On the Visé Road, 1914

February 13 2009

The Germans invaded Belgium on Aug. 4th, 1914. Their immediate objective was the fortress of Liége [A few posts ago, I corrected OUP when they spelt the Walloon city of Liège Liége in a 1954 text. I was right to do so, but for the wrong reason. I thought it was a misprint. It was merely obsolete usage. An acute accent was used until 1946.] and the passage of the Meuse, but first they had to cross a zone of Belgian territory from twenty to twenty-five miles wide. They came over the frontier along four principal roads, which led through this territory to the fortress and the river, and this is what they did in the towns and villages they passed.

The first road led from Aix-la-Chapelle [Aachen], in Germany, to the bridge over the Meuse at Visé, skirting the Dutch frontier, and Warsage was the first Belgian village on this road to which the Germans came. Their advance-guards distributed a proclamation by General von Emmich: “I give formal pledges to the Belgian population that they will not have to suffer from the horrors of war. … If you wish to avoid the horrors of war, you must act wisely and with a true appreciation of your duty to your country.” This was on the morning of Aug. 4th, and the Mayor of Warsage, M. Flechet, had already posted a notice on the town-hall warning the inhabitants to keep calm. All that day and the next the Germans passed through; on the afternoon of the 6th the village was clear of them, when suddenly they swarmed back, shooting in at the windows and setting houses on fire. Several people were killed; one old man was burnt alive. Then the Mayor was ordered to assemble the population in the square. A German officer had been shot on the road. No inquiry was held; no post-mortem examination made (the German soldiers were nervous and marched with finger on trigger); the village was condemned. The houses were systematically plundered, and then systematically burnt. A dozen inhabitants, including the Burgomaster, were carried off as hostages to the German camp at Mouland. Three were shot at once; the rest were kept all night in the open; one of them was tied to a cart-wheel and beaten with rifle-butts; in the morning six were hanged, the rest set free. Eighteen people in all were killed at Warsage and 25 houses destroyed.

At Fouron-St. Martin five people were killed and 20 houses burnt. Nineteen houses were burnt at Fouron-le-Compte. At Berneau, a few miles further down the road, 67 houses (out of 116) were burnt on Aug. 5th, and 7 people killed. “The people of Berneau,” writes a German in his diary on Aug. 5th, “have fired on those who went to get water. The village has been partly destroyed.” On the day of this entry the Germans had commandeered wine at Berneau, and were drunk when they took reprisals for shots their victims were never proved to have fired. Among these victims was the Burgomaster, M. Bruyère, a man of 83. He was taken, like the Burgomaster of Warsage, to the camp at Mouland, and was never seen again after the night of the 6th. At Mouland itself 4 people were killed and 73 houses destroyed (out of 132).

The road from Aix-la-Chapelle reaches the Meuse at Visé. It was a town of 900 houses and 4,000 souls, and, as a German describes it, “It vanished from the map.” The inhabitants were killed, scattered or deported, the houses levelled to the ground, and this was done systematically, stage by stage.

The Germans who marched through Warsage reached Visé on the afternoon of Aug. 4th. The Belgians had blown up the bridges at Visé and Argenteau, and were waiting for the Germans on the opposite bank. As they entered Visé, the Germans came for the first time under fire, and they wreaked their vengeance on the town. “The first house they came to as they entered Visé they burned”, and they began to fire at random in the streets. At least eight civilians were shot in this way before night, and when night fell the population was driven out of the houses and compelled to bivouac in the square. More houses were burnt on the 6th; on the 10th they burned the church; on the 11th they seized the Dean, the Burgomaster, and the Mother Superior of the Convent as hostages; on the 15th a regiment of East Prussians arrived and was billeted in the town, and that night Visé was destroyed. “I saw commissioned officers directing and supervising the burning,” says an inhabitant. “It was done systematically with the use of benzine, spread on the floors and then lighted. In my own and another house I saw officers come in before the burning with revolvers in their hands, and have china, valuable antique furniture, and other such things removed. This being done, the houses were, by their orders, set on fire. …”

The East Prussians were drunk, there was firing in the streets, and, once more, people were killed. Next morning the population was rounded up in the station square and sorted out – men this side, women that. The women might go to Holland, the men, in two gangs of about 300 each, were deported to Germany as franc-tireurs [irregular troops]. “During the night of Aug. 15-16,” as another German diarist describes the scene, “Pioneer [soldier employed to perform engineering tasks] Grimbow gave the alarm in the town of Visé. Everyone was shot or taken prisoner, and the houses were burnt. The prisoners were made to march and keep up with the troops.” About 30 people in all were killed at Visé, and 575 out of 876 houses destroyed. On the final day of destruction the Germans had been in peaceable [peaceable?] occupation of the place for ten days, and the Belgian troops had retired about forty miles out of range.

He goes on to describe what happened on three other roads into Belgium.


Map showing Visé and, inter alia, the course of the Meuse from France through Belgium into Holland; opens in a separate window


The German Terror in Belgium, An Historical Record, Hodder & Stoughton, 1917

I have omitted seven footnotes which state sources.

2 Responses to “On the Visé Road, 1914”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The proof-reader in me can’t help pointing out that H&S are unable to make up their minds when to write numbers as numbers and when as words.

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