AN INQUEST UPON GERMAN OUTRAGES.
rrHE Government have done very wisely in appointing I —though after what appears to be undue delay- s Committee to inquire into the outrages and breaches of international law and of the customs and usages of war as practised by civilized nations alleged to have been perpe- trated by German troops. Specially wise is their choice of the President of the Committee. Lord Bryce has a reputation which covers two hemispheres. He is perhaps best known to the world to-day as a student of history and constitutional law, and especially of the American Consti- tution. But he has also had the advantage of the lawyer's professional training, and is eminently able to treat any subject which he handles in a judicial spirit. Nor can the Germans complain of any risk of intellectual bias against them, for it is more or less notorious that Lord Bryce is a great admirer of the German people, and if he leant at all from the line of strict impartiality, his loaning would be more likely to be in favour of the Germans than against them. Three of the other members of the Committee—Sir Edward Clarke, Sir Alfred Hopkinson, and Sir Frederick Pollock—are also lawyers of experience and authority. Professor Fisher and Mr. Harold Cox are not lawyers, but no one is likely to suspect them of giving a biassed. judgment.
The work which the Committee will have to do, as we understand it, is more or less analogous to that of a British Grand Jury, which has to decide whether there is sufficient evidence against a prisoner to justify a trial. This Committee cannot try the German Government or people in the sense in which Englishmen understand a trial, nor can it finally try the German officers or German soldiers who are accused of having ordered or committed atrocities which have shocked the civilized world. All it can do is to ascertain whether there is suffi- cient reputable evidence to support the charges which have been made against the German Army. It has already been announced in the Press that English. barristers have for some time past, under instructions from the Home Office, been investigating specific state- ments with regard to alleged atrocities. The witnesses have been subjected to a careful examination, and their evidence has been taken down and recorded. There is thus already available a large mass of material which requires to be sifted and weighed. But the issues involved do not turn merely on specific proof of particular atrocities committed, for, even if it were proved that twenty or two hundred barbarous acts had been committed by German soldiers, that would not be sufficient justification for a general censure of the German Army or of the German people. Everybody knows that in war it is almost impossible to avoid some horrible acts when soldiers are drunk or otherwise out of hand. The real point to be investigated is whether the sufferings which Belgium has undoubtedly endured were the necessary results of war, or whether they were due to a deliberate violation of the laws of war by the German Army acting under authority.
With some of the main facts, or let us say allegations, the public is already familiar. All the world has heard of the destruction of Louvain and Aerschot, and many other Belgian towns and villages. It is also pretty generally known that the Germans have wrought havoc in several French towns, notably at Senlis, and it is suspected that their bombardment of Reims Cathedral was not warranted by any military use to which the Cathedral was being put. More recently, definite statements have appeared in the English Press of the atrocious way in which the Germans are behaving in Lille. In this case there is no suggestion that the civil population have provoked ill-treatment by themselves taking up arms against their conquerors. Indeed, when the Germans trouble to defend their actions in Belgium, they make a point of saying that in France they have behaved well because the civil population of the French towns have not imitated the barbarities which they allege to have been committed by civilians in Belgium. Yet in the case of Lille the Germans are said to be extorting enormous levies from a population which has been reduced almost to starvation point. Analogous to the case of Lille is that of many French villages which have undoubtedly been destroyed by German troops. In some cases an impartial inquiry would doubtless result in a verdict that this destruction was due to military con- siderations, but newspaper correspondents who have been allowed to explore the country in the rear of the French advance report that in many cases it is impossible to discover any military reason for the destruction wrought. The view constantly expressed is that the question of the preservation or the destruction of a French village has turned not so much upon military considerations as upon the personality of the German commander. As regards Belgium, the world already has the extra- ordinarily valuable evidence collected by Mr. Powell, whose book, Fighting in Flanders, we reviewed a fortnight ago. Mr. Powell brings forward numbers of cases of atrocities which can have had no military justification—for example, killing an old man and leaving upon his face twenty-two bayonet wounds. This, of course, may have been an instance of mere individual brutality, and we come back to the question of definite military actions, taken by authority, such as the destruction of Louvain and Aerscha. The German case is that these towns were given over to fire and massacre as a punishment to the inhabitants for firing on German troops. The Belgians, of course, deny that the firing took place, or allege—as in the case of the shoot- ing of a, German officer at Aerschot—that there was a specific justification. But even if we accept the German explanation that Belgian civilians wantonly shot at German soldiers or officers after the occupation of the town, there still remains the important question whether such an act can be held to justify the destruction of the whole town and the deliberate shooting of a large number of civilians. That this deliberate shooting has taken place is not denied by the Germans. We have, indeed, positive evidence that it is a part of their policy. The Belgian Committee of Inquiry has very properly published a number of Pro- clamations, quoted by us in our issue of December 12th, which the German troops posted up in various places, threatening to burn towns and shoot civilians if their troops were attacked.
Therefore, if the subject referred to Lord Bryce and his colleagues is to be fully elucidated, the Committee will have to examine the proposition advanced by the German Army that wholesale retaliation is justifiable as punishment for an individual act of warfare, or treachery, against the German Army. The German theory avowedly is that the only way to deter civilians from firing upon German troops is ruthlessly to punish the whole town or district in which such firing takes place, quite regardless of individual guilt or innocence. This theory has its culmina- tion in the admitted German practice of taking hostages and shooting them if an act of hostility against the Germans subsequently occurs, although the fact that the hostages are in German bands precludes the possibility of their being able to prevent any act of hostility. If this German theory can be upheld, then war takes on even worse terrors than the world has for a long time known, for it is quite certain that multitudes of previous wars have been waged without anything like the systematic and cold- blooded methods of punishment that the Germans have practised.
Closely connected with this point is the question of the breaches of the laws of war committed by the Germans in dropping bombs over the non-military portions of Antwerp and other cities, and in bombarding open sea-coast towns like Scarborough without first giving notice to the civil population of their intended action. These acts seem to have impressed American public opinion perhaps even more than the burning of Louvain. Here again there is a distinct conflict between the modern German theory of war and the theory which was supposed to have been accepted by all civilized nations, and which Germany her- self apparently accepted when she signed the numerous Conventions drawn up at the Hague Conference in 1907. The whole theory of war used to be that military opera- tions must be limited to destroying the military power of the enemy. The modern German theory is that military operations may also be directed towards terrorizing and breaking down the moral of the civilian population. On the latter theory, a plausible defence can be made for dropping bombs from aircraft on Antwerp, and even on Paris, although at the time these bombs were dropped both Paris and Antwerp were outside the immediate range of military operations. The same German defence can be put forward in the case of Scar- borough. Though the German Press pretends that Scarborough was bombarded because it was a fortified town, the probability is that the Germans know perfectly well that this pretence is unfounded, and their real argu- ment is that they are justified in doing anything which might strike terror into the hearts of their enemies. Here again the answer is that on this theory the horrors of war in the future will exceed anything dreamt of, at any rate for the last few centuries ; for if it is justifiable to throw shells without notice into an inhabited and practically undefended town with the almost inevitable consequence of killing women and little children as well as men, there is absolutely no reason why the Germans should not go further and declare that in every town they take they will put the whole of the inhabitants to the sword.
The final answer to such a theory of war is that it recoils upon the nation that puts it into practice. The game of terrorism can be played by more than one side, and it is just because the nations of the world have learnt in the actual operations of war that it is unprofitable to be brutal beyond a certain point that the worst brutalities of war have been slightly mitigated. For reasons which it is not even yet possible to fathom, the Germans seem to have decided on reverting to a more barbarous type of warfare. It is one of the many miscalculations which their diplomacy has made. Since 1871 they have been so accustomed to obtaining their ends by threatening the world that they imagine that it is only necessary to make more terrible threats in order to have their enemies grovelling at their feet. The final work which the Allied Powers have to perform is to convince the German nation, and through them the whole world, that such methods of conduct are more injurious to the people who practise them than to the people who immediately suffer.
The most interesting and most valuable part of the work of the Committee that has now been appointed will be to examine judicially, and as far as possible to elucidate, these broader issues, to show how far the authorized conduct of the German armies has departed from the hitherto generally accepted principles of civilized warfare, and how far it has departed from the rules actually accepted by the German Government at the last Hague Conference. The Committee cannot, of course, give a judgment in the sense that a Court of Law gives a judgment, because it will have no means of hearing the case for the defence put forward by the defendants themselves ; but the character of the Committee justifies us in assuming that every attempt will be made to take full account of what the Germans would say if they could speak in their own defence. Having done this, it is the business of the Committee to state in plain language for the whole world to read what it is that the Germans have done, and how far their acts depart from the code of warfare recognized by civilized nations.