Paul Hodges

Brutality in the Trenches: The British Infantry and Atrocities on the Western Front, 1914-1918

The ‘quotes’ in italics are all from unpublished or underused primary sources, to indicate the rich level of this material present.

  1.  Introduction: Soldiers’ understanding of atrocity and law

A quick introduction to the topic and the book’s main themes. ‘I asked how much Military Law a young officer ought to know. ‘All of it!’ he replied. ‘He ought to take the Manual and the King’s Regulations and read ’em from beginning to end. Then he should read ’em backwards. Then he should learn ’em, by heart. And then he can begin to read ’em between the lines!’ advised an old sergeant-major . The law concerning how to treat prisoners was clear – soldiers knew that mistreating and killing them was an atrocity. Why has atrocity and prisoner killing been overlooked in the First World War? Probably because unrealistic, romantic notions of chivalry have been engrained in the war’s history books, popular and academic, new and old, and moreover in the public imagination. The power of the image of soldiers as victims in this war makes holding a contrasting view of them as keen aggressors difficult.  

2. The Set-up: Training

Officer and NCO training emphasised their role in stopping criminality; the other ranks of the infantry had a quite different training focus. This is most clear in bayonet drill, where trainers and training manuals famously exhorted a ‘lust for blood’. An especial example covered is the feted and ubiquitous Colonel Campbell. Surprisingly this did have an effect on the battlefield. One Private, echoing Campbell’s advice, promised, ‘I shan’t take many prisoners when it comes to going in the thick of it, a rifle and bayonet with three inches at each Bosh I come in contact with at close quarters. The more we send to Heaven, the sooner the war will be ended.’  In all armies there was, and indeed remains, some necessary tension between training realistically for the heat of battle where closure with the enemy and use of the bayonet was expected and did on occasion happen, without encouraging atrocity and prisoner killing. There was stronger duality in the British army than most though – extreme worry about potential criminality and high self-satisfaction at a lack of it. 

3. The Provocation: Atrocities in Belgium and the British soldier

‘One has only to think what these Huns did to the Belgians and I say that when you catch one kill him slowly but make sure you are doing away with him.’  The soldiers who made up the British army had much rich contact with Belgian people – both with the large number of Belgian refugees who quickly arrived in Britain and with the civilian and military personnel present around the British lines at the Western Front. Beyond this, surprisingly strong emotional attachment built up among soldiers to the towns they were defending – particularly Ypres. This general sympathy gave an added dimension to the soldiers’ reactions to the very well publicised atrocities committed by the Germans during their invasion of Belgium. The German Army’s actions in Belgium fractured the conception of modern Europeans treating other modern Europeans with civility in warfare. This conception’s replacement in the British Army varied. Those who reacted with disillusionment or anti-war sentiments have a high profile through their poetry, novels and memoirs. Equally common, however, was the rapid reaction of a reactive, retaliatory culture of killing and atrocity.  Atrocity stories, rumours and propaganda, and reaction to the devastation of war, produced a common and fierce anti-German response. The horrors of the Belgian atrocities never really faded due to unending propaganda coverage, but new and nearer outrages to civilians – coastal town bombardments, the early Zeppelin and Gotha ‘blitzes’, merchant and hospital ship sinkings, particularly the Lusitania – piled on provocations to soldiers’ anger. My platoon, ‘arrived at a German trench, where about nineteen to twenty Jerries were shouting for mercy, after pinking some of us as we came forward. Someone shouted, ‘Remember the Lusitania!’ and it was all over with Jerry.’ 

4. The Heat of Battle

One atrocity committed against military opponents dominates in British First World War infantry soldiers’ texts – the killing of prisoners or potential prisoners. In the primary source records this particular atrocity massively outnumbers any other kind of atrocity. Similarly, most were ‘hot-blooded’ killings, when more legitimate killing had taken place, tempers were raised and adrenaline pumping, and were enacted at the point of possible capture. Niall Ferguson’s arguments concerning this brief, crucial moment of time are thoroughly dismantled. He terms, mimicking and utilising classic thought experiments, the situation at this point, ‘the captor’s dilemma’.  Potentially ‘cool logic’ is overly attached to the grim, heated business of prisoner killing.  While prisoner killing did have a ‘logic’, it was not one that tended towards restriction as Ferguson describes. In fact, with deeply powerful causes underlying much atrocity, particularly in the heat of battle, it tended to be unrestricted and unrestrained. There were some major elements of this ‘logic’, particularly a wide-spread promotion of ‘tit for tat’ thinking, that tended towards escalation and cycles of atrocity. These trends can be clearly identified in the war. They were encouraged by the changing material nature of the war and its tactics. Stormtrooper-type strategies, with their infiltration of positions, disrupted the set-up of a clean front line. Increasing use of dugouts and concrete emplacements made safe surrender harder. We came across a ‘third instance of one dugout which evidently refused to surrender and, as the occupants came out, they were clubbed. There were thirty dead Huns outside this, all with their heads smashed in.’

5. The Anger of Grief

It was not the sheer ‘hot-blooded’ heat of battle that was the main cause of soldiers’ atrocities, not even acting as some trigger for innate human brutality. Soldier’s training and the provocation of thoughts of Belgium played some part, but it was their experiences in the crucible of war that created the most specific and powerful prompts for soldiers to commit atrocity. What had happened to them and their comrades during the war itself made the primary impact. Particularly important in creating sources and motivations for the perpetration of atrocity on the Western Front battlefields, were the powerful revenge feelings created in soldiers by events of the war. It was these that weighed heaviest at the critical ‘point of action’ when British infantrymen closed in on their opponents. Revenge was the specific prompt of atrocious actions that appears in trench fighters’ testimony most often. It is by far the most frequently referred to explanation put forward to account for the killing of prisoners or potential prisoners. There can be little doubt that such acts were the largest qualitative and quantitative atrocity committed on the Western Front battlefields by British soldiers during the War. The frequency with which revenge is referred to in soldiers’ diaries, letters and memoirs demands that this emotion, perhaps thought rather nebulous or melodramatic in times of peace, is taken seriously as an overriding motivator in warfare. The close-knit, familial cohesion of many British fighting units increased the grief felt at losses, and the resultant acute and long-lasting revenge feelings. A year after the more famous Christmas Day truce of 1914 one representative Company Sergeant-Major wrote, ‘There should not be (and cannot be) any good will between our troops and the despicable enemy troops opposing us. How could I, or any other, justify my action in exchanging greetings with the same reptiles who with their devilish gas killed – or tortured to death – so many of my comrades on Hill 60 on May 1st and 5th, and killed my dearest chum only three weeks ago. I hoped to be in the trenches today, so that if the hounds came out, I could exact a little compensation for what I have suffered.’  Real family losses were similarly intensely felt and produced similar powerful reactions. ‘One of our fellows put his bayonet in the first prisoner’s eye and loosed off – he had lost a brother in the war so perhaps he was justified.’ Surprisingly, atrocity as a form of empowerment, a way of evening up the unfair odds facing the infantry, was also a powerful motive. They could even be viewed as ‘re-humanising’ and morale-boosting. War crimes and atrocities are so firmly placed in the realm of abomination and evil that it can be difficult to envisage that their perpetrators believed that they gained positive benefits from them. This, however, is an essential part of explaining the causes and reasons for atrocities.

6. The Facilitators: Wine, women and loot

Heavy drinking and looting, not atrocities in themselves and generally not prime causes, could act as facilitators for the perpetration of atrocity. ‘They’d give you a good old dose, knowing what you had to do, because a man with his booze, he don’t care what he does, it makes you feel like you could fight anything.’  One Captain even recorded that his two keenest ‘gleaners’ once ‘cut off a dead officer’s finger to get his ring’. Sexual and psychological facilitators or triggers of atrocity are also covered. The contemporary psychological trends of instinct and crowd theories conveniently supplied scientific reinforcement to concepts already deeply embedded in the British army. An element of dehumanisation in British soldiers’ views and talk of their German opponents is also covered. ‘The opinion cultivated in the army regarding the Germans was that they were a sort of vermin like plague rats that had to be exterminated.’  This genocidal tone was not unique. ‘Oh yes, let it go on, until this race of Evil Human Devils are wiped off the face of God’s earth.’ 

7. Colonial Warfare in the trenches? Raids and race

It is clear that there was a certain amount of tension present in the British army of the First World War. The training that they underwent to make them controlled and controllable troops and the impressive discipline that they generally displayed in the face of great adversity was strained by the anger some personally felt towards the enemy. It is possible to describe the creation of ‘raiding’ as an integral institution of trench warfare as the British Army command’s exploitation of this tension. Good morale and fighting spirit were encouraged by these small-scale military forays by tight-knit groups of soldiers. These forays tended towards what might be described as fiery exploits rather than defined, controlled expeditions. It is also for raids that the few examples of highly specific, clear-cut documented orders made to troops at a battalion level to not take prisoners exist. Attitudes to raids particularly suggest that previously highly divergent conceptions of European and colonial war were merging into one conception of total warfare, that permitted atrocity. Soldiers on these raids went ‘out armed mainly with clubs, like savages’ and revelled in colonial nicknames. ‘When we came out of one of the bayonet charges the Guards yo-hoed us and cheered us all the way. They were calling our boys the white goorkas.’ Surprisingly raids were often self-initiated by soldiers, NCOs and low-level officers. They became strongly promoted and thought of as a matter of pride and prestige. The Army celebrated them, just as its individual members celebrated the more clearly and bloodily savage practices, such as decapitation or ear collecting, of their colonial allies.

8. The Brakes? Officers, complicity, orders and honours

Many isolated acts of prisoner killing seemed to have been contingent upon officers not being present to witness the slide into atrocity. Where officers did have some level of control or were eyewitnesses, acts of atrocity were not necessarily curtailed though. The low level of courts martial for such offences indicated a widespread and influential lack of interest in preventing atrocity against the enemy, and, indeed, in preventing the enemy from committing atrocity. Such ‘sins of omission’ formed the bulk of officers’ complicity in atrocity during the war rather than ‘sins of commission’. Little was done to prevent atrocity and many officers were well ‘signed up’ to the concept and complicit in it occurring. Evidence of oral orders to kill prisoners exists. ‘The Battalion killed a lot of Bosches, the order being ‘No Prisoners’, so they did in everybody, including the blokes who put up their hands…’ There is even an isolated example of written orders suggesting prisoners could be killed; one that seemed to have been fully obeyed. The awards policy of the army also became increasingly focused on aggression as the war progressed. This even included the rewarding of atrocity. As medals were yearned for by troops, this policy had an effect on their behaviour.

9. The Aftermath: Trials

This chapter returns to look at the set-up (chapter 2) to see what laws were broken and how this was addressed. There were little-known war crime trials during the post-war years. Those held in Germany have not been written about in English for over thirty years, despite their status as the first international examples. A smaller, locally-focused trail in Britain – not a war crimes trial as such, but involving the murder of a prisoner – is written about for the first time. Surprising, and unpublished previously, views on these issues by both Churchill and Hugh Trenchard are covered.

10. Conclusion

Following on from the aftermath, similarly this returns to the first questions laid out in the introduction, but with the knowledge of the book’s compelling evidence and thesis under our belts, it addresses them with full force and gusto. Brief comparisons are made to the other theatres of the Great War, where generally the situation was worse. For example, in Gallipoli, one soldier reported that in ‘one particular “refuge” four terribly wounded Turks lay, all moaning and twisting, our Tommies showed little sympathy for them, but one or two of them would distract the flies.’ Wider parallels, particularly with the modern ‘war on terror’ are made, concluding with a plea for ongoing guarding against atrocity in all forms of warfare.