September 4, 1914

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

Headlines from the Daily Oregon Statesman:

Force of Seventy-Two Thousand Transported to Ostend, Belgium
Movement of Czar’s Troops in England Shrouded in Secrecy
Russians, English and Belgians to Co-Operate

The paper’s report that 70,000 troops were on special trains headed for the western front is an example of the use of disinformation intended to mislead the enemy. In this instance it appears that a grain of truth – the delay of trains to allow the transshipment of troops from Scotland to the Western Front – turned into a rumor of Russians when an Englishman, asking where one of the soldiers was from, misheard the Highland “Ross Shire” for – Russia. The rumor spread rapidly and was allowed to spread in the hopes that it might cause the German high command to allocate troops to defend a potential invasion by a phantom army.

Louvain Citizens Shot and City Given to Flames by Conquerors
German Cavalry Quarters Its Horse in the Marriage Hall
Three Hundred Men and Boy Shot in Streets.

Louvain would pass into the history of the war as an example of the brutality that occurs when panic overtakes the business of war. The city was burned and looted; the renowned medieval library was destroyed. So, too, was Louvain’s university. This level of brutality was part of a German strategy of using intimidation and terror as a means of securing civilian accommodation to German occupation.

In national news, the paper’s headline read “Soldiers Rule City of Butte” where the attempt of miners in Montana to organize brought about the imposition of martial law. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) attempted to organize workers at the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Miners were being paid the same daily rate in 1914 as they had been in 1878, even though the price of copper had increased. Labor issues in Butte had been in the news for years. In April of 1914, the Ludlow Massacre was front page news and the labor struggle would continue for years.

Optimistic that rational leaders would respond to the horrors of a war less than five weeks old, the editorial writer in the Statesman offered the this forlorn hope:

The writer believes that the bloody European war is drawing to a close. Its remaining days will probably be as sanguinary as those that have passed. Then will come the meeting of the peace makers around the big table. The great pity of it all is that this meeting could not have been held before instead of after the nations were in the death grapple.

The same issue of the paper comfortingly editorialized on how war is now safer and more sanitary for those facing their opposites:


It is a pleasure to be able to specify one particular in which war has become less horrible. Getting shot is far less painful and dangerous than it used to be.

The lead bullets of our civil war, that used to spread making great, jagged wounds and splintering bone beyond surgical hope, are gone now. There has been some mention of “dum-dum” bullets being used by certain German troops in Belgium, but that report is hardly credible. The “dum-dum” had a steel-cased body and soft nose. It “mushrooms” in the flesh, or even in the air before it strikes, and lacerates a man so quick death or deadly gangrene is almost inevitable.

All the civilized nations now use rifles of small bore and great power, firing bullets encased in steel or nickel. These missiles have such velocity that they usually bore through flesh and bones, making a hole so small and clean that there is little blood lost unless an artery is cut. The heat of the bullet, caused by its speed, makes it cauterize its own wound, so that there is slight peril of infection.

A soldier is killed only if hit in a mortal spot, and the number of such spots has greatly decreased. A wounded man is generally disabled for a few days or weeks, but many of the participants in recent battles have fought for hours without knowing they were hit.

It is recognized now that the only “legitimate” object of shooting a man in warfare is not to kill or cripple him, but to put him out of the fighting until the campaign is over. And as war goes, that is a considerable concession to humanity.

Modern artillery tells a different story – a story of bloody butchery in comparison with which the cruelties and tortures practiced by savages seem moderate and merciful.

News of German atrocities in Belgium prompted an editorial warning in “A Warning to Germany:”

Americans sincerely want to preserve strict neutrality, public and private, throughout this hideous and exasperating war. Nevertheless, it is impossible for men and women not to form opinions. And it is impossible that those personal opinions should not spread until there is a definite body of thought and feeling that represents the attitude of the American people as a whole.

That attitude will inevitably find expression and will play a part in the war commensurate with the power and importance of the United States.

It is time for the spokesmen of our public opinion to sound a clear warning to Germany, lest she alienate the last bit of moral support in America.

As a nation and as individuals, we are disposed to be more than fair toward Germany. We admire the nation and love the people. We have learned philosophy, science, music, art, municipal administration and business efficiency at Germany’s feet. Her sons are among the finest and strongest elements of our own civilization. But we cannot remain silent when this Germany we love and admire runs amuck, tramples on civilization and defies the Mailed Fist.

Whether the Kaiser started this wicked war, and whether he was justified in what he did, history will determine. But we need not wait for history’s verdict on the unbold deeds committed by the German army, with the apparent sanction of the German government during the past month.

The cynical disregard of treaty obligations and public and private right in the invasion of Belgium was bad enough. But Germany’s subsequent conduct there would be indefensible even if Belgium herself had been the aggressor.

As if it were not enough to overrun and wreck the unoffending little country and shoot her defenders by tens of thousands, Germany has been guilty of the unspeakable crime of murdering noncombatants, bombarding Antwerp by night without warning, from Zeppelin airships, and blowing women and children to pieces in their beds. And while the world exclaims in horror, the German ambassador at Washington defends it.

Incomparably more criminal is the outrage at Louvain. The German soldiers have destroyed this fine old city, in an orgy of arson, pillage and murder, shooting down not only the male civilians but women, children and priests, and burning homes and churches and even the university. The German government defends even this crowning horror by saying that “civilians made a perfidious attack on German troops.” The residents declare that the invaders did it without provocation, apparently in mad rage over their own defeat by Belgian soldiers outside the city.

Even if the non-combatants, driven to desperation, had fired on the enemy, the most drastic punishment permissible under rules of civilized warfare would be the execution of the individual offenders. And the Germans destroy the whole city, commit wholesale murder and drive the population forth penniless, hungry and homeless.

The levying of the $50,000,000 tribute upon the occupied cities of Brussels and Liège is an act of medieval piracy.

The sowing of the North Sea with floating bombs, which have already sunk merchant ships of neutral nations, is an international crime.

The Kaiser has explained with pious eloquence that Germany went to war to protect Europe from the Slavs, and preserve German culture and ideals. If Germany’s recent behavior represents German civilization – which God forbid! – we have no more fear of the Slavs.

If Germany cares for the good opinion of her friends, in America and elsewhere throughout the world, she must disavow such act and change her course.


About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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