Tells Experience as War Prisoner

Richard Harding Davis

New York Tribune/September 2, 1914

Richard Harding Davis Gives His Opinion of the German Campaign in Belgium, as Witnessed and Heard of While He Was a Captive.

London, Sept. 1—I have not seen the text of the letter addressed by President Wilson to Americans urging them to preserve toward war the mental attitude of neutrals. But I have seen the war. I feel very deeply, therefore, that if I did not earnestly try to convince Americans that they should not be neutrals I would be shirking a responsibility.

Were the conflict in Belgium a fair tight on equal terms between man and man, then without question the duty of Americans would be to keep to the side lines and preserve open minds. But it is not a fair fight.

Germany is fighting foully. She is defying not only the rules of war but all rules of humanity.

If public opinion is to help in preventing further outrages by forces and in hastening this unspeakable conflict to a close, it should directed against those who offend. If we are convinced that one opponent is fighting honestly and that his adversary is striking below the belt, or gouging and biting, then for us to maintain a neutral attitude of mind is unworthy and the attitude of a coward.

When a mad dog runs amuck in a village it is the duty of every farmer to get his gun and destroy it, not to lock himself indoors and preserve toward the dog and those who face him a neutral mind.

This is not a war against Germans, as we know Germans in America, who are among our sanest and most industrious and most responsible fellow countrymen. It is a war, as Winston Churchill in his interview last Sunday explained, against the military aristocracy of Germany, men who are six hundred years behind the times; who, to preserve their class against democracy, have perverted every great invention of modern times to the uses of warfare, to the destruction of life.

These men are military mad. Their idea of government is as far opposed to our own as is martial law and the free speech of our town meetings. Every belief of these high-born butchers is opposed to every principle that is to us most dear.

If they will make of Europe an armed camp, they will control commerce on the seas; they will either destroy our commerce with Europe or dictate as to what goods they will admit, or admit them on their own terms.

Meanwhile they are destroying Belgium, a country with which they had no quarrel. The land they have devastated was not waste land, sparsely settled and uninhabited. It was the oldest and most closely built up countryside in Europe. The villages, towns and cities touch with their skirts the skirts oi the next adjoining place. They run as close together as do The Bronx, Larchmont, Rye and New Rochelle. The cities they have destroyed with bombs and fire are cities like Rochester, Utica and Troy. These cities were not fortified. They were industrial centres, and, besides, possessed treasures of art and architecture that belonged not alone to the Belgians but to the world.

I have seen Germans at work. For a time I was a prisoner and forced to march with them, and the destruction they wrought was not the havoc that war always brings.

In six other wars all I have seen that was outrageous was not so terrible, so unnecessary, so wanton, as the outrages of the German army in the short distance between Brussels and Liege.

The allies asked of the Belgians to hold back the invaders only for two days. They held them back for fifteen. It is for that they are being punished, not because the townspeople are firing upon the Germans. No one who has been in Belgium this last month believes that charge.

I passed on foot through many villages, and in all read the proclamations issued by the burgomaster, commanding the people to turn over to him every firearm in their possession, and the date of each of these proclamations antedated the entry of the Germans. The Germans were the aggressors. They approached non-combatants always gun in hand.

Again and again have I been told the same story by Belgian shopkeepers and the proprietors of cafes and hotels. “They put a gun at my head.” “Why?” I asked, and the Belgian would shrug his shoulders and say, “Because they wanted eggs or a note changed, or a bed. But why shoot me for so small a matter as a couple of eggs?”

My own experiences were the same. They never demanded my papers without first sticking an automatic pistol in my face. Once, when I was seated by the road engaged in eating a sandwich, five of them rushed at me from the rear, each waving an automatic pistol. They seemed to me like men on the verge of hysteria, officers and privates alike.

When I was a prisoner with them, one of their own aeroplanes passed over us. They thought it an English machine, and Count von Schwerin, commanding the 7th Division, and all his staff at the same time began shrieking commands, some to shoot, others not to shoot. They were like men gone suddenly crazy. It was a most pitiable exhibition.

Their conduct throughout can be explained in only one way. They are men who know they are in the wrong, that their cause is unlawful; and like a man who enters a house as a burglar, they do not hesitate at murder. In no other way can you explain their casting floating mines among innocent fishermen, their dropping bombs from airships upon sleeping women, their wrecking churches, universities and libraries and their execution of non-combatants.

In comparison, let me relate one incident to illustrate how the plucky Belgian wages war. When our secretary of the legation at Brussels, Hugh Gibson, returned from Brussels to Antwerp, which was the day after the Zeppelin had hurled her bombs into that city, the Belgian government gave him a package to be delivered to the German governor of Brussels. It had nothing at all to do with the Germans’ infernal machine, but contained letters of German prisoners in Antwerp, which the Belgians were forwarding for them to their wives and children. Belgians do not wage war on women, nor do their allies.

Between them and the Germans, one who has seen what I have seen at Louvain, Tirlemont and Liege finds it hard to preserve an attitude of mind correctly neutral.


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