1st_Viscount_Bryce_1902 - Viscount Bryce author of the Bryce ReportOf the milestones in the Propaganda war aimed at the heart of America, arguably the most devastating was the Bryce Report, the Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages [1] which examined the conduct of German troops in Belgium, the breaches in the rules of war, and the inhumanity perpetrated against the civilian population. Lurid stories of German atrocities came first hand from the many Belgian refugees who fled to Britain in August and September 1914 and filled newspapers of every political hue. None howled louder than the Northcliffe stable. On 12 and 17 August the Daily Mail railed against ‘German Brutality’, including the murder of five civilians corroborated by sworn statements from ‘witnesses’. Coming as it did when news from the front was scarce, such damning stories caught the public imagination and set it on fire. On 21 August, Hamilton Fyfe, a Northcliffe journalist who had served on The Times, wrote of ‘sins against civilisation’ [2] A sensational list of accusations filled the columns of The Times and the Daily Mail including the maiming of women and children, the bayoneting of wounded soldiers, women with their breast cut off, nuns raped, and with sickening surety on 18 September a photograph was published purporting to be that of an innocent Belgian father holding the charred stub of his daughter’s foot. [3] Backed by the evidence of civilian Belgian refugees and of British servicemen, these stories were spread across the world and did enormous damage to the German cause. Members of Parliament called for an official enquiry and a committee of the most eminent men in the realm was appointed on 15 December 194 by prime minister Asquith.

The ruins of Louvain in 1914

Belgian resistance to the German invasion in August 1914 was stubborn and brave. The Garde Civique (Civilian police) was certainly deployed in Louvain; innocent people lost their lives. [4] The Daily Mail correspondent, A.T. Dawe followed the German army in its drive from Aix-la-Chapelle to Brussels and reported that some of the civil population, urged on by the Mayor and Belgian officials, rained machine gun bullets on the German trains as they approached the station, and the church of St. Pierre, which overlooked the railway, was turned into a veritable fortress. [5] Sharp-shooters fired on German infantry from upper-floor windows and the street by street defence of towns and villages seriously threatened the invasion timetable. Reprisals followed, of that there was no question, but British newspapers outdid each other in reporting these as gross atrocities with mutilated and murdered children, ravished innocent women, executed priests and nuns and indiscriminate heinous crimes against nature itself.

Belgian firing squad of 4 civilians

Let us be absolutely clear. There were atrocities. The burning of Louvain, Andenne and Dinant was brutal. When they invaded Belgium in 1914, the German high command expected to sweep through the country with very little opposition. The German army was many times larger and stronger than the Belgian army, and the Germans thought that any resistance by Belgium would be futile. The strength of Belgian resistance came as a surprise, and disrupted the German timetable for advancing into France [6] This in turn led to exaggerated suspicions among German commanders of Belgian civilian resistance. The Germans responded harshly to all perceived acts of resistance. By the time that the German army marched through Brussels on 20 August, its progress had been disgraced by a savage and at times indiscriminate severity against the civil population. In several villages and towns, hundreds of civilians had been executed. Many buildings were put to the torch. Priests thought guilty of encouraging the resistance were killed. The essential German objective was to insure that they did not have to leave a strong force to guard their lines of communication or an exposed rear by a policy of Schrecklichkeit, [7] literally, terror. The atrocities were shocking and cannot be excused, but the manner in which they were grossly exaggerated beyond credibility stands testament to the power of propaganda.

Propaganda poster alleging German atrocities

The chairman of prime minister Asquith’s official enquiry, Viscount Bryce, had from 1907-13 been Britain’s most popular Ambassador to the United States, a personal friend of President Wilson, twice the principle guest of the Pilgrims of America and from 1915-17, President of the British branch of the Pilgrims. He was assisted by three eminent lawyers and H.A.L. Fisher, the historian and member of the inner-circle of the Secret Elite, [8] who at that point was Vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield. His connections to Milner dated back to South Africa and the Kindergarten and H A L Fisher enjoyed a stellar career linked intrinsically to his Oxford/Milner connections. The final member, Harold Cox was editor of the Edinburgh Review and proved somewhat difficult to control. He was not one of the ‘group’.

The Committee was specifically asked ‘to consider and advise on the evidence collected…as to outrages alleged to have been committed by German troops during the present war’ and to prepare a report for the government on the conclusions they drew from the evidence. [9] The impression given was that this illustrious committee of very experienced and trustworthy gentlemen had examined 1,200 witnesses from whose evidence around 500 statements had been included in the report along with extracts from 37 diaries taken from dead German soldiers and eye witness reports from British soldiers. This was simply not the case. They spoke to no member of the Commission.

Bryce Report 12 May 1915 - Report of the committee on alleged German outrages

The process was as follows. In September 1914 the prime minister requested that the Home Secretary and the Attorney General collect evidence of accusations of inhumanity and outrage carried out by German troops in Belgium. Most of the accusations came from Belgian witnesses, some military, but most civilians from the towns and villages through which the German army had advanced towards the French border. More than 1,200 depositions had been taken, not by, but under the supervision of the Director of Public Prosecution. The work involved ‘a good many examiners’ who had some legal knowledge but no authority to administer an oath. This had been going on for ‘three or four months’ before the committee was appointed. [10] The task they were given was to sift through thousands of pages of testimony, given freely, but not under oath, and decide what should or should not be included in a final report. While they were able to speak with and ‘interrogate’ the ‘lawyers’ who took down evidence from the witnesses, [11] they were not allowed contact with any witnesses themselves.

Harold Cox was particularly displeased with the arrangement. He wanted to re-examine some of the witnesses and forced Bryce to allow the committee to question the legal teams involved in taking the depositions. Indeed, without his intervention, the preface to the report would not have mentioned the fact that they had not spoken to a single witness in person. Almost every account that was put on record had already appeared in the national newspapers but by being included in the final report, they gained authenticity. The esteemed gentlemen had read the ‘evidence’ and confirmed its veracity. The quasi legal nature of the Committee, the trappings of procedure and due process, the presence of an eminent Judge, Sir Frederick Pollock, the wording which talked of corroboration of evidence, lawyers, cross-examination, testimony, the Courts of England, the British Overseas Dominions and the United States, witnesses and conviction [12] allowed the report to assume the status of a profound judgement from the High Court of Judiciary. It was nothing of the sort.

Propaganda Poster for enlistment - 'Remember Belgium, enlist to-day'

The conclusion read as the charge sheet of ultimate villainy. It was designed to. The decision of the pseudo-court to which Germany had no appeal, was that in many parts of Belgium deliberate and systematically organized massacres of the civil population, accompanied by many isolated murders and other outrages had taken place. That in the conduct of the war innocent civilians, both men and women, were slaughtered in large numbers, women violated, and children murdered. Looting and the wanton destruction of property were deemed to have been ordered by the officers of the German Army and they determined that elaborate provisions had been made for the systematic burning and destruction of towns and villages at the very outbreak of the war.

They pronounced that this destruction had no military purpose. They asserted that the international rules of war were frequently broken, particularly by the using of civilians, including woman and children, as a shield for advancing forces exposed to the fire, to a less degree by killing the wounded and prisoners, and in the frequent abuse of the Red Cross and the White Flag. Every charge was ‘proven’ guilty. In the penultimate paragraph the committee declared that all the charges were ‘fully established by the evidence’. [13] The only trapping that was missing from this judicial pantomime was the black cap. And the world believed, though not one word was actually heard from the witnesses.

[1] http://www.gwpda.org/wwi-www/BryceReport/bryce_r.html
[2] The Daily Mail, 28 August 1914.
[3] J Lee Thompson, Northcliffe, Press Baron in Politics, 1865-1922, p.231.
[4] Verax, Truth, A Path to Justice and Reconciliation, p.151.
[5] Ibid., pp.151-2.
[6] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, pp. 130-132.
[7] C R M F Cruttwell, A History of the Great War, p.16.
[8] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p 24.
[9] Warrant of Appointment, Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, 1915, p2.
[10] Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages, 1915, pp. 3-4.
[11] Ibid., p. 7.
[12] Ibid., pp. 4-7.
[13] Ibid., pp. 60-1.