epidemic with their accustomed incompetence.

“At first,” Hastings reports, “the War Ministry in Vienna declined to authorize vaccination, and hospitals were too crowded with wounded men to admit cholera cases. Before vaccine was belatedly provided, Austrian troops retreating into Germany’s upper Silesia spread disease among civilians there.

“As a further consequence of the surge of epidemics, many men and even officers faked symptoms in order to secure a passage to the rear; rigorous examinations had to be introduced in order to secure a passage to the rear, to curb the hemorrhage of malingerers.”

As Christmas approaches, the appetite for war is disappearing among all the battling armies, both East and West. As one historian puts it, it looks like years of misery and slaughter lay ahead for all the combatants.