Germany's Policy of Murder

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Germany's Policy of Murder is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The New-York Times on 6 february 1915.


Germany's Policy of Murder

The New-York Times (6 february 1922)

Sir, — I have just read the very courteous and moderate letter of James O'Donnell Bennett which he has done me the honour to address to me through the press. I should be glad to say a few words of comment upon it. The letter in question is a commentary upon an article of mine in the Daily Chronicle, entitled "A Policy of Murder." Some of my statements Mr. Bennett traverses, while others he leaves untouched, from which I may fairly conclude that he cannot shake them.

My first point was mine laying in open waters by the Germans, which was commenced on the very first day of the war by the Königin Luise, which was caught and sunk in the act. It was repeated later to the north of Ireland, and it is common knowledge that it was only a warning from a British warship which prevented the Olympic running into the mine field with all her passengers, American as well as British. When a neutral loses his life by such practices, as so many Danes, Dutch, and Norwegians have done, what is it but murder? A second is the bombarding by sea or by air of unfortified towns. It is known as well in Germany as it is here that Yarmouth, Whitby, and Scarborough are entirely open towns, while Hartlepool has one very feeble battery. Let us suppose that this battery justifies the enemy in firing, not at it, but into the crowded town, and killing or wounding some hundreds of civilians, including thirty-eight children, with only seven soldiers among the victims. Even if we pass this, what can we possibly say in extenuation of Scarborough, Whitby, and Yarmouth? The cowardly Zeppelin which attacked Yarmouth dropped bombs also upon little villages around it and killed five civilians. If this is not murder, what name shall we give it? It is not war, for it is contrary to the laws of it.

Mr. Bennett says the British themselves dropped bombs on Dusseldorf. Exactly! I would not wish a better illustration. Our aviators went to Diisseldorf as they went to Friedrichshafen, and in each case made straight for their strategic aim, the sheds of airships, which, it is admitted, they injured. It is not alleged that there was ever any promiscuous dropping of bombs. Had we adopted German tactics, our bombs would have been dropped in the crowded streets of Cologne and Frankfurt, which were equally accessible.

Mr. Bennett resents my accusation of constant lying applied to the German press. Is it not the German press which described Yarmouth, Scarborough, and Whitby as fortresses? What word save lying can apply to that? Is it not the German press at the present instant that is pretending that we lost a large cruiser and several smaller boats in the sea fight of last week, in which we sustained no losses at all? Lying is an ugly word, but I know no other for the statements which I continually read in the German press.

We now come to the centre of the matter — the French and Belgian atrocities. Mr. Bennett endeavours to mitigate these by stating — and I have no doubt the statement is true — that there are many kindhearted men among the Germans, and that occasionally they treat the invaded people kindly and form friendships with them. I do not believe the German people are cruel, but I am convinced that the Prussian military system is and always has been cruel, and that they have now moulded all the rest of Germany to their own image.

Mr. Bennett, though very incredulous of German atrocities, seems to give complete credence to tales of civilian Belgians firing upon troops. It was originally asserted that they gouged out the eyes of the German wounded, but the search for evidence ended in the declaration, from the head doctor at Aix-la-Chapelle that no such case had ever been seen. I believe the Belgian Government made every effort to get arms away from the civil population, and though I will not go so far as to say with some apologists that there never was a single shot fired by a franc-tireur, I think there is a mass of evidence to show that such attacks were few and rare. On the other hand, it is common knowledge that great numbers of Belgian villages have been destroyed, that very many men, women, and children have been murdered, and that the utmost licence has been practised by the soldiery.

Mr. Bennett must be aware that names, dates, and places are given with infinite exactness by the report of the Belgian Commission, while the fact that they exonerate the Germans at some places must make the evidence more convincing in others. The fact that the invaders saved the Town Hall at Louvain was surely very small consolation to the inhabitants when, even by Mr. Bennett's estimate, a seventh of their town had been given to the flames. These outrages would be bad enough anywhere, but are surely most dreadful when one reflects that Germany was under a solemn treaty promise to protect the country which she was so maltreating.

Mr. Bennett seems to think the Germans acted better in France than in Belgium. I have the report of the French Commission before me as I write. It is the same monotonous recital of outrages as the Belgian, with every detail given in support. From Senlis to Dinant is a long chain of barbarous deeds. I learn that a similar list of crimes has been compiled by Russian authorities in Poland. Can Mr. Bennett believe that all these official documents are "lies. lies, lies"? Or is it not more probable that the view held by all the Allies is correct, and that it is part of the Prussian conception of war to cow the civilian population to such an extent that they will be unresisting instruments in their hands?

Prof. Bedier has published a series of extracts from the diaries of German soldiers as to their doings. They are gruesome reading. Here is one which will interest Mr. Bennett, because he appears to admire the restraint with which the Germans only burned the third and fifth house along the street at Dinant. This refers to a village just north of Dinant and was written by Private Philip of Kamenz, Saxony, First Battalion, 178th Infantry:

"At the entrance of the village were about fifty villagers, shot for having treacherously fired upon our troops during the night. Many others were shot, so that we counted over two hundred. Women and children, with lamps in their hands, had to witness the terrible sight. We ate our rice among the corpses."

The next diary has the entry:

"Langeviller, Aug. 22, — Village destroyed by the Eleventh Pioneer Battalion; three women hanged on trees."

Says Private Schlauter of the Third Battery, Fourth Field Artillery of the Guard:

"Of the inhabitants, 200 were shot. Those who survived the volley were requisitioned as grave diggers. The women were a sight, but it cannot be helped."

Yet again:

"We thus destroyed eight houses with their inhabitants. In one alone two men with their wives and a girl of 18 were killed with the bayonet. It went to my heart to see the girl killed — she had such an innocent look — but there was nothing to be done with the excited crowd, for they were not men, but beasts."

Now, Mr. Bennett, are these things really "lies, lies, lies"? Or am I justified in saying there has been a policy of murder all along_ the line, and that there have been no such doings in Europe since the bad old days? If still in doubt, I earnestly beg you to read the evidence of the French and Belgian Commissions, though I fear they will be inaccessible to you in Metz.

Crowborough, Feb. 2, 1915